Margaret Bachus (MFA ‘75) was a beloved member of the performing arts community at the University of Florida.
Her presence in Gainesville and beyond endures, in large thanks to the impact she had on the development of youth theatre at the Hippodrome during the theatre's nascency. The influence her mentorship had on the young actors she taught, and on the audiences of children throughout Florida and the across U.S. for whom her plays offered an entry point to the magic of theatre, is also indelible.
As a young adult, Margaret studied elementary education at the University of Tennessee before returning to school in her early 30s—while also raising her three children, Kirk, Kyle, and Kara—to become the first woman to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Theatre for Acting and Directing at the University of Florida’s College of the Arts.
Coincidentally, her formal education in theatre came about thanks to a remark from an extroverted stranger in a grocery store checkout line in 1970:
“A stranger said to me, ‘You have an interesting voice. Have you ever been in radio?’ … He said I really should do something with my voice. I went home and thought, ‘I’m told I have an interesting voice; I really love acting. I think I’ll go out to the university and take a course in theatre…’”
The rest is history. With Margaret Bachus' presence, Gainesville's theatre community gained a bright and impactful member whose memory lives on through her legacy.
The "Bionic Woman" who brought youth theatre to the Hippodrome
In 1977, Margaret became involved with the Hippodrome, which was founded just four years prior. She acted while pursuing other professional endeavors—earning the nickname, “The Bionic Woman," for her energetic engagement in multiple creative and professional pursuits.
She joined the Hippodrome board and established the Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) program in 1979. Through TYA, Margaret enacted her vision to use theatre as an educational tool on issues such as environmental conservation, fire safety, and challenging topics around personal growth that were tailored to young audiences.
“She really carved a niche for herself,” says Kevin Rainsberger, who worked with Margaret at the Hippodrome and would later co-found the children's theatre company, Creative Stages, which the then-married couple operated through the mid-1990s. He recalls her trailblazing spirit:
“There was a need for an education wing at the Hippodrome at that time—so she created her own position there as head of the Theater and Education Department."
A champion for diversity and high-quality education in children's theatre
University of Florida Professor of Practice in Acting, Malcolm Gets, and Steven Butler, Founder and Artistic Director of Actors' Warehouse in Gainesville, remember fondly the vibrant and supportive atmosphere Margaret strove to create for young actors at the Hippodrome.
Gets acted alongside Bachus in several productions with TYA and performed under her directorship in a play she devised, Stages, when he was a teenager in the early '80s.
“Margaret always cast the shows with diversity in mind, even in 1981. She was a forward thinker in that way, and she was very selfless. She would stay behind the scenes, and she kept the emphasis on us and the children in the audience,” Gets says.
Butler met Margaret in the summer of 1986 during a TYA audition call for Black, male dancers. He would go on to tour the state of Florida and other parts of the country with her 1987 play, Just Florida. He says one of the highlights of his emerging career was working on the productions Bachus designed to educate children about energy conservation—namely, The Energy Carnival, an ahead-of-its-time production in which Butler played a solar-powered android.
“The work we were doing at the time—I wish we could still do that now, especially considering we're dealing with issues of climate change," Butler says.
“At the time I was still young—I was just 21— and figuring out my way in life. I learned so much from her, and I just really admired what she was doing—not only for art, but for young audiences. She was educating young people through the performing arts. It was wonderful working with her,” Butler adds.
Margaret broke away from the Hippodrome in 1990 to establish her own touring children’s theatre business, Creative Stages, with Rainsberger. Despite its dissolution at the time of her departure, her Theatre for Young Audiences program was the guiding light for the future of children's theatre and educational programming at the Hippodrome.
“We always felt like we were building a future for theatre—that, if kids saw these plays, and that if it affected them, and if it was quality work—then, we were building future audience members for theatre down the road. We were doing our part for that, and I am very proud of the work we did,” Rainsberger says.
“Margaret once said to me, 'at some point, you will feel like this was some of the most important work you did in your career as an actor.' And in retrospect, she was absolutely right,” he adds.
Remembering a multi-talented, lifelong storyteller
After touring Creative Stages around the country, Margaret eventually settled in the Orlando area where she continued to tell stories on and off the stage throughout the remainder of her life.
“Throw her into a situation where she was directing or creating, and she was just excellent at that. Any of her grandchildren will tell you how creative she is, and I am sure that’s part of what they miss about her,” Rainsberger says.
Margaret wrote Slippery Villain and Murder in the Graveyard for Walt Disney World’s EPCOT, and eventually became a Senior Presentation Instructor at Universal Studios. There, she wrote and conducted workshops, she revised and wrote short venue scripts, and she even served as a director for the theme park’s famous Halloween Horror Nights. She also penned a children's book about Alzheimer's, A is for Awful, in memory of her late mother.
In addition to her writing pursuits, Margaret remained devoted to the playhouse stage throughout her later life. Her portrayal of five small-town women in the American premiere of the Edinburgh Festival award-sweeper, Persona, was, in Margaret's opinion, her “best performance ever.”
Her final performance took place in 2015, when she graced the stage one last time at her 55th high school reunion.
On April 28, 2020, Margaret’s life was taken in a tragic accident, leaving behind her loved ones who miss her dearly. But even in her absence from the stage, Margaret’s legacy in the arts will continue to live on in the lives of her family, friends, community, and the students and faculty members in the School of Theatre + Dance who will benefit from the generous endowments and display created by Margaret's family in her loving memory.