Many students called her a tough talker who didn’t suffer fools gladly, with a biting wit, a booming voice, and possessing of no qualms about telling someone when they were doing it wrong. They also called her a friend, an intellectual and emotional powerhouse, and an inspiration both on and off the stage.
Sandra Hardy, a theater professor who retired this year after nearly 30 years at the University of Maine, died Thursday at the age of 76. She had suffered from heart problems for several years. She is survived by her long term partner, attorney Joanne Baumrind, and Baumrind’s daughter, Jade Baumrind.
“She was a force of life,” said Emily Cain, Democratic candidate for the second Congressional district in Maine. Cain was Hardy’s student and played a Kit Kat Girl in Hardy’s 2001 production of “Cabaret.” “She was the consummate educator. She didn’t just teach you a craft. She taught you about yourself.”
Hardy directed more than 20 main stage shows at UMaine, from a big, glitzy production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 2006 to the madcap farce “Noises Off” in 2001; from a rigorously challenging version of Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” in 2007, to contemporary classics like the puppet-heavy “Avenue Q” in 2012 and her last directorial effort, “Grease,” in February of this year.
For most of those musicals, Danny Williams, executive director of the Collins Center for the Arts and husband to Cain, was the musical director.
“I am lucky to have had the privilege of standing alongside a person who was so skilled at her craft,” said Williams, whose first show with Hardy was “Pump Boys and Dinettes” in 1997. “You know the expression, ‘We can do this the easy way, or the hard way?’ With Sandra, it was more like ‘We can do this the hard way, or we can do this the hardest way.’ Nothing was easy with her. It was all about the challenge.”
Hardy came to UMaine in 1987 after teaching at a small college in Iowa and at a public high school in Connecticut. She received her bachelors from Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, her masters at Fairfield University in Connecticut, and her PhD from New York University. She also studied at the Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute in New York City, and the Julius Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut.
In the classroom, she taught acting, theater education and dramatic literature to generations of students, and weathered many changes within the School of Performing Arts, as positions were cut and, in 2001, the entire theater program came close to being axed.
Williams said Hardy forced her students to confront their vulnerability, their weaknesses and their fears, and to learn how to be part of an ensemble. Some found her confrontational, outspoken approach intimidating, and didn’t continue to work with her. Others found it liberating.
“She forced you to look inside yourself and find your true self,” said Williams. “If you made it through, you ended up not only a better actor, but a better person… She was a beacon to those students who had trauma in their pasts. She helped them through it. I’ve had students say to me she was the closest person to them outside of their own families.”
A scholarship in Hardy’s name was founded this year to support a student in the Division of Theatre and Dance; those who wish to contribute to the Sandra E. Hardy Theatre Scholarship Fund can find more information online at umainefoundation.org.
Hardy was known particularly for directing plays and musicals that intentionally pushed social and political buttons. She wasn’t afraid to tackle topics like religion, gay rights, disability rights and other areas through theater.
“Although this may not be a popular topic and people may not leave the theater thinking they had a wonderful time, this play needs to be done here now,” Hardy said in a BDN article about her 2004 production of the play “Bent,” about gay men imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. “Theater needs to be provocative, energizing and thought-provoking. And this play reminds us that we still have a lot of work to do in a lot of areas.”
Another former student, Dominick Varney, is the artistic director of Winterport Open Stage, and is currently in the role of Dr. Frank-n-Furter in Penobscot Theatre’s production of “The Rocky Horror Show.” Varney was in Hardy’s production of “Rocky” in 2002, in the role of Brad Majors, as well as portraying Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the role of Max in “Bent.”
“She was my teacher, my mentor and my friend,” said Varney. “To know thyself is to know thy character, and she instilled that in me. There’s not a role I take on where I don’t think about Sandra. She made me the actor and director I am today, and she did that for so many others. I like to think she also made me the husband and artist and person I am today… I’m a better person because of her.”