While some students spend their summers traveling to other countries or interning in D.C., Sam Hagen ’18 would rather work with a Tony-winning director on a new musical. He is one of eight Harvard student interns at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), a renowned theater company located at Harvard’s Loeb Drama Center. An internship with the A.R.T. is a valuable experience for any student interested in a career in the theater, and when asked if he sees himself pursuing theater professionally, Hagen responded, “If I keep finding ways to make theater doable for me, then I will keep doing it.” Lucky for Hagen, the approval of a new concentration in Theater, Dance, and Media means that undergraduates can expect to see an increase in opportunities to explore various aspects of theater and fulfill their professional aspirations.
Hagen’s passion lies in dramaturgy, which he describes as “the academic study of theater,” although he also enjoys math. Such a diverse range of interests requires a flexible curriculum, and Hagen is confident that the new concentration will allow him to design an appropriate plan of study. He is considering a joint concentration in Theater, Dance, and Media and History and Literature, along with a secondary in Mathematics. Dana Knox, Production Coordinator for Harvard theater, believes the new concentration will be able to accommodate interdisciplinary studies.
However, Hagen worries that the concentration will be a performance-based study of theater rather than a scholarly one. He points to the fact that there are few scholars at Harvard whose research focuses exclusively on theater and performance. In comparison, Yale’s Theater Studies Department faculty is made up of both theater practitioners and academics. Currently, most of the courses offered by the Committee on Dramatic Arts are practice-based—Beginning Acting, Acting Shakespeare, and Directing are among the courses currently listed on the Committee’s website. Meanwhile, the English Department offers courses that take a scholarly approach to theater, such as A History of Western Drama, Contemporary American Playwrights, and Political Theatre and the Structure of Drama.
Members of the English Department are working with the Committee to create the new concentration, so it is very likely that students will be able to pursue a more theory-based course of study if they wish. All of the aforementioned English courses will be counted for concentration credit, as will some courses in African and African American Studies, Classical Studies, and Romance Languages. These will supplement concentrators’ studio classes by providing a deeper understanding of the theoretical aspects of performance. In fact, the concentration will require at least four “critical courses,” meaning courses that provide an academic analysis of theater. It will also require students to take a course in theater history.
In addition to completing certain courses, concentrators will be required to participate in two department-run shows, which will be directed by faculty members. Some students, like Mark Mauriello ’15, think these will be a much-welcomed addition to the current Dramatic Arts curriculum. “Classes can be as hands-on and practical as possible, but you learn so much going through the experience of a full production,” he said. Others, like Lelaina Vogel ’15, are concerned about how this will affect student directors. “Quite frankly, there is a limited number of performance spaces on campus,” she noted. “Will concentration shows be held to the same standards that non-concentration shows are in applying for space? Or are they going to have guaranteed space?” Knox confirmed that the department intends to use Farkas Hall for concentration productions, which could potentially take away a slot from a student-directed show. Because Farkas is one of the few spaces with a built-in orchestra pit, this is especially concerning for students who wish to direct musicals.
Perhaps the biggest question regarding the new concentration is how it will impact student-run theater. Currently, the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC), which describes itself as the “umbrella organization for campus theater,” is responsible for selecting directors and organizing the audition process. The executive board is made up entirely of undergraduates, and there is relatively little faculty oversight. According to Knox, this is not likely to change. “We haven’t talked about any formalized mentorship from faculty,” he said. “Yes, there will be more interaction with students and faculty, but that is not meant to take anything away from the student-led nature of the HRDC. I think that students will just feel more of a presence of faculty and staff at their shows.” As a member of the HRDC Board, Jake Stepansky ’17 has felt quite involved in the process of forming this new concentration. He told the HPR, “The administration has been fantastic about reaching out to us. We’ve been to every meeting. We’ve been there every time they all sat down and said, ‘What is theater on campus? How can we play a role?’”
Stepansky, an experienced sound designer, is particularly excited about the inclusion of technical training in the concentration. The HRDC’s current “tech req” system requires all actors performing in either the Loeb Experimental Theater or on the Loeb Mainstage to commit ten hours of technical assistance to another show in the Loeb. Even with this requirement, Stepansky points out that there is a disproportionately low number of theater technicians within the HRDC compared to the number of productions that go up each term. Typically, the HRDC puts up over twenty shows in a semester, and most shows have at least ten technicians. Thus, it is not uncommon for designers and stage managers to staff two or more shows per semester. With the new concentration, however, students will be required to complete “appropriate training for operating light boards and other theater machinery,” making them more well-rounded theater artists and, hopefully, providing Harvard theater with the technical support it needs.
The concentration will also require students to participate in two non-departmental productions. This requirement is intended to “ensure a close collaboration between the concentration and extra-curricular theater groups,” and it will no doubt help uphold the long-standing tradition of student-created theater at Harvard. Mauriello, who recently graduated with a special concentration in Theater Arts and Performance, hopes the concentration will encourage students to develop their own work. “I think making my own work was an important part of my education,” he said. “For my senior project, I had a great opportunity to develop my own show and have it be a fairly large-scale professional premier.” His project, OSCAR at The Crown and the love that dare not speak its name, was performed at OBERON, a professional theater space owned by the A.R.T.
But between student-created shows and department productions, Stepansky worries that there may not be sufficient rehearsal space on campus. Student productions usually rehearse either in the Loeb or Farkas, and since the HRDC shares Loeb rehearsal rooms with the A.R.T., there is already a limited amount of space. With the new concentration, Knox said that Farkas would be used as the primary space for classes. This might not present a huge problem, since classes generally take place during the daytime and productions rehearse at night. However, if space does become an issue, perhaps HRDC productions will increasingly rehearse in the SOCH or other common areas.
There is still some uncertainty surrounding the new Theater, Dance, and Media concentration, but as it continues to develop, there is no doubt that students will play a large role in shaping it. It will certainly provide a unique opportunity for those interested in pursuing theater professionally. And for those who don’t? Stepansky says, “I think it’s very important that theater stay fun. Just have fun.”
Image Credit: Guan Chen