With an eyebrow arched and a gleam in her startlingly blue eyes, Denise Halbach captivates her audience immediately. The Louisiana-born, Jackson-raised dramatist begins our conversation with a surprising fact. "I got dragged kicking and screaming into theater," she says.
Halbach, an accomplished pianist, began her studies at Ole Miss on a music scholarship and quickly shifted her focus to nuclear engineering, then ultimately wound up graduating with degrees in English and philosophy. "I'm ambi-brain-strous," she says with a laugh, "and I make up words all the time."
After Ole Miss, Halbach taught high school English in Tylertown and took her first stab at directing. The students she took to an acting competition at the University of Southern Mississippi won. When Halbach moved back to Jackson to teach at Callaway, her student actors kept winning—in Mississippi, regionally at the Southeastern Theatre Conference competition, and nationally in New York through the Kennedy Center. And Halbach had no formal theater training whatsoever.
"It was all instinct. That's the most important thing I taught all my students—trust your instincts. Then John Maxwell, who was teaching theater at Hinds, told me that with a little training, I'd be dangerous," Halbach recalls. So she went to graduate school at USM, ended up in Maxwell's position at Hinds, and taught theater for 18 years. The department won an unprecedented number of awards—one a Kennedy Center directing award for Halbach.
Meanwhile, Halbach became very involved with the SETC, the largest regional theater organization in the country—serving 10 states. "We're all volunteers who do this because we love it. This is my after-5-o'clock-life," Halbach says. She's part of a core leadership group and is now president-elect of the 55-year-old organization— only the eighth woman to be elected president, and the very first Mississippian. These days, Halbach works in the development department at Phi Theta Kappa by day. This past year, Halbach the actress starred in the Fondren Theatre Workshop's "Lion in Winter" and New Stage's "Broadway Bound" plus several commercials and ETV productions.
Halbach's focus now shifts to production as she plans the SETC's 2005 convention. "It's an incredible amount of work, and then your reward is, the next year you get to be president." A finer actress could not have been cast in the role.