Gannon University Professor Honored as Artist of the Year by Erie Arts and Culture

Fall Into the Arts Award PhotoPosted: March 6, 2015
At the Fall Into the Arts ceremony at the Erie Playhouse, Rev. Shawn Clerkin (center with framed document) was surrounded by colleagues and former students in costumes representing the many roles he has assumed in his career.

Everyone appreciates a pat on the back, but some forms of recognition are more meaningful than others.

Ask the Rev. Shawn Clerkin, the Gannon University theatre professor who was honored as Artist of the Year by Erie Arts and Culture, the local arm of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. With a 25-year career training the theater professionals of tomorrow and a storied career in the Erie lyric and dramatic stage, Clerkin was gratified to be honored by his peers.

But the award carried the name of the late Bruce Morton Wright, the founder of the Erie Chamber Orchestra and a longtime colleague of Clerkin's. More significantly, Wright and Clerkin maintained a friendship that lasted to the beloved musician's final minutes.

Clerkin came to Gannon University from Elk County, Pa. as a pre-med major and quickly became absorbed into the Erie theater community as a student. "I was so impressed with the Erie Playhouse and the Roadhouse Theater and their resources," He remembered. "And I met and married Almi Clemente."

She's now the executive director of the Playhouse, a venue where Clerkin has appeared in 76 productions since his 1982 debut, including many of the greatest roles in musical theater. A culmination of sorts came in 2012 when he portrayed the doomed, heroic Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables," a role he will reprise this spring.

His teaching career has been equally rich and rewarding. One of Clerkin's most beloved projects is the series of Shakespeare plays that have been traditionally performed free of charge on an outdoor stage on the Gannon campus during the summer. "My undergraduate thesis was about [impresario Joseph] Papp, who believed strongly that by exposing people to the classics, you not only preserve them, but you continue a discourse," Clerkin explained. "So for 13 summers, we've done more than 20 productions. About 75 students have been in that program and thousands of people have seen them."

Bringing art to the people was a touchstone of Bruce Morton Wright's life and career. "He invited me to do my first opera in 1985, and out came this voice that I never thought I'd have," Clerkin remembered. "His path and my path has been beautifully linked. Then to have this award named after him was incredibly touching."