Suppose you're a high school senior who is determined to have a professional performing career. You've made lists of B.F.A. and conservatory programs, sent away for their catalogues, and are starting to write your applications and prepare for auditions. But wait! Your grades are excellent, your I.Q. over the top, and your extracurricular activities stellar (you actually found time to belong to other organizations besides the Drama Club!). Not only that, but your mom was in the third coed graduating class at Yale, while your dad was one of the first men to earn a degree from Vassar. There's palpable pressure from the home front and the school guidance counselor: Apply to the Ivies.
Just in case you're not clear on these things (tch, tch!), the Ivy League schools are: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania. Their "Seven Sisters" are Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, Barnard, Skidmore, and Bryn Mawr. You probably are aware that most of these schools turned co-educational in the 1960s and '70s, and that all strive now for diversity, where many of them were once bastions of WASP-dom. What may be much less common knowledge is how these schools handle their undergraduate thespians these days.
It is important, first, to put our discussion in the context of the "liberal arts" college, which is the way all of these institutions were originally founded. Its purpose was, and remains, to educate, rather than to train. The "Random House Webster's College Dictionary" distinguishes between the two verbs this way: The first definition of "educate" is "to develop the faculties and powers of a person by instruction or schooling," while the definition of "train" in this context is "to make proficient by instruction and practice, as in some art, profession, or work."
The emphasis in a Bachelor of Arts program at these schools, therefore, is first to develop the thinking and analytical powers of students, and to give them a broader context of learning which embraces all the "liberal arts," i.e.: the arts, humanities, and natural and social sciences. Some of these 15 institutions, of course, have developed into extensive universities, with graduate schools that offer "training" in a variety of professions‹law, business, medicine, and even theatre (e.g. Yale School of Drama; Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, which is associated with American Repertory Theatre; and Columbia's M.F.A. program). But the original foundation of these schools, and their long-standing tradition, has been the concept of liberal arts education.
In fact, that tradition has been a stumbling block, at some schools, to introducing the study of theatre into the undergraduate mainstream‹as opposed to considering it an extracurricular activity appropriate for providing entertainment and promoting camaraderie, but hardly suitable for serious academic inquiry. Many of the all-male Ivy League schools began traditions of drag musical revue clubs in the late 19th Century. These still remain in some form: Harvard's Hasty Pudding Club, Princeton's Triangle, the Mask and Wig at Penn, etc. Then, in the 1920s, the "Little Theatre" movement which swept the country was reflected at these colleges in theatre clubs such as Yale Drama, Penn Players, Theatre--Intime (Princeton), and similar organizations. While there has been a tremendous amount of theatrical activity at the Ivies, over the last century the propriety of drama as an academic subject (outside of dramatic literature, at least) has been somewhat of a prickly issue at a number of these schools.
When Back Stage interviewed Cary Mazer at the University of Pennsylvania for this article, we asked this theatre historian to muse on the issue of the historic reluctance of many of these schools to include a serious study of theatre in their academic programs. While insisting that his remarks were "shooting from the hip" and that he had not done a specific study of dates and events, Mazer did point out that George Pierce Baker could only teach his playwriting course at Harvard in the "night" school‹where Eugene O'Neill took it as an extension student. When Baker wanted to offer his courses during the day, he met enough resistance that he left for Yale and founded the Yale School of Drama as a graduate "training" program, in 1925. (Robert Brustein, of course, later returned the favor by jumping ship from Yale back to Harvard to start A.R.T., which now offers the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training.)
Even after the concept of theatre as a legitimate subject for teaching was more widely accepted, most schools taught it as a part of the English department, creating a separate major only in the second half of this century. "Penn's interdepartmental major was created in the late 1970s, shortly before I was hired in '79," recalls Mazer. "Despite Penn being a University with a business school that offers an undergraduate degree, the School of Arts and Sciences resisted creating a major for decades, I'm told, because it perceived theatre education as being 'pre-professional'‹and you can't have that, they thought, and really be liberal arts."
The issue was less of a sticking point, however, for some institutions, such as Cornell and Dartmouth, Mazer suggested. Indeed, Paul Gaffney at Dartmouth calls it "a non-issue. That battle has long since been fought and won 100%, and so far before my time‹I came here 12 years ago‹that I can't even tell you when it happened. That hasn't been an issue here for decades."
Mazer also opines that the issue seemed to be less of a problem in general for the women's institutions. "At the women's schools this may be because nothing was really regarded as vocational (women? vocations??!!), so you can study something without worrying either about whether it's too artsy or too trade-school." But the place where the American theatre departments as we know them really began in this century, Mazer explained, were not the northeastern liberal arts schools, but the Midwestern land-grant universities (Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, et al.). "These began mostly as speech departments; in some cases, the theatre divisions only broke off from the Theatre and Speech departments in the 1960s and '70s. And these were also, for many decades, the principal homes of the nation's doctoral programs in theatre, although many of those Midwestern Ph.D. programs have since withered away, and the really exciting doctorate programs are now in different places like New York University, City University of New York, Stanford, etc."
Now that we understand some background, let us return to the original premise. You're a talented young actor whose ultimate goal is an acting career. You are excited about the look of a number of different B.F.A. programs. But you're also very strong academically and an Ivy League or Seven Sisters school is a real possibility. How do you make that choice?
And what, other than the obvious advantages of a terrific liberal arts education, the cachet of the name, and the alumni network you will find at any of the Ivies, will you gain by studying theatre there? To find out, Back Stage interviewed the heads of theatre departments at six schools: Dartmouth, Cornell, Brown, Penn, Vassar, and Wellesley, and also spoke to two recent graduates to obtain a student's perspective on the question.
While certain themes run through each interview‹especially the validity of a truly "liberal arts" education‹the schools themselves have differing philosophies about exactly what they should be doing with‹or for‹their most serious theatre students, those who actually wish to pursue a major. We'll begin by outlining each school's unique approach to theatre education.
Wellesley: Uncommon Women
Nora Hussey, Director of Theatre and Theatre Studies, explains that Wellesley College (one of the "Seven Sisters" which has remained an all-women's college) offers a unique program in that "it can be virtually self- designed with, of course, faculty mentoring, from the moment they come in here. We are a small academic program with a large production element. We have 16 productions a year, so that gives every student ample opportunity to participate in whatever may be her area of interest."
Because it is an independent major, each student works with a faculty advisor to tailor what her focus is going to be, and how she will incorporate the other academic pursuits to work closely with her theatre pursuits. "For instance," Hussey explains, "if someone is particularly geared toward directing, her work will reflect that as she proceeds, virtually from her first semester here. We do not have a hierarchy that insists you can only direct when you're a senior; many of our sophomores direct. People are allowed to think independently, to focus with a faculty member on what the best plan for their education will be. They get a unique opportunity in that they can direct and design very early on. And if they are serious acting students, they are normally encouraged to begin by their sophomore year to think what they might want to do in their senior year‹either for their year-long thesis, or for "Theatre 350," a semester-long independent study course."
As examples of recent independent projects, Hussey cited a 350 Project by senior Alicia Kahn (see student interviews) based on "the great queens"‹a two-hour solo performance piece on Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth, and Mary, Queen of Scots, with the historical material woven into an interpretation by Britain's earliest actress, Nell Gwynn. Another student spent a year preparing to play Robinson Jeffers' "Medea." "Virtually every student has a unique experience that is geared toward her goals and needs," asserts Hussey.
Since Wellesley is still a women's college, an obvious question is: Who plays the men's roles in Wellesley productions? Hussey explains that she uses her connections to the Boston theatre community to recruit non-Equity men, including some actors from various Equity Membership Candidate programs. "We have a lot of guys who have come through here, and have gone on to great careers themselves," Hussey responds. "We have one that just finished Yale School of Drama, a couple are in California, one is up in Toronto. We've had one man who, while going through A.R.T.'s apprentice program, also did nine shows with us. We almost made him an honorary Wellesley woman."
Brown: Educate, Don't Train
Moving to Providence, R.I. and Brown University (the nation's seventh oldest, we're informed), we meet with Don Wilmeth, Chair of the Department of Theatre, Speech & Dance, who describes how he talks to prospective students: "Students really need to match themselves with the institution, so we encourage the student to look at us and feel comfortable with what we do. I think one of the strengths of our program is our continuity, the dedication of the faculty to this institution. There are 22 of us, and a sizeable number of us have been here for 10 years or more. Students at Brown get a program that is a balance between practical theatre and academic theatre. We actually dislike the word 'training.' Our first and foremost responsibility is to educate our students about the theatre. We believe very strongly that a bright, talented actor, designer, playwright, whatever, if given a good education, will in the long run be a better artist."
While at Brown, students take a cross-section of courses in theatre history, literature, and theory. They must all take acting courses, as well as stagecraft production courses. As seniors they take a seminar, which Wilmeth characterizes as "the one time we step back and say, 'Let's look at reality; let's talk about options in the theatre if that's what you're going to do professionally.' " For that senior seminar, Wilmeth brings in alumni who can share their experiences, casting people, and other industry professionals to talk about different directions the students might take in theatre.
"As you might expect, the majority of students who come to us want to be actors, but by the time they leave us, they all may have other interests. This is a very open environment, and one of the things I think that makes Brown special is the flexibility. Not only is its curriculum extremely flexible, but the atmosphere for creative energy is very open. There are during the course of an academic year something between 50 and 70 productions." Even as he spoke, Wilmeth explained that the department was about to open its second mainstage production, after being in session for only about six weeks. "We've done 'Cymbeline,' we're about to do 'Camino Real' this week, and I think there are four other productions that already have been cast."
In addition to the mainstage work, many other production groups operate at Brown, including the faculty-directed and -designed Sock and Buskin; the student-controlled Production Workshop; Rites and Reason, which is dedicated to original plays dealing with the Afro-American experience; the annual student-written musical produced by Brownbrokers (now in its 63rd year); a faculty-supervised Festival of New Plays; and the semi-professional Brown Summer Theatre. "Like most Ivy League institutions‹indeed, most liberal arts institutions‹most of our students are not majors; they come from all different disciplines," concludes Wilmeth. "Our class enrollments and production participation tend to be large, but the number we graduate with a theatre concentration tends to be fairly small, generally 15 to 20."
Penn: An Interdepartmental Program
Speaking specifically to the Theatre Arts Program at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is chair, Cary Mazer explained the department's philosophy: "We tell our students that we're not training them. They don't always listen to us, but we tell them that. To actually acquire the many skills it takes to be a trained professional is so all-consuming and time-consuming and soul-consuming that I doubt whether one could get theatre training and actually get a real education. While I'm not criticizing people who choose to go to universities with excellent B.F.A. programs to get training, I am skeptical about places that claim they are giving you training and still allowing you to get a university education. I don't think you can do both at the same time. So, if you can't do both at the same time, the question is, what type of an education and exposure to theatre can you have from ages 18 to 22 that will then allow you to get training later? How can we prepare you for that?"
For starters, Mazer says, theatre at Penn is not a department, but an interdepartmental program. So while a student can get a bachelor's degree in theatre, the faculty is drawn from a number of different departments, plus a number of full- and part-time lecturers teaching the practice of theatre. "That gives us more of an academic and interdisciplinary focus, by constitution, than many programs have. Our basic philosophy is that half of the courses that we want students to take are in traditional academic areas of theatre: literature, theory, history, criticism. The other half of the courses are in various areas of acting, directing, playwriting, design, and related areas. But even those courses are taught with a strong eye toward the academic, intellectual, and conceptual."
Mazer stresses, "We're asking our students to learn theatre in a way that not only allows them to understand what theatre is and how to do it, but also to understand how it works as an art form. We try to bring performance into our academic courses as much as we can, so that we're never talking about literature, history, theory, or criticism to the exclusion of the performance issues. At the same time, our acting and directing and design courses are taught by people who are not only experienced and trained practitioners‹and experienced teachers‹but are also, by training, scholars. So when the students are acting in scenes and learning acting, they are also learning about acting as a phenomenon, as a set of issues, as part of the overall aesthetic of the art form."
Mazer characterizes Penn's six or seven productions per season as relatively small-scale in terms of elaborateness of the technical aspects, but specifically designed to accommodate the students' personal and research needs. "We encourage our students to consider their senior year as a capstone with an academic research project that they can relate and link to their development as young artists. If you're a student director you can propose a directing thesis and you will direct one of the studio productions in our workshop season. If you're concentrating in acting, we will pick faculty-directed productions designed to give all of our acting students roles that they can use as part of the research for their Senior Honors thesis." The practical work is considered part of the research toward a full-length academic thesis that talks about the experience in relation to the other things a student may have learned over the previous years, according to the way he or she shapes the topic.
The six or seven productions mentioned by Mazer are, of course, also supplemented by student productions, which he says exist in enormous numbers‹"probably even a larger body of activity than Yale and Harvard, with their college house theatres." The extra-curricular clubs exist free-standing with their own budget sources and their own following of students, many of whom are not even in the school of arts and sciences, but are undergraduates in the schools of business, nursing, and engineering. Mazer says that, while many majors are actively involved in the club-theatre scene, "they know that the more serious work that relates more directly to their curriculum is the work that we do. And in recent years the balance between curricular and extracurricular has shifted, and now much of the talent and energy of the student community is going toward the productions in the major, rather than the extracurricular."
Dartmouth: A College for Undergraduates
In speaking to Dartmouth's Drama Department chair, Paul Gaffney, we found that among the Ivy League schools, only Dartmouth calls itself a college. While technically Dartmouth is a small university, since it does have some professional schools, the College of Arts and Science constitutes the vast majority of the institution, and most of its resources go into undergraduate teaching exclusively. This is in contrast to many of the other Ivies, where there are more graduate students than undergrads. In addition, Dartmouth boasts a long theatrical tradition‹in fact, it claims the very first theatre performance on any college campus anywhere in the United States: the "Dartmouth Dialogue," which occurred on the Hanover, N.H. campus during the 18th Century.
"As an undergraduate liberal arts institution which is granting a B.A.," Gaffney continues, "if we're going to give students a degree in theatre, they need to know something about all aspects of theatre. We do not pretend to be a pre-professional training program. We have no illusions of that, and we have no desire to do that. Our philosophy is that the drama department, in conjunction with the college as a whole, is interested in educating the entire student. We do, of course, offer classes in acting and directing where a certain amount of training goes on, but that's not our primary purpose.
"We see it as our primary mission to provide students with a solid background, an understanding of theatre and all its aspects. Then if they wish professional training they would go on to one of the institutions that is designed to give them that, such as an M.F.A. program.
"We have a full-bore major and minor, and students can also modify other majors with drama," says Gaffney. He explains that Dartmouth has had a separate drama department for well over 30 years, and has offered a major even longer than that, when drama was still within the Department of English. "We have an extremely active production program. We do a major production, directed by a faculty member or a professional guest, in each of the four quarters of the year, including the summer. And then we have anywhere from three to six student productions per quarter that go on throughout the year, plus another anywhere from three to nine productions by students in theatrical groups that are not part of the drama department, but still work hand-in-hand with it.
"Often these groups' plays are produced in departmental production slots, using all of our technical and advertising and financial support. For example, of the three student productions which are happening this quarter, one is B.U.T.A., the Black Underground Theatre Arts Association; a second is Nuestra Voces, which does works by Latino/Latina playwrights; and the third is a departmental major's senior honors production of 'The Caucasian Chalk Circle.' So the number of production opportunities that are available to undergraduates is almost countless." With no competition from graduate students, all roles onstage and backstage are taken by undergraduates, beginning in their freshman year.
Cornell: Working With Professionals in a Liberal Arts Context
Of the schools interviewed, the one which seems to make the most effort to introduce something of the professional theatre into the liberal arts undergraduate's life on campus is Cornell. Interviewing Alison Van Dyke, director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Theatre Film & Dance, Back Stage discovered a unique program called R.P.T.A., which stands for Resident Professional Theatre Associates. Six professional actors are brought in each year to teach an Introduction to Acting class, act in productions with the undergraduates, and serve as mentors to the students.
"They give workshops," further explains Van Dyke, "and I think the students have found it quite a valuable experience to work with professionals. It also means that we can do plays like 'King Lear,' which wouldn't be possible to do, we feel, with only students. Because these professional actors are older, they are not competing with the students for roles; they come in, teach a class, work with the students, and in general give the students an idea of what it's like to work with professionals."
Cornell makes a point of bringing in guest directors (as do several of the other schools). Currently visiting are Norman Ayrton of the British American Dramatic Academy, directing "Twelfth Night," and Benny Sato Ambush, directing Anna Deavere Smith's "Twilight Los Angeles." In recent seasons, Harold Gould acted in "Death of a Salesman," which was a production that involved undergraduates and professional actors, directed by faculty member David Feldshuh. "The purpose is to expose students to a variety of directors. I think the quality of our productions is very high, whether they are directed by faculty or guest artists," observes Van Dyke, "but it's an additional exposure."
But for all the input by professionals, Cornell's department still promotes the liberal arts ideal. "We believe that better-educated people make better performers‹performers who can have a longer career, and who have depth that you cannot achieve if you are simply concentrating on the skills which are, in fact, necessary to be a performer. Graduate school is the time to specialize, to do that skills training all the day long."
Another advantage mentioned by Van Dyke is that a liberal arts theatre program educates people in all areas of the theatre, "so there is respect for designers, dramaturgs, everybody who is involved in productions. It's not just your own skills that you need to be working on, but you must acquire the understanding that theatre is a collaborative process."
Since the Cornell undergraduate doesn't have to actually declare a major until the end of his or her sophomore year, the first two years may be spent taking care of university requirements, doing some theatre classes, but being educated in other areas as well. Once a student declares a major, he or she has to take introductory courses in theatre, world theatre, design, and acting. The scholarly component comes with required courses in history, theory criticism, and text analysis. They are then able to take other classes in design, and another four or five acting classes. Sometimes additional skills classes like movement, speech, or dialects are offered.
Performance opportunities outside of the classroom consist of six mainstage productions, in the flexible theatre or on the proscenium stage, usually directed by a faculty member or a visiting guest artist. In addition to that there are four black-box productions which are student-directed. "These are completely student-run productions," Van Dyke emphasizes. "They submit a proposal and if approved are given a small budget. And there are a number of other groups on campus that are not connected with the department, that do a variety of plays‹one for musicals, one non-musicals, an Asian-American theatre group, and so forth."
Vassar: A 'Double-Edged' Situation
One of the "Seven Sisters" that went co-ed in the early 1970s, Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., has a Department of Theatre and Film which is chaired by Dr. James Steerman. Reflecting on the changes which have taken place during his lengthy tenure at the college, Steerman goes right to the point. "When I first came here‹at that time the college was just beginning to go co-ed‹one of the senior members of the department (who's no longer here) said that our job was basically to educate young women who were going to marry bankers or lawyers, go live in Greenwich, and participate in community theatre. Well, obviously, that's no longer the case."
While Vassar's philosophy espouses the liberal arts concept of educating students in a larger framework‹with approximately half of their work in dramatic literature, drama as cultural study, dramatic history, etc.‹Steerman admits to a "Catch 22," in that 80-90% of Vassar majors do want careers in theatre or related fields. "That gives us a different kind of responsibility. Whatever we do in the practicum areas of acting, directing, or design, has to be offered at the highest, most demanding level. We are truly trying to prepare people for careers, as well as we can, while we're trying to educate their minds in a larger sense. Now that's not easy, because you only have so many resources. But I do think we're doing a reasonably good job of this double-edged thing."
The department is in its third year of a new curriculum which is an attempt to integrate more fully the relationship between the theoretical or academic courses and the practicum courses. One way of achieving that goal has been to give each season a thematic or historic focus‹the 19th Century, for instance‹with all the plays in a season from that period. "This season we're exploring plays written by and focusing on issues of importance to women, and that has allowed us to integrate the program in many interesting ways."
Creative Ways to Add Skills Training to a B.A.
Over the course of four years, it's likely that even a student who embraces the liberal arts philosophy, if he or she is highly motivated towards a professional career, will want more in the way of training than school offers. We found that each of the schools interviewed had some mechanism in place to make that possible. A common solution seemed to be either the National Theater Institute (N.T.I.) at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. (see sidebar), or study abroad.
Cary Mazer says that students are encouraged to get more technical training wherever they can, "beyond what Penn can offer them, as an adjunct to the conceptual and intellectual pursuits of our laboratory courses. We encourage them to study privately if they can, and to take certain semester-abroad courses where the focus is much more fine arts than here. When we like a program we let the students take it for credit, so long as they come back and do some writing for us, so there is a written and intellectual component of an otherwise conservatory course." Those programs, he says, include N.T.I. and B.A.D.A. (the British American Dramatic Academy), among a few others.
Don Wilmeth at Brown also encourages students to pick up more skills if their ultimate goals lie in that direction. "We have a sizeable number of students now who spend all or part of their junior year either studying abroad or at N.T.I. A lot of them do summer stock. Despite the fact that I mean it when I tell you we don't even like to say the word 'training,' a lot of our students do go on, there's no question about it. Which is what has convinced me that if you're talented, a good, solid education is not a bad way to go. I used to spend a lot of my time discouraging our undergraduates from pursuing a career in theatre. I've stopped doing that because too many of them have proven me absolutely wrong."
"We highly encourage our students to spend a semester or a year abroad, or at National Theatre Institute," echoes Wellesley's Nora Hussey. "That has been extremely successful for us." Hussey herself counsels Wellesley women who major in Theatre, starting to work with them in their first year.
"Basically they're just trying to get their feet on the ground here and learning how to make their way through the requirements in their other areas of interest. Then as they get to sophomore year they're starting to think about how they're going to handle their career here, when they want to travel, or, if they decide not to travel, what their alternative approach will be. By junior year they're either abroad, or at N.T.I., or involved in a very intensive way with the work that they're doing here. We had one student who chose not to go abroad and has directed two major productions. Then their senior year is the culmination, when everything comes to fruition: They direct, they act, they design, and then we begin preparing for the onslaught of January, February, and March, going to U/RTAs [University/Resident Theatre Association], auditioning, making decisions, and seeing what's out there, what's going to be best for them."
When Paul Gaffney was asked if Dartmouth's drama department encouraged enrichments like N.T.I., summer stock, or the junior year abroad, his reply was adamant: "Not only do we encourage it, but we go to great lengths to facilitate it. For example, every second year we do a London study abroad in which a group of students goes to London with a Dartmouth professor. There they study with teachers from London: acting, playwriting, technical theatre or design, depending on their specialty. "It's a very successful program, and the students come back from it enthusiastic, and having learned a great deal. We also have a very close relationship with N.T.I.; in fact, Dartmouth automatically accepts and gives full credit for the theatre courses students take at N.T.I." Additionally, Dartmouth has established a very close working relationship with New York Theatre Workshop, which has been in Hanover for residencies during the last seven summers. "We regularly place interns with them. Every year there's one or more Dartmouth student or recent graduate working for the NY Theatre Workshop back in the city."
Another aspect of Dartmouth that comes into play is its quarter system. Over the course of four years, a Dartmouth student will be on campus for a total of 12 10-week quarters, which is the equivalent of eight 15-week semesters. However, students need not attend for three quarters each year; some years they might take three quarters, some years four, some two. Gaffney explains, "If they have an internship that must be done during a quarter when they would normally be on campus, they talk with the registrar and I write a letter of support, and normally they can change and be off campus for those 10 weeks."
At Vassar, Steerman cites an increased sense of responsibility to help his students make the transition into the real world of theatre. Vassar has conscientiously developed internships for its students with various theatre groups in the city, such as New York Theatre Workshop. Of particular value in that area has been the professional summer theatre at Vassar which has been "a loose collaboration between the college and the New York Stage & Film Company from the city. They do a summer season entirely of new plays here on the campus, with wonderful professional actors coming in."
While there is no formal relationship between the college and the company, many Vassar students avail themselves of the apprenticeship program, called Powerhouse Theatre, or in some cases are hired or work as interns in the program.
Steerman says he is always seeking new ways to help students understand the realities of the world of professional theatre. "I have a kind of dream," he reflects, "of some day finding a little money where I could create a kind of Vassar workshop in New York, where students during the first five years after graduation would have a place where they could come together to work and to show their work to the professional world." In the meantime, however, a great deal of effort is going into raising the $25 million ("we're about halfway there") which will build a new theatre and film center at Vassar.
Graduate Schools an Option, Eventually, for Many
Certainly for many students who come out of undergraduate liberal arts programs but are determined to pursue a professional career, a graduate program leading to the Master of Fine Arts degree will be somewhere in the future. The faculty we spoke to, for the most part, saw this as entirely an individual decision, and not necessarily one to be rushed into immediately upon graduation.
Norah Hussey spends much of her time mentoring students and helping them chart their long-term goals. "Our students have gone on from Wellesley into very good graduate programs," says Hussey. "Right now we have one student at Ann Arbor who wants to be a theatre historian/academic‹she wants a professorial-directorial career; we have Alicia Kahn at Columbia, two students at Trinity Rep, and a student in the dramaturgical program at A.R.T." While Hussey encourages them to go to graduate school "if they are at all inclined in that direction," she points out that graduates may be "pretty tired by the time they finish four rigorous academic and theatrical years here. They are worn out, and also, they feel they want to apply the skills they've learned and the experience they've gained."
Hussey encourages graduate programs, "Because I feel the more they have on their resume, the stronger their chances are. Plus, the networking that will emerge from the graduate program will also help their careers. But we had one actress‹the woman who played Medea‹who simply did not want to go, and made it very clear that she was ready to go and work. She's up in Maine doing Shakespeare, where she's played 11 roles in 18 months, and has been very happy, so that was the right decision for her.
"We try to work it so they are absolutely marketable, and have both the skills and the discipline to get hired continuously, to work within the business, to build their careers, and basically to be able to combine a life with a career. I emphasize that they need to manage their careers, not have their careers manage them. They should be able to make the decisions based on what they philosophically and artistically want to pursue, so that they're not at the mercy of the vagaries of 'maybe I'll get a job, maybe not.' "
A fair percentage of Brown students go on to graduate or conservatory training, many after a few years' hiatus. "A sizeable number will audition for some of the major conservatories," says Wilmeth, "and if they don't get in they will often just try it on their own, or go to New York and study, without going to a graduate school. But we also have a pretty good number that have gone on to traditional graduate study in theatre, and they're active in academic theatre. What I like about what's happened to our program in the last 25 years is the breadth of people that have come out of here. They don't all do just one thing."
Cary Mazer says that while he will absolutely encourage people who hope to become working professionals in the art to go to graduate school, he recognizes "how deadly competitive it is to get into the better graduate schools." In many cases, if students are not accepted at one of their preferred schools, they will take a year off and then reapply. Alison Van Dyke at Cornell agrees that, although not going immediately on to further study, students with a strong interest will eventually get the specialized degree.
James Steerman indicates that a good percentage of Vassar students go on to graduate schools, in a variety of directions, including a number who may become involved in Ph.D. programs. "We're now graduating around 25 drama majors‹that's separate from film majors‹and of those 25, 20 or more want careers in theatre. Of that number, I would say one third to one half would probably go on to graduate work." His experience also has been that many will, by choice, go out in the real world for a year or two and then decide to go on to graduate work. "And, of course," he adds, "now many programs‹like Yale, for example‹seldom take people immediately out of college, anyway."
A slightly different response comes from Paul Gaffney at Dartmouth, however. "Right now we graduate about 12 to 15 drama majors a year," he says. " Of those, maybe one or two go on to graduate school in theatre, while well over half of them go to New York and get work immediately in theatre. So for some reason, the nature of the education and the production experience we get here prepares them to go to work in New York, L.A., or Chicago right away.
"Of course, there's also a portion of our majors who graduate and go into other careers entirely. But that's only a fraction of the story. While we may have only 12 to 15 majors in each class, we have by actual count 500 to 600 students per year who participate in our production program and take our classes‹so the majors are only the tip of the iceberg. A goodly number of those students who are majors in other departments but who are very busy over here with us, also go on to theatrical careers, or to theatre grad schools. For example, I can think of a student several years ago who went to Harvard Law, then got an M.F.A. degree, and now is a very successful entertainment attorney in New York and L.A. The paths that Dartmouth students take out of here are many and varied, and we see that as a good sign."
A Trick Question
Just to be perverse, Back Stage concluded the interviews by asking each faculty member being interviewed what type of student probably should not attend his/her institution, even if accepted. We received some very forthright answers.
"Somebody who is committed to musical theatre," was Van Dyke's answer. "If somebody knows at 17 that that is what they want to do with their lives, I'm not sure that we would be the right place. On the other hand, one of our students came to Cornell, was in a number of plays, and left six weeks before graduation to go into "The Fantasticks." He was very talented in musical theatre, and still came to Cornell‹he did eventually finish his degree, by the way. But for the right person it's a wonderful program, with a lot of opportunities. We have a really strong technical theatre with an advanced undergraduate training program in certain areas, where people can design costumes and sets for a mainstage production, if they qualify. So I think that we're a very well-rounded program."
"If a student is not interested in achieving that balance in her life which the B.A. program provides, she should not come to Wellesley," states Nora Hussey. "Academically it is very rigorous. You are expected to meet all of the academic requirements, so there is a balancing act that has to go with that. Of course, it's nothing that athletes don't face also. Student athletes have to put in 30-40 hours a week in training or games and travel. The same thing applies to theatre students‹they still have to be able to keep their academic work up to par. But if someone just wants to concentrate on theatre or dance, then this would not be the place for them."
Similarly, Wilmeth suggests Brown would not be a good fit for a student who is really only interested in a kind of pre-professional track, who really doesn't want to explore academic work and lots of different areas. "What's great about Brown is the opportunity to try work in disciplines that are really disparate from theatre. If I meet a prospective student and all they really want to do is go into the profession after college, I'll tell them they should look at a pre-professional program. My sense is that if they visit the campus, it doesn't take them long to figure out whether or not they belong here. Our atmosphere is, I think, rather unique, and they can tell. But if a student really wants to be an actor and nothing more than that, this ain't the place for them."
Likewise, Steerman suggests that the student who shouldn't come to Vassar is the student who really wants to study absolutely nothing but the practicum aspects of theatre. "Once in a while students who want that kind of B.F.A. program will come to Vassar because the parents have forced them to come into a liberal arts context, and they will end up being quite miserable. I would say half the time we manage to break through that, and by the time the student is a junior he or she comes to understand the value of a liberal arts education."
Cary Mazer from Penn put it in a slightly different way: "If your idea of being in the profession is to be able to capitalize on your youth and looks and freshness and talent, if you want to be that next 19-year-old on a soap or in Hollywood, then maybe you shouldn't be in college at all; you should find a way to capitalize on that. But I do think artists are richer artists if they are educated people. And that goes for being educated in politics and economics, sociology and psychology, and in the sciences. We believe there are intellectual skills that are not only useful for you as an artist, but will benefit how you think as a creative artist for the rest of your life. However, if you're not sufficiently interested in the art form to care about these things, then I can't force you to do it."
When asked, "Who shouldn't go to Dartmouth," Paul Gaffney says he talks to many prospective students about this issue. "If students tell me that they want professional or pre-professional training in theatre, I tell them they would be happier elsewhere. If they are looking for the daily voice class and daily dance and movement, that's not going to happen here. But I believe that an 18-year-old person, unless truly exceptional, needs an education, and so I encourage them to think about places like Dartmouth where they will receive one."
On the other side of the coin, Gaffney reminds us, Dartmouth has produced many working theatre professionals, like Peter Hackett, Jerry Zaks, and Peter Parnell. "One reason is that Dartmouth is in the privileged position of bringing in smart students. You don't get in the front door of this place unless you've already got the smarts. Number two, we do give them a thorough and wide education‹not only in all aspects of the theatre, but in economics, psychology, biology, and lab science, so they know what the world is all about. They know how to learn, they know how to study, they have an appreciation for the bigger picture. The third factor is that they have so many production-experience opportunities; they learn so much by doing. If they are in only one play a quarter, they're going to be in 12 major productions over the course of their time here. For a college this size we have a huge department, so they can work with a lot of different people. So that when they get out they are ready to go right into the business and make a success of themselves."
Liberal Arts Theatre Majors: Still a Paradox
While all the schools we explored have slightly different approaches to the issue, the conundrum remains, as described here by James Steerman: "I believe of any theatre artist‹actor, director, writer, or designer‹that his or her art is a product of everything he or she knows about the world in which he or she lives. I also believe that necessary exploration takes place in the liberal arts experience in a way that may not be true in a B.F.A. program.
"That said, when one starts trying to study drama, we're not talking about things that simply exist in books, on paper. The play doesn't really exist until it is produced. It is quite interesting, this double-edged situation we're in. If you major in history, for instance‹unless you choose to go on and get a Ph.D.‹in most cases you're simply majoring in history because it's an exciting intellectual adventure for you. Ultimately, you may go to law school or business school, or whatever‹you're not trying to become a 'professional historian.' Whereas in these arts programs it's a little more complicated. And meeting that challenge, for a liberal arts college, is exciting, but difficult."
A frequent contributor to Back Stage, Jill Charles has taught at one of the "Little Ivies" (Williams College), and edits the biennial "Directory of Theatre Training Programs."