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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."


  • Actors doing commercials? A consummation devoutly to be wished! Let's not forget that actors gotta eat, and getting a gig in a commercial is usually a lot more lucrative than waiting tables. Perhaps the main reason actors give up their profession, expecially after the age of 40, is purely economic. The luckiest actor is the one who takes the money and runs...back to the stage.

    "'Tis Pity She/He's a Whore," is hardly the correct judgment to make in this case. Besides, some of the best acting moments around are seen in TV commercials. The first and most recent example that comes to mind is the mother in the last scene of the "Spaghetti Jimmy" commercial for VISA. Or the mother and son in the car in the AT&T "Rollover Minutes" commercial - it's a take worthy of Meryl Streep.

    By Anonymous Gary Carr, At May 15, 2009 at 4:25 PM  

  • thanks for your thoughts, Gary
    I have no objection to actors making a living. writers have to do it too, you know.
    it's just that I've seen too many thespians forsake the theatre completely for the small screen. which i think is a shame.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At May 15, 2009 at 5:12 PM  

  • Does the thespian forsake the theatre, or is it the other way around? We probably know a raft of very talented people who finally leave the theatre for economic reasons. Very few are lucky enough (economically) to leave for the small screen. Most leave to take "regular" 9-5 jobs, usually after marriage, the first child, and a house outside the urban core. The lucky ones of this bunch can still dabble in theatre as a hobby. (Nothing wrong with keeping the dream alive.) They do what they gotta do in this country where actors and other artists are too often treated like wastrels. But there's always a brighter side - at least they're not working for a Chrysler dealership.

    By Anonymous Gary Carr, At May 15, 2009 at 6:53 PM  

  • Thanks for posting on this topic. I hope you'll be able to write more about this in print somewhere. I know several actors who went to SF State after City College, where I met them. For several years I've thought someone should write about the local college theatre programs, which are almost totally under the radar. You might also want to check on CCSF. Some of the people I met in a class, running tech or acting in a show out there in the 90's include: Jason Craig of Banana, Bag & Bodice, Erin Merritt of Woman's Will, Vikki Krekler went on to SF State and works at the Guthrie, Karla Acosta also went on to SF State and works for Kaiser's Educational Theatre program, Lisa Schreiner is PR Director at Dallas Children's Theater, Karl Hanover is equity and living in NY (did the best Iago I've ever seen, in Philly) and Cheryl Smith is currently doing a fabulous job in Frankie & Johnny at the EXIT, which you should check out if you can.

    By Blogger Tom, At May 17, 2009 at 2:29 AM  

  • Thanks Tom for your thoughts.
    so many people doing great work.
    are you based in New York these days? i'll be in town from May 24-29...

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At May 17, 2009 at 7:00 AM  

  • are you based in New York these days? i'll be in town from May 24-29...

    Do you plan on seeing any shows while you're there?

    By Anonymous Patch, At May 18, 2009 at 7:33 AM  

  • yes indeed. at least a couple. more if i have time.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At May 18, 2009 at 7:54 AM  

  • I'm in New Jersey, unfortunately. I'd offer to meet while you're there but I can't get home from NY at night during the week. My car is in Oakland and there's no train service to my town in NJ after about 9:00 weekdays. Yes, there are lots of people doing great work, but you noticed that some were coming out of SF State, which as far as I know has no rep for theatre, even locally, and CCSF even less. If I get a car in NJ before you get there I'll let you know and I'll be back in SF for a week in July. Have a good trip.

    By Blogger Tom, At May 18, 2009 at 9:50 PM  

  • I’d evaluate the people of to ascertain that too!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 19, 2009 at 5:16 PM  

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