Southwestern’s Theatre Department Prospers With New Approaches to Recruitment and Retention
- ©2016 Lance Holt
The curtain is up for new directions at Southwestern University’s Theatre Department. By taking new, rigorous approaches to theatre major requirements, the department is simultaneously making the degree even more relevant in the outside world, while deepening and broadening graduates’ grasps of all aspects of theatre studies, including technical theatre, history, performance, management, and design.
The program’s deliberate steps include growing the number of incoming theatre-major students. The result? “In 16 years, we’ve never had freshmen enrollment this large,” said Desi Roybal, associate professor of theatre. In addition to increasing the number of theatre majors, Southwestern is very amenable to double majors and non-majors taking theatre classes and participating in productions. “We’re very pro double major as a way for students to expand themselves and their viewpoints,” said Laura Sewell ’95, a theatre and sociology major, and now manager of the Sarofim School of Fine Arts administration at Southwestern. “The program is a fantastic stepping stone to a lot of career options after graduation.”
Tristin Evans, Class of 2019, came to Southwestern as a business major who intended to participate in theatre as a non-major. Instead, she’s now pursuing a double major. “I realized I wanted theatre to be a more serious pursuit,”
Evans said, noting that the double major positions her for careers in both the business and performance aspects of theatre. Evans is excited to see the large numbers of incoming theatre majors. “The more people you have, the more you can do. Recruiting and growing the department gives us more resources.” She also loves how SU enables her to stretch from acting to stage management to other aspects of production. “The major allows a lot of room to make it about what you want to do.”
Artistic focus is a hallmark. “The reason we’ve been very successful in recruiting is that we have a BA, but we’ve been able to keep alive the spirit of a BFA program, the cohort spirit of people who are like-minded and want to focus on their art,” said Sergio Costola, department chair and associate professor.
This community is nourished beginning in the students’ first year, when they enroll in theatre major-only, core classes that help them choose two focus areas from performance; design; directing and stage management; or history, dramaturgy, and critical analysis. “We are looking to produce theatre artists, rather than an actor or a designer,” Costola said. “By the time students graduate, they are proficient in their area but have developed other skills as well.”
A digital portfolio program in its second year has each student curate a collection of personal work as they move through their courses. By graduation, the portfolio stands as a solid record of accomplishment for graduate school or job applications. Students start building portfolios their first year, and each must successfully present it to a faculty advisor at the end of sophomore year before proceeding as a major. The portfolio includes requirements within the major, culminating in a capstone project that includes a presentation and a relevant, reworked paper that doesn’t necessarily come from a theatre class. The writing requirement reflects the department’s and University’s overall emphasis on graduating students who are effective writers and communicators.
Meanwhile, Company — a class that enables students to bridge theory and practice—brings them together at the undergraduate level with theoretical reflection about productions; networking with professionals and theatre major alumni in a variety of fields; and participating in master classes.
Recent visitors include Jonathan Knipscher ’03, a successful, New Yorkbased costume designer for stage and film. Cathy Bencivenga ’04, executive manager of education and community engagement at the Alley Theatre, Houston, informally met with small groups of theatre students twice in 2016, once with a stage-management class and once with theatre majors.
“I visited with them about my current experience and the evolution of my career into my current position, as well as to offer advice and answer questions they might have,” Bencivenga said. “In both instances, I got a lot of great questions.”
Bencivenga also communicated the value of a degree in the arts. “There are millions of people working in the arts in all kinds of capacities. It’s a multi-billion-dollar contributor to the economy.” Theatre majors have also found their skills and knowledge highly applicable in fields ranging from law to teaching to business. Bencivenga strongly recommended that other SU grads consider paying a visit to current students, even by just calling ahead if they plan to be in the area. “It takes a tiny amount of time and it’s very helpful to the students,” she added.
Junior year, the class together chooses a show to produce the following spring as a senior project. Along the way are four main-stage productions and several smaller shows every year.
Theatre major graduates “are going to leave Southwestern with a broad set of skills,” Roybal said, noting that in addition to the robust scope of theatre-related education that students gather, the major instills abilities including leadership, management, experience in finding creative solutions, and executing projects on a budget.
The department also flourishes as a part of Southwestern’s liberal arts story. “We’ve applied the theory of liberal arts education to the theatre department itself,” Costola said, an approach facilitated by the multidisciplinary nature of theatre.
From a curricular standpoint, “Students are making intentional connections and selecting classes that make sense to their overall education as theatre artists,” said Kerry Bechtel, past department chair and associate professor. A student in costume design “might be thinking about art history courses, or taking a social problems course that reflects gender disparity, and looking at how clothing keeps people in certain social roles,” she added. “It makes the student understand that their education isn’t compartmentalized. It’s all connected.”
To encourage new theatre majors, “Our fine arts departments all have scholarships that they choose to award based on both academic and artistic talent,” said Christine Kettle Bowman ’93, dean of enrollment services. “We started this recruitment cycle meeting with chairs of the Fine Arts divisions to discuss ways in which we could collaborate and support the recruitment effort in the arts. It is easy to promote a program that develops professional artists, but also embraces the liberal arts and allows non-majors to be involved as well.”
By Anne Heinen