Theatre mainstage productions to include Spring 2017 class, students voice concerns


Maria Cardona

Theatre Department students attended an Oct. 26 forum held by Peter Carpenter, interim chair of the Theatre and Dance departments, to discuss an Oct. 19 email announcing students participating in a mainstage production in the Spring 2017 Semester must enroll in a three-credit course.  

By Campus Editor

A group of more than 30 students gathered at a forum to voice concerns and raise questions after receiving a Theatre Department email Oct. 19. The email stated that students must enroll in a course if they are cast in a mainstage production next semester. 

Peter Carpenter, interim chair of the Theatre and Dance departments, held the Oct. 26 forum in the Theatre Center, 72 E. 11th St., to answer questions about the registration requirement for the existing three-credit “Creating Performance” course in the Spring 2017 Semester. 

In the email, Carpenter—who assumed the post of Theatre Department chair over the summer in addition to his role as Dance Department chair as reported Aug. 5 by The Chronicle—said mainstage productions are a valuable educational experience for students, but they require considerable resources including faculty and staff time and materials.

“The goal is to formalize this learning as an integral part of the curriculum while requiring you to prioritize working on a show the same way that you prioritize coursework for your traditional classes,” the email stated. 

Evan Szewc, a junior theatre major at the forum, mentioned that he has heard many students complain that they feel they can no longer audition for next semester’s mainstage productions because they need to fill their 16 credits with required courses and cannot afford to pay for extra credits. 

“Part of the appeal of the Columbia Theatre Department as opposed to a more conservatory-style program is that you have a certain degree of freedom in the department shows that you’re in, and you can randomly decide half-way through the semester, ‘I want to audition for this thing,’” Szewc said, adding that the requirements’ implementation will limit students’ freedom and shrink the pool of students  available for roles. 

When Szewc pressed to understand why students participating in a mainstage production would have to invest money in a for-credit course, Stephanie Shaw, senior lecturer in the Theatre Department responded by saying the previous arrangement was not realistic considering the department’s finances, and students and faculty were living in a “utopia.” 

Shaw said this is part of a need for accountability and increasing revenue in the department. 

“Theatre [courses] generate income and the playground that we had for so many years, that we loved so much, was free, [which was] because of certain permissiveness and because we didn’t have to be accountable to the higher-ups,” Shaw said. “Now, like most institutions across the country, we have to be accountable.”

Carpenter told The Chronicle that finances do play a role, and students will have to think about their choices regarding mainstage productions the same way they would when choosing other courses. 

“We’re a department of 900 students, so given our size and the deficit, we do have to be somewhat accountable to how much financial resources we’re spending on things,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter added that when the class is made a requirement—a Fall 2018 Semester goal—the department will offer enough sections and courses to meet the demand.

According to the email, seniors with more than 90 credit hours who plan to graduate in May 2016 or in December 2017 can submit a waiver request at the time of the audition to be eligible. To be granted, the waiver request would have to contain proof  that enrolling in the course would impede on the student graduating on time.

In an Oct. 28 interview with The Chronicle, Carpenter said, after a department meeting that same date, faculty decided that all students who will have completed 90 credit hours by the end of this semester can apply for the waiver.

Carpenter also added that faculty decided BFA students will not be required to enroll in the course if they are cast in a mainstage production because they only need to fulfill six electives credits.

All students who will have completed 90 credit hours by the end of this semester can apply for the waiver, he added. 

The email said similar one-credit courses focusing on actors, designers, directing  team leaders, New Stew Productions and other department productions are currently under discussion and will be announced in Spring 2017.

Carpenter said the idea to use a pre-existing course for mainstage productions was discussed last year, before he was appointed interim chair.

Megan Magensky, senior theatre and journalism double major,  said she thinks this is a positive change that would generate more income for the department. However, she added that student input would have made the change smoother. She also said the way the email was drafted made it seem like students cannot handle a full coursework plus a show, which looks like the department is “babying” students. 

Former Chair of the Theatre Department John Green said obtaining credit by participating in mainstage productions allows faculty and staff to keep track of who has worked in productions and prevents casting the same students repeatedly.

“Ideally, nobody graduates from this program without [participating] in a production,” Green said. 

Szewc said this decision limits resources and takes away learning opportunities from students.  

“Despite whatever fancy language they use, it’s students paying more of their money to participate in something, which has been a completely extracurricular [and] free resource,” Szewc said.