UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source


A conversation with Ryan Zerr, the UND math professor who also chairs the University’s Theatre Arts Department

Ryan Zerr
Ryan Zerr, math professor and UND Department of Theatre Arts chair, stands at the front entrance of Burtness Theatre on the UND campus. The theatre is where productions by UND students are presented throughout the academic year. Photo by Walter Criswell/UND Today.

Your primary academic interest is math, right? Has that always been something that interests you?

I didn’t start in math directly. My undergraduate degree is in atmospheric sciences, and the curriculum of that program involves a lot of mathematics. It was through that time that I developed a growing interest in mathematics.

I ended up getting my Ph.D. in operator theory and functional analysis, which involve things like linear algebra and infinite-dimensional vector spaces. It can be pretty esoteric, but it’s a fairly big area within the field. In my time here at UND, my work has evolved a bit, and I have also done things in dynamical systems and more recently, some projects that are more on the data science end of the spectrum.

What attracted you to math initially?

I had to take some math courses for my atmospheric sciences degree, and I found that I really enjoyed the careful and precise thinking required. And as I took more courses in mathematics, I came to realize that I particularly like to try to develop mathematical arguments. That process of building convincing arguments, which mathematicians call proofs, was an interesting and fun challenge. Of course, effective argumentation is clearly a very broadly applicable skill, and I believe I’ve been able to use my training as a mathematician in many subsequent parts of my work.

Can you recall any formative experiences that maybe pushed you toward math and academia?

I grew up in a small town and had the typical first-generation college student’s story. I had some sense of what it meant to go to college and what the college experience would be like, but I didn’t have a realistic sense of it.

Upon entering that first semester, I just happened to take a calculus class with a faculty member who was really phenomenal. He was able to engage students and get them interested in a topic that many people don’t necessarily see as the most scintillating. That opened my eyes to what mathematics could be about. Having that really great initial experience was pretty important for getting me here today.

Then as an undergrad, I had the good fortune to work on a couple of research projects in atmospheric sciences. That kind of firsthand experience was super rewarding, and I developed a strong interest in studying things with depth and intensity. Working on a research project, you distill things down to a question, something whose answer may be completely unknown, and you have the opportunity to discover the answer. I really liked that, and in looking back on my time in college can see that those experiences were formative for me in figuring out what I liked about academics and that I might one day want to work in an academic setting.

I’m guessing you probably didn’t imagine that one day you’d be chairing a theatre department. How did that come about?

No, I most definitely did not.

A previous long-serving chair retired, which led to a need for others to step in and help the department with some of the administrative work. My time with the department began in 2019. I had so much to learn! Putting on theatre productions is labor intensive, and so I saw my job as handling the other aspects to the department’s operations so that the faculty can do what they know best.  It’s been a real honor to be involved through the chair’s role.

I had worked with a couple of the departmental faculty in campuswide committees, and we got along very well. I guess they thought I was okay enough, so they approached me and asked if I would be interested in stepping into the role of their chair. I had no prior knowledge of what it took to make a theatre department run, but they had confidence in me. The next thing I knew, I found myself chairing the department by the summer of 2019, and I’ve been learning lots ever since.

Did you run into any challenges chairing a department so different from your field?

My first year was the year that COVID struck in the spring, and we faced a lot of the same challenges everybody was facing. Everything started to move remote right after the third show of the season was finished, and initially it wasn’t clear how long people would be isolating.

There were a variety of challenges that came with trying to think through how we were going to make the next show happen. Now, of course it was eventually canceled – which also was very unusual. I’m not sure the program has ever had to cancel a production in the middle of the season.

With the pandemic, there were all kinds of unusual things in the following year related to recording and streaming shows, performing without audiences, masking, etc. Those times were challenging for everyone, but it was especially unusual and trying for theatre arts – which is about live theatre in front of audiences. But you know, people embraced the need to solve the challenging problems they encountered, and the department was able to carry on productions throughout the pandemic.

Have you had any favorite productions at UND?

The show that comes to mind is “Sweeney Todd”, which I thought was really well done. I appreciated the size of it – large set and large talented cast. It was a show that occurred during my very first fall and it was an eye opener for me.

Another that stands out was the first show this season, which was called “Rabbit Hole”. The students, the actors in the show were just amazing. It was a fairly small cast, but they did a phenomenal job; it was very believable. It was the sort of show that I think most audience members felt really moved by.

Of course, musicals are always fun, and they usually  bring in the biggest crowds, so it’s always great when we do those.

I suppose you haven’t had the urge to get on stage yet?

No, but one thing that I have learned is that I would have totally gotten into the technical theatre stuff as a kid. I like building things and working with my hands. Seeing that part of the operation has been a really interesting learning experience. But my work with the department has mainly been scheduling classes, anticipating expenses and managing the bills – standard administrative tasks — and that’s more in line with the contributions I’m best able to bring to the department.

The department just finished its production of “Conference of the Birds.” How did that go?

It was very good! It’s based on the works of a 12th century Persian poet, a story I had no familiarity with prior to the show. It was definitely different than other shows over the four years that I’ve been involved with the department. From an educational point of view, it’s great for students to have that interesting variety.

I could tell it was a challenge in terms of things like costume and set design and construction, and there’s no doubt that everyone did a great job. Kylie MacDonald, Pat Reading, Brad Reissig, and the students worked really hard to put everything together and they were able to pull it all off. They did a great job.

It’s things like that that make the department an interesting and exciting environment. My term as their chair will end at the end of June, and it’s been a real pleasure to have been affiliated with them for the past four years. It’s been tremendous fun, and I’m definitely going to miss it.