Friday, December 15, 2017

In Response to the OnStage Blog Piece.

Dear Mr. Peterson,

In response to your piece "If You Want to Major in Theatre, Avoid These Colleges: 2017-18 Edition" published in OnStage Blog earlier this week I feel I need to respond to your criticisms of the program at the University of Texas at Austin. Not just because I drank the Longhorn Kool-Aid myself but because I'm a product of the program, know many others who are as well, and lived in Austin for over 1/4 of my life. I am still in touch with faculty and was a part of the UT Austin culture my entire time in Texas, either as a graduate student or as a staff member. I worked professionally in the local theatre scene. I'm now a college professor myself and know a bit more about the struggles a program faces in the larger context of a college. And, well, I don't really sleep. I started writing this at 4am.

UT's theatre program is, like the rest of the school, big, and serves a large number of students. It's also one of the top programs in the country and the resources available to those students aren't available at most colleges - this includes the facilities, the faculty, the staff, Texas Performing Arts, the Ransom Center, and the technology available for the productions. Students who attend UT for theatre are getting an education that can't be found in many other places across the country - not all, but many. The state school I attended as an undergraduate doesn't have a fraction of the resources that UT has, despite having incredibly talented, professional, and passionate faculty, and the same is true for where I teach now. What access to these resources means for the students is that their education can be whatever they want it to be. Working with faculty and also with grad students who are on the cutting edge of the industry allows a student to pursue their own passion as far as they want, and as specifically as they want, and in my experience there UT found ways to support its students in what they wanted to do.

The New Works Festival at UT, held every other year, is, in my opinion, the best thing about the program and THE reason to attend. This festival is a major event in which students from all over campus create their own original work. Classes are suspended in the theatre department during it and the department puts all of its resources into student productions, performances, installations, exhibitions, music, or whatever else it is that they've dreamed up. These aren't your typical stagings of dead white men plays - these are original pieces of art conceived of by the students, with mentorship from faculty, support from a world-class scenic arts staff and facility, and attended by not just the campus but artists who are brought in to give workshops and talks during the event. Their work is seen. The New Works Festival broke me my first year at UT. It's where I discovered that I enjoyed creating video art, enjoyed being a generative artist, enjoyed stepping outside of my comfort zone and making something original rather than just being a designer all the time. The New Works Festival is, in part, responsible for where I am sitting at this very moment in time.

RE/CONNECT, New Works Festival 2015, photo by Lawrence Peart

UT also doesn't just have the New Works Festival but a whole host of other performance opportunities. Their season covers drama and dance, they have a playwriting program that allows for new plays to be staged as part of their mainstage productions, the Butler Opera Center provides opportunities for involvement in opera, there are collaborations with the music department, the Rude Mechanicals are the resident theatre company (and really, what more could you ask for?) and access to the Radio, Television, and Film department means that there are opportunities for learning about film and TV as well. Austin's theatre scene is small, experimental, and worth your time.

To say that any college facing cuts (or making cuts, for any reason) doesn't care about its students is ridiculous. I don't know if you are aware of the current environment in which higher education finds itself, but it's not exactly one that is supportive, well-funded, or even trusted. We are disparaged daily - by you, yourself, actually, in your own piece "How Educational Elitism is Hurting Theatre" - and trust in higher education is eroding. And any career path right now that's not in STEM is not one that many students are pursuing. EVERY school is feeling this. Every theatre program is feeling this. It doesn't matter how much a school or program cares for its students if it has to fight for resources with the math and science departments. And I'm not trying to say those departments shouldn't be getting resources either. That's another post entirely but I have argued vehemently that in this current moment in history, throwing resources at science is one of the few hopes we have as a species if we want to survive.

"In the Ether," photo by Lawrence Peart

Furthermore budget cuts are frequently not the only reason for the changes taking place. They may be the only one that makes it into a short, neat article like the one you linked to, but many other factors exist, INCLUDING caring about students. In eliminating the MFA in acting program, the department chose to focus instead on its undergraduate actors, who make up a MUCH larger percentage of the department than the grad students. The MFA program took in about a dozen students every three years (it did not accept students annually) but there are hundreds of undergraduate acting students. Now, the shows that used to focus solely on the MFA actors are open to them. The faculty that put their time and energy into the MFA students are focused on the undergrads. Does that sound like a decision that was made because a program didn't care about its students? And while I don't know all of the reasons behind the musical theatre cuts, I can imagine that there were many factors at play. The department has to cut something, and no matter what they decide it's going to make someone unhappy. In all likelihood they made the choice that benefitted their students the most. I know those people, and it's not a department made of uncaring individuals. They are the ones that taught me that the individual student comes first.

The opportunities for undergraduate students at UT are top notch and it would be heartbreaking to hear that a student read your under-researched blog post and chose another school instead of one where they would be able to make their own original work and have it be fully supported by the department, work side-by-side with cutting-edge professionals, and a chance to work in a variety of different kinds of performances (dance, opera, new work).

Furthermore, since I read your piece on elitism that I referenced above, I feel the need to address it as well. I don't know that anyone would argue that a lesser-known college means a lesser-known theatre education. However, to say that a well-known school with a highly-reputable program doesn't mean anything would be naive. As I am sure you are aware, this is a hard business, and ANY advantage a person can have going into it is welcome. Yes, my education at UT was great - but the name of the school itself has also opened doors for me. That's a simple fact. And while I'm sure that I could have had many doors open for me at another school, I can't deny the effect that an education at UT Austin has had on my life. Additionally you talk about talent, but what you don't say is that talent is incredibly cheap. What isn't cheap is hard work, which is far more valuable in professional theatre than talent. You mention Yale, NYU, and Carnegie Mellon - all highly competitive schools. Graduating from one of these school speaks volumes to an employer about your work ethic, not just your talent, because of the rigor that is known about the program. A smaller institution may be just as rigorous, but many aren't, and they aren't known for it. It's the known part that's important. In theatre, knowing people, knowing names, that gets your foot in the door. It's absolutely up to you to stay in the room, but don't kid yourself into thinking that it doesn't matter where that degree comes from.

Megan Reilly
MFA, Theatrical Design, 2007, UT Austin
Assistant Professor of Performance Design & Digital Media, Macalester College
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