SJR Column: Theatre Program, October 2013
The university experience comes with a great many important decisions: what major to choose, what courses to take, what activities to pursue, how to manage the financial burden of school, to name a few. Like most, I made those choices, too. But perhaps the best decision I made as an undergraduate had nothing whatever to do with my major. I decided to try out for a play and became, at least for a few months, Bella Manningham, whose diabolical husband was trying to drive her insane in the classic Victorian thriller, “Angel Street”. The performance won me the Best Actress award for that year; but being involved with Theatre proved far more valuable than the little plastic trophy that still sits on my bookshelf.
I was reminded of that valuable experience and how lucky I had been to attend a university with a strong Theatre program when I had a conversation recently with UIS Theatre professors Eric and Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson. They, along with their colleague, Dathan Powell, are building an intellectually vibrant and engaging Theatre program at the University of Illinois’ Springfield campus.
I asked Eric why he thought campus productions and Theatre courses, which are taken by students enrolled in all sorts of majors, are so valuable. He responded by referring first to the “universality of skills” that students develop when working on a production; skills like teamwork, collaboration, communication, creative problem solving and decision-making. Interestingly, they are the very skills that so many employers look for today when recruiting new talent.
Missy added that, through years of working with students as well as working as an actor and director, she sees the rehearsal as a laboratory; a place where perseverance, courage and discipline develop. Going “from the page to the stage,” she says, is a challenging process that involves failures and successes – a process at the end of which those engaged “do not tip over easily.”
Theatre is, of course, much more than acting. Students involved in theatre productions and courses also have opportunities to work with theatre professionals learning about and practicing playwriting, directing, stage managing, set design, construction, lighting, sound and costume design. All of these are necessary elements of a successful production and can lead, for some, to a rewarding career or avocation.
Both Eric and Missy agree that the very process of reading great dramatic literature in class or being a part of the audience for an excellent production can affect the way we think and feel about our own lives and can encourage self-examination about our values and behavior. In that way, both making and attending theatre contributes to the overall educational experience… and to becoming an educated person.
I think one of the things I appreciate most about Theatre is that, in the end, it brings people together. For any performance to happen, people have to gather together in one place and share in witnessing what the playwright intended – whether it is moving, tragic, funny, thought-provoking or simply entertaining. That wonderful gathering occurred in the UIS Studio Theatre a year ago when we shared the delight of Moliere’s Tartuffe – all 1,962 rhyming couplets of it. It will happen again in a few weeks when the UIS Theatre production of Clybourne Park, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, opens on November 8th. Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson will be directing and it’s sure to be a great night. I hope you’ll join us.
Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois Springfield