From Whole Cloth

Building a Theatre Program

Part I: The To-Do List of Champions

In 2015, the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a research-focused university with a student body of about 8,500, began offering a major in theatre. In operation as a part of the department of Communication Arts since 1996, theatre finally found its way to a major after eleven years of hard and focused work by a small faculty cohort—now including your author, hired as a tenure-track faculty earlier this year. As the major starts, the questions to answer and the to-do lists to check off are legion.

First, some context: Huntsville, Alabama is a city of about 190,000 situated in the Appalachian foothills of northeastern Alabama. It is the home of the Marshall Space and Rocket Center, which gave the US Space program its boost into outer space with the Saturn V rocket. Consequently, Huntsville became a base of operations for a wide range of technology and defense companies. In the late 1940’s, UAH opened its doors to meet the workforce needs of the city’s primary industries, and in 1969 was given autonomy as a university within the University of Alabama system.

What is the nitty-gritty of building a theatre program? What does the program value? What is its curriculum?

As a relatively young university, UAH is still growing its sense of itself as a university community with its own traditions and history. Other universities within the state have been in place since the 19th century and have built up a presence that is almost overpowering to the outside eye. With its youth as a given, UAH as an institution is actively working on establishing its identity as a home for entrepreneurial opportunity. That entrepreneurial opportunity isn’t just restricted to business, as we in the arts know well. Entrepreneurism is the spark that gives us the insight to see an opening before us and seize it, no matter the field.

In creating a theatre major in 2015, UAH signaled that it supports the growth of the arts (Music and Art already being present as majors and departments) on campus in a tangible way. Without the draw of a football team, the university needs ways to build community on campus, and ways for the city of Huntsville to connect to the university. Theatre provides a highly visible outlet for both intra- and inter-community building by keeping UAH in the public eye. It provides a variety of cultural experiences to students, some of whom may be seeing a play for the first time. As a BA, the Theatre program also has the involvement of other majors, which keeps them on campus and helps them grow beyond their comfort zones.

actress on stage
Kailey Burkhardt as Eurydice.

Huntsville is fortunate to have strong theatre programs in many of its high schools, including an arts magnet high school. By focusing on a professional training model with an emphasis on entrepreneurship, the theatre program at UAH hopes to capitalize on the strengths already present in the community and recruit local students to its program, bolstering the major cohort. In the hoped for successes lay some challenges that the program must face: there is competition from UAH’s peers and aspirant peers within the state and the region. The program must not only recruit good students, but retain them and guide them towards graduating in four years.

Those are some of the big-picture views of the program’s anticipated successes and challenges, but what about on the ground? What is the nitty-gritty of building a theatre program? What does the program value? What is its curriculum? How does it program seasons? How do the tactical and strategic plans fall into place, as led by faculty who are also teaching, directing, designing, serving their institution, and working towards tenure?

From a pedagogical standpoint, the curriculum and values questions are two halves of the same coin. What the program values it will teach, and it will teach what it values. At present, the curriculum features theatre courses in performance, design, and history, mixed in with Communications and English courses, which played to the strengths of the faculty at the time the proposal for the major was put together in 2014. Now, with additional theatre faculty on board, the curriculum can change to reflect a new set of strengths.

The first step was to look at what core classes each theatre major would take, and as discussions continued, it was clear that the faculty valued a well-rounded program that gave each student a broad and deep exposure to theatre as a field and a vocation. In that valuation, the faculty saw that students needed classes in text analysis, design, history, performance, and entrepreneurship. The idea that students leave not only employable, but entrepreneurial, changed the course of the curriculum dramatically. The new curriculum has removed all of the Communications courses, left only a few English courses as electives, and new classes are already being offered.

Season programming, now seen through the lens of a program that values entrepreneurship, and focused on a still-growing student cohort, is able to take the needs of the students into account. As 2017-2018 season planning emails start circulating, the faculty has the freedom to ask what plays we need to do because they serve this student or that student specifically, beyond just a general exposure to a wide variety of genres. This tailoring of programming serves as another recruitment point for incoming majors who know that the work they do on production is there to play to their strengths, while stretching them at the same time.

actor dancing on stage
Bakari Prigg in How To Succeed In Business...

Looking down the road to the end of this school year in May seems nigh impossible, like a dream you had when you were kid that still echoes with you, but May will arrive, and with it a fully updated and catalogued curriculum, even stronger relationships with local high school theatre programs, a large group of incoming majors, an inclusive and intriguing season, fall classes that all make, and graduating seniors ready to take on the world. Can we do it? Join your author again in late April to find out the end of the beginning of this story. 

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How does your program address an on-campus support framework for physical production? Do students build, sew, light, paint, and manage productions?

Meg, Great question! At present we have two classes, Theatre Appreciation and Theatre Mainstage Practicum, that provide this framework, because, yes, our students do build, sew, light, paint, and manage our productions. As we go forward, we'll be adding Stagecraft as a class for our majors, which will serve as another pipeline.

Good luck to you as your program grows. I am, however, wondering what Communication classes had first been required and are now cut? Public speaking is a class--and a career move--that can be quite beneficial to entrepreneurial actors.

Willena, Thanks for your good wishes! The Communications classes that were cut include Intro to Rhetorical Communication, Nonverbal Communication, and Burkeian Theory and Criticism. Our new Entrepreneurship class has plenty of individual presentations built in, so the students will get the chance to speak to their classmates in preparation for when they are out in the world, presenting their portfolios, pitching a show they'd like to direct, or auditioning, etc.