Long-time department chairs step down

By Lauren Kelly

Since its days as a small commuter college with a student population only in the hundreds, Columbia has grown to be recognized nationally as a destination for the arts community. Areas of study continue to expand and evolve as the cultural landscape changes, adapting to innovations.

For more than 20 years, chairs Sheldon Patinkin and Dennis Rich have witnessed this transformation and taken part in the evolution of their departments. After their long tenure, both Patinkin and Rich will be stepping down from their posts in late June, leaving a legacy and countless accomplishments to the college.

Patinkin, who took the post of chair in the Theater Department in 1979, has seen both the college and his department grow in numbers and ambition.

As a founder of Second City Chicago and a respected figure with a longstanding reputation in the theater community, Patinkin has been the main force in establishing the credibility of the Theater Department.

“Sheldon has shepherded in an incredibly talented department and has done an amazing job,” said Eliza Nichols, dean of the school of Fine and Performing Arts. “I think he feels ready to retire from that job, that he’s done everything he set out to do.”

When Patinkin took the position, the Theater and Music departments were combined with a total of just 80 students enrolled. Thirty years later, there are many concentrations making up the Theater Department with more than 800 students studying in the field.

“What pleases me is that we are considered locally, and at this point nationally, on par with Northwestern and DePaul, which, when we started, didn’t even acknowledge we existed,” Patinkin said.

Under his leadership, the Theater Department created a Musical Theater Performance concentration, which more than 150 students declared as their concentration in 2008.

“We had always done a musical within the main season [of performances] for years, but there was no formal education for it,” said Brian Shaw, associate chair of the Theater Department. “The demand seemed to be there, so we started to develop a musical theater major that is interdisciplinary between [the] Theater and Music departments.”

Patinkin was also the main force behind the creation of the Comedy Studies program, a partnership with the Second City, a legendary theater company that focuses on improvisation, situational comedy and physical comedy. The program allows students to spend a semester at the theater company for college credit.

Patinkin, a founder and alumnus of Second City Chicago, and author of Second City: Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater, has actively worked to cultivate relationships between Chicago-based theaters and performance groups and


“Chicago is probably the strongest theater community in the country, even stronger than New York, although obviously less prestigious,” Shaw said. “He’s really seen it change from a very Chicago-focused institution into a regional, then a national, now an international institution. The Chicago connection is very strong, and I do think Sheldon has consciously built that into the faculty hiring.”

In the past, Patinkin has taught directing as well as History of American Musical Theater, for which he wrote the text.

Although he is stepping down from his position as chair, he is not leaving the college. He will come back as chair emeritus after a year-long sabbatical to teach in the department and work on creating a graduate level program in Comedy Studies.

Rich will also be continuing his career at Columbia after he steps down from his position as chair of the Arts, Entertainment, and Media Management Department. He has acted in the position since the spring semester of 1991 and has seen the formation and expansion of many new concentrations in the department, including Sports Management, Fashion Retail Management and Entrepreneurship.

Rich said the world of arts management and fundraising has changed and is continuing to evolve since he took the job as chair.

“Music business has undergone profound changes in the time I’ve been here, and it continues to,” he said. “The curriculum has kept up with the times. Sometimes it’s not a matter of adding new courses but revising, revamping and revitalizing the curriculum.”

A valuable program that has developed under his leadership, called Context in Practice, is part of the curriculum for management students. Those looking to focus on a specific industry to manage will often take courses in the department related to that industry. Therefore, an aspiring music business manager would take Intro to Music Theory, and a student interested in theater management would take basic acting courses.

“We want our students to understand the art form that he or she wants to manage, both emotionally and kinesthetically,”

Rich said.

Although no one has officially been chosen to replace him, Rich said he hopes the person who is selected is “someone who loves the department as much as I do.”

Replacing Patinkin in the Theater Department will be Dr. John Green, who is currently holding the position of chair in the Department of Theatre at Butler University in Indianapolis. He was chosen by a unanimous vote from a pool of almost 100 qualified applicants, Nichols said.

“I think where John Green will take it to the next step, in terms of the department, is his international perspective on theater,” she said. “I think what Sheldon did was really open up all of Chicago theater to Columbia College students. That’s a totally solid foundation, and at this point opening up to international theater, working in other countries and other cities is something John will really bring to the students.”

Green, who was raised and formally trained in England, has an extensive background and interest in international and European-style theater, something Columbia is starting to engage in.

“[Sheldon] is a legend,” Green said. “I’m not stepping into his shoes so much as sitting at his desk. Sheldon has brought us to this point. Now how do we want to develop into the future? How do we want to answer the question of what is theater going to be in the 21st century? That will take many forms.”

The future of both the AEMM and Theater departments will evolve with the industries, perhaps going into unexpected


“You never know when you hire someone exactly in which direction it will go,” Shaw said.

Columbia continues to add to its curriculum, creating new disciplines and innovating the arts.

“I’m excited by the energy and vitality of the faculty and the enthusiasm of the students,” Green said. “It’s a very exciting time to be coming to Columbia. I’m really thrilled and honored.”