Professor finds balance, fulfillment through stages of his life

A unique collection of black-framed prints is strategically displayed on Law Professor Michael Higdon’s office in the University of Tennessee College of Law.

All theatrical posters of well-known plays, the prints add a colorful focal point to an otherwise dull and tall white wall.But his connection to each print is perhaps more of a surprise than their placement in a law professor’s office space.

They relate to how he’s occupied his free time throughout the last 23 years.

“There have probably been 25 or so shows I’ve done since college,” he said. “Nine since I moved to Knoxville in 2009.”

His theater involvement is one of two sorts – he’s either acted in or directed each of the plays represented on his wall.

Michael Higdon

As a child growing up in Donalds, South Carolina – a town of little more than 300 people – Higdon didn’t have the opportunity to become involved with theater, he said. But when he began attending a small liberal arts college of fewer than 600 students to complete his undergraduate studies, his interest in acting began to blossom. By the time he finished his master’s degree at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, he was hooked.

With only a brief hiatus while attending law school and beginning his law career, theater has been a steady part of Higdon’s life for more than 20 years. It’s influenced friendships, occupied his free time and even helped him quickly settle into the Knoxville community when he relocated to Tennessee eight years ago.

“It’s a challenge that I really love,” Higdon said. “I’m sure my interest in theater has something to do with enjoying making presentations in front of people. That’s something that both the law and theater have in common.”

Other skills that benefit both his avocation and his vocation include preparedness, organization and simply being comfortable and confident in front of a crowd.

“You cannot step on a stage in front of a theater audience and not know what you’re doing,” he said. “The same is true teaching law or standing in a courtroom. You have to be able to be relaxed and convey your message when all eyes are on you.”

Higdon’s taste in plays leans toward more classic shows, including the works of Noel Coward, and he’s a huge fan of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Although he’s played the part of a lawyer on stage a couple of times – John Hancock in “1776” and Barnette Lloyd in “Crimes of the Heart” – he enjoys the challenge of creating characters dissimilar to himself in plays that have a distinct message. The play ‘The Miss Firecracker Contest,’ which Higdon directed in recent years, was particularly meaningful for him because of its important messages about self-esteem and redemption for its bullied and marginalized lead character, he said.

But Higdon has invested his time in recent roles at the Oak Ridge Playhouse – Roy in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” and currently the Bellhop in “Lend Me a Tenor” – simply for the fun of it.

“Acting is a challenge for me, so I’ve learned over time that small doses are better,” he said. “I tend to have an obsessive mind, so when I’m in a play I think about the lines non-stop.”

Despite the size of the role, it’s an arduous rehearsal period once he’s cast in a show, with a seven to 10-week time commitment. But when the director begins running the show, and Higdon has down time between periods on stage, he takes his work with him to the theater.

“I’m often grading papers backstage and having conversations with the other actors about what I’m teaching the next day, that is, until their eyes glaze over,” he said with a smile.

That glazed over expression is one Higdon works hard to avoid during his day job. As the writing program director for the College of Law, he engages his students with challenging and informative exercises in designing the writing program and assisting with developing curriculum.

“At UT Law, we have a strong commitment to students and to creating practice-ready attorneys,” he said. “That’s my top priority, and I really love the work that I do.”

Higdon will perform at the Oak Ridge Playhouse in “Lend Me A Tenor” through Sept. 10.


Performance photo courtesy of Reggie Law, Oak Ridge Playhouse.