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New theatre agenda annoys Drew students

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Drew’s DOYO where Theatre majors study and perform. (Photo by Louis Annenberg)

Drew’s DOYO where Theatre majors study and perform. (Photo by Louis Annenberg)

A mere three years ago, Drew’s theatre department was ranked as the top in the country by the Princeton Review. The year after that-–in 2011-–the department was ranked second best. This time around, the Princeton Review has ranked the program seventh best in the country after being surpassed by schools like Yale and Sarah Lawrence. A look into the curriculum of a theatre major may hold the answer to this sudden drop in ratings.

According to theatre majors, there have been some recent changes made to the curriculum. Theatre major Ruby Hankey (’13) noticed that the changes being made have been more practical opposed to artistic, meaning mainly changes in the general requirements.

When she first came to Drew as a freshman, there was no Capstone. Now, theatre majors must take two semesters of capstone–one during the spring of junior year and another their final semester senior year where they put together a final project. After the Capstone was added to the curriculum, it started to count as one of the department’s ‘sets.’ Drew puts on four sets of shows a semester, with the next set consisting of two one-act plays that are being student-directed. This is a positive and important change because it “brings together all aspects of theatre and gives students a chance to appreciate each others’ art,” said Sarah Petry (’14), who, like Hankey, has been involved in the department since her freshman year. Hankey said that the Capstone project is “of utmost importance because the seniors finish off their education with a cumulative project encompassing all the things they’d been learning.”

In the past, students have had the chance to direct during the fourth set, an opportunity that has been exchanged for the Capstone project. Some students have been upset by this in the past because the Capstone being counted as a set means that there is one fewer position for students concentrating on directing.

Chair of the Theatre & Dance department Rosemary McLaughlin acknowledges that students have made complaints about this, but she points out that students who have chosen to direct for their Capstone project in recent years have created original pieces, earned the opportunity to take their work to New York or to take part in theatre festivals. “Original work is something we as a department do best. We encourage student initiative,” McLaughlin said proudly. A frustration of many majors was described by Molly Porter (’15) concerning the small-cast shows that Drew has been choosing in conjunction with repetitive casting. Porter suggested that “it might simply be that the department has gotten so big that it’s harder to get cast now.” The problem is that there are theatre majors who are halfway through their college career who haven’t had adequate stage time and are therefore unprepared after graduation.

“There’s only so much that doing scenes in class can do… clearly there are steps that need to be taken to accommodate the larger department so that more people can have stage time,” quoted Porter. Additionally, Sarah Petry’s wish is to have more variety in the shows produced. While she was thrilled when Drew did A Raisin in the Sun last semester, she would very much like if students “could have more flexibility in choice of shows. Sometimes it can be very hard for a student director to get their play of choice approved.

Other changes in the department include small logistical changes, like the fact that students are now required to log a certain number of shop hours. In previous years, students were allowed to count any mix of theatrical contributions towards their practical credits, whether these hours be from stage-managing, acting, design or directing. However, students are now required to earn at least one of their credits from shop hours. Similarly, the department used to require three semesters of Theatre History. However, complaints of curriculum changes haven’t pervaded the entire system. Due to the repetitive interference of students wishing to take part in the London Semester, Theatre History 3 – which was the most writing and time-intensive according to Hankey – is no longer a requirement for the major. This is a positive change because, as McLaughlin pointed out, the students who still choose to take Theatre History 3 are those who really want to be there, as opposed to those who are forced to attend the class. In addition, it provides a better schedule for students who wish to apply to the London semester, which a number of theater majors opt for.

In response to the rankings, McLaughlin also gave her opinion on the school’s latest number. “I think  that it’s a nice thing to have that number one spot… but we always take [the rankings] with a grain of salt,” she said. “The Princeton Review” does annual surveys for those who care to fill them out, but neither of the interviewed students had been asked specifically about their theatre experience. In short, the survey participants may not have given the entire story, skewing the result.

“Coy” is the word that McLaughlin chose to describe the ranks, claiming that the results are often based on how popular theatre is at each individual school. “No member of the ‘Princeton Review’ comes to see any of Drew’s productions, they don’t sit in on classes or talk to students,” she said. Despite a small drop in rank, Drew remains one of the best schools for theatre nationally, and the reputation has grown steadily since the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts (DoYo) opened ten years ago.

McLaughlin reported that on a positive note, more kids are doing internships, and the department has a strong alumni connection through both social media and word of mouth. In addition, professors occasionally bring in outside evaluators to see how classes are run and enjoy the shows to make sure the school is up to par. “I don’t worry about rank as much as standards,” McLaughlin said.  While no one can know for sure if the “Princeton Review” took these curriculum changes into account when they ranked Drew, students have definitely responded to the change in requirements over the years.

Hankey, who looks back on her years with the theatre department as both very positive and stimulating, approves the idea of instituting a mandatory portfolio that students will add to throughout their college years and beyond. This is a brand new requirement for newly-declared majors, which she believes is a good thing to have anyway if one plans to advance in the theatre industry.

To sum it up, McLaughlin mentioned: “We rely more on the comments of people who have actually seen our productions and our classroom work. Whether it’s our peers or returning alumni or award-winning, professional actors, directors and designers (such as Anne Kauffman, Lisa Kron, Gh’ail Rhodes) who come to work with us, and tell us how impressed they are with our students and the work that we do. Many have encouraged us to invite them back or to use them as references to invite other professionals to create theatre with us.” Drew plans on keeping the bar high by remaining motivated and innovative each season.