Having taught drama courses at Loyola University since 1969, Fr. Ernest Ferlita's third-floor office in the imposing Marquette Hall has naturally absorbed professor-like qualities of self-scribbled notes, loose papers and quirky decor -- like the clown residing on his desk. And as a prolific playwright and director, his bookshelves are literally bursting with his own works and those of others. Combined, these attributes as a tireless playwright, director and educator have earned Ferlita the Big Easy Awards' Lifetime Achievement Award for Theatre.
Over the course of his 33 years at Loyola, Ferlita has directed one play a year and penned numerous original works, many of which have been performed at Loyola, with several making their way to stages in New York City and across the country.
Beyond Ferlita's frenetic writing pace, he also teaches two specific passions: Dramatic Literature, covering the text of playwrights ranging from Sophocles to Shakespeare, and Voice Workshop for Actors, where he individually mentors students. The courses led by Ferlita mark his dual emphasis in drama on expert wording and strength of voice.
"With Father Ferlita, it is impossible to separate the artist from the teacher," says Georgia Gresham, chair of Loyola's drama department. "He's always a teacher, whether he's in the classroom or in production. He sets high standards and expects them to be met. Which works, because you can always determine a student that has worked with him in voice."
The office's exemplifies Ferlita's steadfast devotion to his principal work, that of a Jesuit now in his sixth decade of service.
"Jesuit drama has a long and distinguished history," the 74-year-old says. "It began in the 16th century. A whole network began in Europe, and the Jesuits starting putting on plays because they found it a great way to have students involved with spiritual issues. Jesus always told stories -- parables -- so why not do it on stage? Tell a story and try getting a message across. And due to my own interest, my own talents, that's what I began to do."
This course toward prolific playwriting and production began early, when Ferlita was a student at Tampa, Fla.'s Jesuit High School.
Ferlita enrolled at the Jesuit-run Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala. After graduating in 1950, he began his indoctrination into the Society of Jesus with time spent at what is now the Jesuit Spirituality Center in Grand Coteau, then later arriving in New Orleans to teach at Jesuit High School during his three-year regency. "I didn't think in terms of playwriting when I was in high school and college, though I was writing," Ferlita says. "The idea of continually writing plays didn't start until I was at Jesuit, directing plays and having to do a one-act play per year. It was hard to find plays with just male characters -- Jesuit High School is all male -- so out of necessity I began writing plays."
Ferlita returned to Spring Hill to teach, and quickly realized he needed a master's degree to continue teaching. Three years after his ordination in 1962, he entered Yale University's School of Drama and earned a Doctor of Fine Arts in Playwriting and Dramatic Literature. "For the degree, we had to write a dissertation," Ferlita says. "Mine had to do with linking spirituality and drama. It was a project I really went for and delved into."
The link between spirituality and drama continued to drive Ferlita beyond Yale. In 1968, his second full-length play, The Ballad of John Ogilvie, about the Jesuit martyr in Scotland, was performed off-Broadway. Two short plays, The Bells of Nagasaki and The Mask of Hiroshima, were produced off-off-Broadway under the title Two Cities and published by Baker's Plays. His Black Medea was produced at the first Spoleto Festival USA in 1978 and recently won four awards at New York City's Black Theatre Festival.
Yet, while retiring from Loyola after this semester, Ferlita isn't planning on slowing down. He might return to teach a course on Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, but his other life's work will continue. Ferlita plans to continue giving Mass and begin work as a speaker at Jesuit retreats in Convent and Grand Coteau.
"I definitely intend to keep up writing," Ferlita says. "I'll still be involved because my career is in education and as a Jesuit priest. That's work that's never done."
- Big Easy Entertainment Awards Lifetime Achievement Award in Theatre honoree Father Ernest Ferlita has directed one play a year and written several others during his 33 years at Loyola University.