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Casting a major: The success of Georgetown’s theater department

November 15, 2012


“When I came here, we had four co-curricular theater groups, [which] were doing anywhere from eight to 10 shows a year—that is an extraordinary amount of activity for a university of our size,” said Ted Parker, a retired theater professor who came to Georgetown in 1999. “A friend of my father’s was a theater professor at [a small college]. They had about 10 people in their faculty. They did four shows a year, and they thought that was about all they could handle.”

When the Department of Theater and Performance Studies was established at Georgetown in 2006, it was well over 100 years after the founding of student theater groups. Because of this dynamic, the Department was required to take a different approach to drama pedagogy. Even though Georgetown had produced comedic and dramatic greats such as Mike Birbiglia (COL ‘00) and Bradley Cooper (COL ‘97), no formal curricular program existed to support their pursuits.

With only seven full-time faculty and seven additional adjunct and visiting faculty members, Georgetown’s Theater Department and co-curricular student groups, combined, are planning to put on a total of 10 performances for the 2012-2013 academic year. While the Theater Department only graduates an average of 15 majors per year, hundreds of students more participate in these productions.

“I think there was a big fear that we were going to take out the co-curricular [groups]—’I think!’—I know! I know there was a big fear,” said Maya Roth, Chair of the Department of Performing Arts. “And I promised that I would not, and we have not.”

Years after the establishment of Georgetown’s major in Theater and Performance studies, theater groups at Georgetown have excelled with the support of a core of dedicated theater faculty. In turn, student theater groups have enriched the Department to create an even more energetic theater scene.

“The vibrancy, the independence, the strength of [the co-curricular groups] was a vital part of theater at Georgetown’s campus. And now, student groups are just as vital as they always were,” Parker said. “And now we’re up to anywhere between 11 and 14 productions a year, including the theater program.”

“It’s pretty extraordinary,” Roth said. “Since we started the major, we have been getting buzz, and it’s partly because we’re doing things differently and so that attracts attention. … I’ve had professionals coming from D.C. theater to see the shows I direct—you don’t usually have that.”

For a school whose academic theater program is only seven years old, it is remarkable that earlier this year Georgetown’s Department of Theater and Performance Studies was ranked second among theater programs at American universities outside of New York by Backstage, a national drama trade magazine. The only school ranked superior was Augsburg College, a small school in Minnesota.

What made this external praise all the more surprising was that the program achieved this status lacking the traditional ingredients for performing arts success: capital and personnel. “What we didn’t have is a lot of money, or a lot of people,” Roth said, adding that the Department made up for it “in terms of a kind of talent and distinctive approach.”

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The beginnings of an academic theater program at Georgetown date back about 12 years, when the Middle States Commission of Higher Education found the University lacking in the arts.

“The Middle States Review process … found in 2000 that Georgetown lagged behind other comparable schools with regard to the arts. Among our peer schools (e.g. research universities such as Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford as well as … academically-strong Catholic institutions such as Boston College, University of San Francisco, and Catholic University), we were the only one not to have degree programs in Theater and in Music,” Roth wrote in an email to the Voice. “That was fairly damaging in the campus review, for it suggested a relative disregard of both the arts in and of themselves—and as windows onto the liberal arts.”

Since then, the University realigned its priorities to better support the visual and performing arts. In the same time period, both Studio Art and Music were added as majors as well, and more of the University’s space and resources were dedicated to the arts.

According to Ted Parker, the theater faculty in 1999 consisted of just two people. Georgetown’s first step was to hire a professor specifically to oversee the creation of a devoted department.

“In response, Georgetown immediately committed to growing theater and music, specifically, and the arts more broadly,” Roth wrote. “I was hired in response to that, for example, and part of my hire was to steward the growth of the major, a core faculty cadre, and the Davis [Performing Arts] Center.”

While Dr. Roth remains modest about her accomplishments, Dr. Parker extols her role. To the question of what lead to the fast growth of the Department, Parker immediately responded: “I can answer that in two words: Maya Roth.” According to him, “The vision she has for a theater major and for a theater program and her rigorous adherence to that vision” is largely responsible for the major’s success.

The major in Theater and Performance Studies rejects typical notions of what a theater major should teach. It forgoes the model in which theater students pick a specific major—acting, set design, playwriting, film, or dance—and instead requires them to wade through the various disciplines of drama coupled with the College liberal arts requirements.

“We’ve had a lot of students transferring here from [New York University’s] Tisch [School of the Arts], partly that’s because we are liberal arts and we let you take more electives. It’s also because we’re not so regimented. That’s very Georgetown,” Roth explained. “It’s precisely because we cross over. The way in which we’re mentoring individual trajectories and having these touchstone courses that everyone takes encourages crossing. So if we were a factory and a conservatory program, we wouldn’t be doing that.”

Theater majors have found that the emphasis on wide-ranging study informs all aspects of their performance and teaches them skills that they would not have learned at other schools.

“Our department’s focus on performance studies is what sets us apart from most programs. It’s something we share with only a few other schools in the country. Here’s the way I think of it: the pedagogical goals of most theater programs are largely craft-oriented. They’re trying to churn out the best actors, directors, designers possible from a technical point of view,” said Justin McCarthy (COL ’13), a senior TPST major who is writing a play as part of his senior thesis project.

“Our program takes a theoretical step back from that and asks, ‘Why are we making theater in the first place, how can we learn from it, and how can it help people?’” he said. “In conservatory programs, for the most part, you’re really not allowed to engage seriously in academic study that doesn’t directly concern theater.”

Other students say the major’s reliance on both theory and practice informs them in a critical artistic point of view which other programs ignore. “I think Georgetown is the perfect balance because you get learn how to really think critically but you still get the training that you need,” said Elizabeth Helmer (COL’13), a senior TPST major. “I think that’s a really good balance that I don’t think every program has.”

While other theater departments across the country may excel in specific aspects of art, the institutions do not let their faculty and students cross disciplinary boundaries. The frustration with this divide has brought a few lauded names in the theatrical field to the University.

Originally from Australia, Christine Evans entered the Georgetown faculty this fall as an assistant professor, having previously held a position as Briggs-Copeland lecturer at Harvard University. Her works have been featured internationally at the Playbox Theater in the United Kingdom, and she has received numerous awards for her playwriting and directing.

Evans joined the faculty at Georgetown to take advantage of the Department’s unique approach. “I think the program at Georgetown is tremendously exciting. It’s singular in having an artist-scholar mix in its focus, so that there’s equal focus on critical work and creative work,” she said. “That really fits my background, because I have the academic interest on the theoretical side, but I am also a practicing artist.”

Not only does Georgetown merge the creative and the theoretical, but the academic Department also connects directly to the student groups.

“Harvard was wonderful, but my focus there was really all about playwriting and building a program for playwrights, and I wanted to work a little more widely. So this gives me a greater opportunity to do that,” Evans said. “Playwriting classes weren’t connected to a theater program because Harvard doesn’t have a theater major. It has a huge extracurricular theater scene, but there isn’t the connection with academic courses.”

Theater groups traditionally start up in opposition to the exclusivity of the department shows. Many schools only allow majors to participate in department productions, and, even then, they disallow freshmen from auditioning. The productions at Georgetown take the exact opposite approach; anyone is allowed to audition for any performance, and theater groups regularly put on co-productions with the Department.

“At a lot of schools, you have to be a major to audition. Our auditions are open to anyone across campus. We can do that because there’s so much theater happening on this campus,” Roth said. “Undergrads don’t tend to get access to resources in the way that Georgetown students do.”

At other schools, the model is for students to work their way up the department chain, and only later in their career would be able to star in or direct a play of their own. At Georgetown, however, students are able to work in productions as early as freshman year, and direct multiple plays.

At the same time, selectivity connotes prestige, and letting all students participate in a single program might hurt the reputation of Georgetown Theater in the eyes of onlookers. Roth does not see it that way; to her, auditions serve the purpose of acquiring the best people for each part.

“If you’re taking a class, that doesn’t mean you’ll be in a show. The [best] do rise in the top,” Roth said. “So the co-curricular theater, in a way, makes it easier for us to not to have to take care of casting everybody. For the students who want to go on in the field, your best course is moving across the clubs and us or having us as your home, but we’re able to work with the students who are most rigorous because that’s who bubbles up.”

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While theater allows students a way to express themselves on stage, Hoyas generally tend to value practicability over the arts. Students, however, have found ways to incorporate the competitive Georgetown culture into their work often use the skills that they learned in theater to inform their lives after college.

“I can see how people sometimes perceive that because we are at Georgetown, we are being churned out as politicians, as lawyers, as foreign service officers, as doctors, and as businessmen,” said Swedian Lie (COL ’13), a senior theater major. “But what I love most about theater, and about Georgetown, is that Georgetown students are so very rarely just interested and devoted to one thing. We’re all, for better or for worse, committed to an incredible array of goals and pursuits.”

According to McCarthy, students who major in theater do not always go on to act, produce, or direct professionally, but instead use their time at Georgetown to explore contemporary issues which students care about.

“There’s always plenty of students involved in TPST who plan to take a more traditionally ‘Georgetown’ professional route after graduation,” McCarthy said. “We’re always trying to make theater that captures Georgetown’s distinctive qualities—our international identity, our culture of commitment to social justice, etc. We want to engage the student body and make art that people at Georgetown care about—if that means we’re gonna put on a play about Credit Suisse, we will!”

Other productions try to engage the Georgetown community by bringing up social and political issues. As part of the production for the play Faraway, on which theater major Alice Cash (COL ‘13) worked as assistant director, the producers staged weeklong demonstrations in attempt to spark dialogue among the play’s attendees and Georgetown students as a whole.

“It’s all about war, and it’s this dystopian society where these people are forced to make hats for political prisoners who were about to be executed. What we did after the show is that we had a talk back each night where we actually engaged the community,” Cash said. “Different Georgetown students would wear a hat each night and walk in this parade-like fashion on the stage and afterwards we would have a discussion [about what the play meant].”

Even more fundamentally, the theater program teaches students both the acuity of thinking on the spot, as in a production, and offers them a way to express themselves in a medium that is interactive.

“Maybe it doesn’t prepare them for running analyses at Goldman Sachs, but it prepares them for an interview and being able to think on the ball, or prepares them to deal with something that they’re going through in life,” Helmer said. “Even though some people say theater isn’t practical, I would say it’s the most practical, because it prepares you for what other classes here don’t prepare you for.”

Even after participants in Georgetown’s theater programs leave the Hilltop, members of the Theater Department insist that thinking will be one of the most important skills they carry on as they pursue various career paths.

“Imagination is so critical for civic engagement. The world is changing so quickly, you can’t prepare for a field and expect that it’s going to be the same when you graduate, let alone in 10 years,” Roth said. “You need the ability to imagine, to work with groups, to create projects, and to engage fields and research using a range of modalities. Theater is imminently prepared to help people with that.”

Editor’s Note: The story initially reported that the Theater Department alone was planning on putting on 10 shows. In the 2012-2013 academic year, theater groups and the Department combined plan on putting on ten shows. The story has been edited to reflect this fact.


Connor Jones
Connor Jones is the former editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Voice. Before that, he edited its blog, Vox Populi and the features section. He was a double major in mathematics and economics and is from Atlanta, Ga. He can be reached at cjones@georgetownvoice.com.


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