Theater department encourages students to pursue their passions

by Frances Cha | 5/16/05 5:00am

Editor's Note: This is the second of a four-part series in which The Dartmouth will delve into the various arts-related majors here at Dartmouth. This week, we spotlight students who choose to major in theater.

Just as music majors are not all performers -- many unofficially concentration in theory or musicology -- so too theater majors are not all actors.

To be sure, most majors do have strong acting backgrounds when they begin and only later tend to foray into directing or playwriting. So Kate Mulley '05, a double major in theater and history, is a rare case in that she has a concentration in playwriting and does not consider acting to be her strongest point. Mulley has devoted her culminating experience to writing a full-length play set in 1933 that revolves around a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany. She finds that her double major of theater and history work well together; as a writer she enjoys looking at how people and history can change things. "There are so many dramatic and interesting points in history. Studying both gives me the fuller context," she said.

Given its small size, one special perk of the theater department is the likely possibility of close interaction between students and special guest faculty members. This term, for example, students have had a chance to work with and receive personal mentorship from Wendy Wasserstein, the current Montgomery Fellow and the recipient of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for her widely acclaimed "The Heidi Chronicles." Mulley will be holding a reading of her play at the end of the term and was both excited and nervous to hear that Wasserstein would be attending the reading and providing feedback.

Of course, advantages often come with drawbacks; the department's small size means that there are not as many sources for feedback or as many distinct styles to be learned. For instance, there is only one playwriting instructor among the faculty -- unless you go on the London Foreign Study Program and learn from the playwright specifically brought in for the FSP.

Currently there is talk among the theater, film studies and English departments and the various deans concerning the expansion of the playwriting concentration into the other departments. In the future, it may be possible for those pursuing the creative writing concentration in the English major to specifically gear their major toward scriptwriting or playwriting.

Theater may be the most performance-based major at Dartmouth, but it may surprise people to know that it is still a highly academic major. "They don't actually train you to be an actor or a writer necessarily. It's more like they show you how to start," said Thom Pasculli '05. The theater major is composed partly of literature and partly of performance. Thus, the average theater major spends significant time writing papers about history, theory and literature -- almost comparable to the English major. "Although it's frustrating sometimes that it's so academic and bureaucratic, at the same time, it makes us figure things out ourselves, and they give us a lot of support and opportunities," said Pasculli.

There are two things that are particularly distinctive about the theater department. First of all, one intimately gets to know the other students in the class. "One thing about theater classes is that you'll come out knowing people really well. It's conducive to students getting to know each other because it demands that you all work together naturally," said Mulley. She says that not all people are comfortable with this phenomenon but that it is one thing she personally likes a lot about the department.

Secondly, there is an overwhelming overlap between the major and the extracurricular activities subsequently chosen. Although students are only required to involve themselves in five performances during their Dartmouth career, they usually end up becoming involved in a far greater number of productions. Tommy Dickie '05, for example, has been in twelve performances during his four years here. "We all do it and it's because we love it. It's a community of people who love what they do and have experiences that complement and feed our learning." said Dickie, who performed in the hilarious "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" this past weekend.

Dickie came to Dartmouth thinking he would be a physics or economics major, but he quickly found his true calling. After graduation, he plans to move to New York, find an apartment with some friends and start looking for agents and auditions. "I do kick myself sometimes for not having the ability to tolerate the stuff I don't love, which would probably get me the comfortable job," said Dickie, "but I'd rather be doing what I love doing, even if it scares the shit out of me."

And unlike many students pursuing other majors at Dartmouth, one can be reasonably sure that each of the ten graduating theater majors can say the same.