When considering university acting programs, our minds tend to gravitate to the coasts. Want to go into theatre? Look into Columbia, Julliard, Brown University, Yale School of Drama, or Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Like theatre, but want to delve into film? Check out University of Southern California, University of California–San Diego, UCLA, or CalArts. But where are the options for students who prefer St. Louis’s vibe to those of New York, Rhode Island, or California? Are there options for theatre students in St. Louis?
Of course there are; you simply have to look for them. Rather than having to filter through “STL theatre school” search results, we at Limelight have taken on the grunt work for you. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be presenting the surprising variety of university performing arts programs in greater St. Louis, starting with the University of Missouri–St. Louis campus. Full disclosure: as a UMSL theatre student, I am obviously biased, and I plan to sing the program’s praises without shame. I do promise, however, to report on its competitors with equal curiosity and enthusiasm.
In a word, UMSL’s Theatre Department is transformative. Yes, that comes from my own experience there, but, in asking other UMSL Theatre students about their experiences, I found their answers mirrored my own. Sage Hayes, a Theatre major graduating this December, swears that she would not have gotten through this degree “unless [the theatre professors] believed in me.” With only experience playing ensemble parts in high school musical productions, directors Gregory Carr and Dr. Niyi Coker cast her in The Tempest and Medea, respectively, pushing Hayes beyond her own limits. River Dowdy, a psychology student pursuing a theatre minor, recalls a similar experience. After transferring from Texas and introducing herself into the program, Associate Professor of Technical Theatre, Glen Anderson, “volun-told me” to manage the sound and light boards. The faith Anderson showed in Dowdy prompted her to step in as show runner when Medea‘s stage manager broke her foot during tech week.
If UMSL professors seem to nudge ambivalent students into productions, it is deliberate. In particular, Jacqueline Thompson, Assistant Professor of Theatre, is known for this. Ms. Dowdy notes, “she has the ability to command a room and make you feel valuable at the same time.” Given it was Thompson who ultimately facilitated my college acting career and eventual major switch to theatre, I have to agree. Felia Davenport, Department Chair and professor of costume design, is similarly invested in her students. Davenport cites watching her students grow as a highlight of her career, along with the multitude of talented professionals she counts as peers. “We are a family,” she insists. As one of her students, I can verify that is true.
All UMSL’s theatre professors encourage experimentation and risk-taking within classes and productions. It’s part of the culture. One of Thompson’s regular refrains to students is to “go there.” It’s always easier to reel an actor back in than to pull dramatics out of them, she claims. The faculty pushes their students to challenge stereotypes while striving find their own voice. This includes choosing shows that focus on hot-button issues of social justice and societal changes. “We do contemporary [theatre], classical, musicals, et cetera, but we try to make sure it is pertinent to today’s climate,” says Davenport. That goal is most evident in UMSL’s recent devised piece, My Country, wherein students told their own stories about what defines their experience as Americans.
A challenge like a devised piece with a three-week-long creation process is not something just any university would attempt. But the award-winning and nominated staff present at UMSL consider it a risk worth taking. Davenport notes one of the faculty’s goals is that each student will expand their engagement beyond classroom walls, into the local theatre community. In fact, Professor Thompson and Dr. Coker often hire students for acting, production, and assistant directing positions on professional shows they direct in the area.
UMSL’s theatre department recently underwent vast changes in its program. The new degree, offering a B.A. in Theatre Arts, allows students to create a program tailored to their specific interests. New courses offer emphasis areas in Acting/Directing, Design, Cinema, and Playwriting/Screenwriting. The program change provides more structure, and spurred a list of new innovative classes not previously offered. Personally, I’ve been eyeing theatre adjunct Jamie McKittrick’s Storytelling class. It’s just one more unexpected way for UMSL students to create art that “challenges, changes, and inspires.”
More information on the University of Missouri–St. Louis Theatre Arts program can be found here.