Greater Opportunities: Theatre Department Reforms

Due to concerns about the quality of performances, the Theatre Department opted this term to eliminate drama labs, student-directed productions performed in Steinbach Theater. In addition, the Department has renamed theater classrooms – productions performed in the Evans DeFelice Theater Classroom – drama labs. Instructor in Theatre Mark Efinger and Theater Producers Lisa Donchak ’06, Emma Dorsey ’06 and Danny Silk ’07 made the decision to alter the format of the theatre productions in general. Over the past two years, performance opportunities for each term included a faculty-directed show and one to two student-directed drama labs in the Steinbach Theater, which were larger productions than the theater classrooms. There were also Independent Project, or IP, shows, which did not utilize Theatre Department venues but were often guided by faculty advising. Finally, student directors had the opportunity to organize theater classrooms, shows that took place in the Evans DeFelice Theater Classroom. However, this year the options per term are limited to the faculty directed Theater 520, such as this term’s “Tartuffe,” Independent Projects and drama labs, which are now performed in the Evans DeFelice Theatre Classroom. Currently, the term “Theater Classroom” no longer applies to actual productions but rather to the venue of the drama labs. The response to this decision has been positive among Theatre Department directors. At this time, all possible drama lab openings have been filled. Silk said, “This is the first time we’ve ever filled all of the spots before the term has even started.” Indeed, the Theatre Department has a firm base of both nascent and expert directors within the drama labs. Of the twelve directors who have committed to drama lab productions next term, six are veteran producers and six are new to the Theatre Department. The move to place an emphasis on the productions in the Evans DeFelice Theater Classroom came in response to fears that the quality of these performances had declined. Of their waning excellence, Donchak said, “It was an issue of quantity versus quality. The theater classrooms were basically filling a spot. We thought the shows were suffering.” Furthermore, the producers worried that the student productions in Steinbach Theater had become unpredictable. Silk said, “Do we want to have one major show each term when we don’t know how it will turn out?” Dorsey feared that “even the producers, who were supposed to know more than anyone else,” did not. The pressure of focusing the producers’ efforts on drama labs strained the amount of face-time theater classroom directors spent with producers and faculty members. Directors did not have the opportunity to learn from either the producers or the accomplished Theatre Department faculty. Moreover, the former theater classroom directors saw the performances as, according to Dorsey, “stepping stones” for inexperienced directors, who needed the guidance of producers the most. Instead of viewing the theater classrooms as an excellent opportunity to express themselves, directors saw them as “rights of passage” on the road to larger projects. “This year they [the drama lab directors] have a lot more focus,” said Silk. Donchak agreed, “We want to make participating in these shows more of a learning experience.” The producers cited examples of past success with an emphasis on involvement of producers and faculty, such as “Sister Mary,” which was celebrated as an excellent performance. The producers aim to replicate this success with further producer and faculty participation. As for other changes, the producers recommend IPs for more dedicated and experienced theater directors. Dorsey said of the IP students’ abilities to direct and produce their performances, “I think they all have our own styles.” So far, in addition to its popularity among directors, the audience has appreciated the reforms as well. Donchak observed a “repeat audience” attending the shows. Silk said, “A lot of people come to test it out and then keep coming back [to drama labs].” Dorsey celebrated the Department’s decision saying, “It’s something that people can actually wrap their minds around and commit to.” The changes within the Theatre Department have led to a tight and thoroughly organized schedule that has received positive results. As Dorsey said, the impact of these changes reduced the number of “missed opportunities” and “underdeveloped” productions that the Theatre Department generates.