From Pedagogy to Professionalism
May 15, 2009
Theatre departments work to attract students by claiming that they will be more easily able to launch professional careers in the theatre if they do an undergraduate or masters degree in theatre at their schools. But it's been my observation that the schools don't generally equip students for the professional world in a very inspiring way. There exists a huge chasm between BA and MA theatre programs and the business of putting on theatrical productions in the real world. Most of the people who studied acting at Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training the year I attended the program as a dramaturgy student have either given up acting completely or work primarily in commercials / treat theatre as a minor hobby. Very few actually still put the making of plays at the center of their lives.
One school based in the region where I live, San Francisco State, seems to be bucking this trend. The sheer number of alumni from the school who not only continue to make theatre but also continue to do so in the Bay Area often in collaboration with other SF State graduates is formidably high. And much of the work being produced both in the program itself and out in the professional theatre world is of a high quality or at the very least conceptually interesting.
The upcoming production of Faust, Part I at Shotgun Players in Berkeley is a case in point. The Goethe adaptation was written by and SF State grad, Mark Jackson (pictured above, left). Nearly half of the cast and crew are either SF State Theatre Arts students, faculty or alumni. Professor Joan Arhelger is the production's lighting designer, and alum Nina Ball is the set designer. Current students involved in "Faust, Part I" are Dara Yazdani (actor, as Student/Valentin), Matt Stines (sound designer), Michelle Smith (stage manager), Ashley Costa (sound board operator/assistant stage manager) and Krista Smith (lighting assistant).
Several professional theatre groups past and present have come out the university. These include Jackson's own company Art Street Theatre, Misery Loves Company and Wit's End.
So what is it about SF State's program that makes it bridge the pedagogical-professional divide so well -- a feat that seems particularly remarkable in a city that's not particularly artist-friendly because of the extremely high cost of living? Professor Yukihiro (Yuki) Goto, Chair and Professor
of the Department of Theatre Arts (pictured above right) has this to say on the matter:
"Building a bridge between our program's theatre education and professional theatre community (particularly the Bay Area's professional theatre community) is one of the department's missions and is therefore an integral part of our curriculum. For instance, we offer several independent study courses, through which our acting, directing, managing, and technical theatre students can earn university credits while working or interning in their respective professional companies. Many of our teachers are also professionally active. They make conscious efforts to provide students with professional opportunities, going beyond what our department can offer. To name a few -- Larry Eilenberg (Magic Theatre), Joan Arhelger (Lighting, SF Opera), John Wilson (Scenic, San Jose Rep), Todd Roehrman (Costume, SF Shakespeare), Barbara Damashek (Acting, Magic Theatre), Yuki Goto (Acting, Theatre of Yugen), Roy Conboy (Playwriting, Esperanza Theatre), Bill Peters (Directing, Santa Cruz Shakespeare)."
Jackson's own experiences at SF State, where he graduated more than a decade ago, also point to a high degree of practical immersion in the professional world, though more through the act of self-sufficiency than anything else:
"At SF State you had to make your own opportunities," Jackson recently told me. "It's no coincidence that many small theatre companies come out of State. As a director, I also did tech and design for my shows. There were afternoon showcases and I did several of those. There was also a brown bag theatre company class. Faculty supervisors selected a handful of directors to create their own companies and stage two shows in the school's 50-seat black box theatre. I had to do everything myself."