‘E-Term’ gives students a taste of the professional theater world

by Michaela Ledoux | 9/24/16 12:59pm

For some students, leave terms consist of working on Excel or fetching coffee. But for the five students participating in the pilot program of the theater department’s Experiential Term, partnering with theater company Northern Stage, days are spent working with theater professionals in West Lebanon and soon, New York City. The program is a natural progression of the theater department’s long-term affiliation with Northern Stage, an award-winning, professional regional theater in White River Junction, Vt. For 15 weeks, students in the program will be immersed in all aspects of professional theater, culminating in their participation in two productions: an Off-Broadway production of “Orwell in America” in New York City and in the company’s production of “A Christmas Carol.”

The E-Term provides students with the opportunity to work full-time in a professional company, making it unlike anything available to undergraduates studying theater, participant Virginia Ogden ’18 said.

Because many of the theater department faculty members work at Northern Stage and many Dartmouth graduates go on to work there, the E-Term is a way to formalize the relationship between the College and the company. Theater professors Peter Hackett and Carol Dunne are directing the program, which they liken to a “theater laboratory,” Hackett said.

The department recognized a missing opportunity for students of the arts to work alongside their professors, similar to the way STEM students can assist in a professor’s lab. Hackett said that he hopes that this program will be that opportunity.

And it is not only the students that are participating in these off-campus opportunities. Hackett will be directing “Orwell in America” and “A Christmas Carol” while Dunne is entering her fourth year as the artistic director of Northern Stage. In addition, theater professor Jamie Horton will be playing George Orwell in “Orwell in America.” These three professors will be able to mentor the students based on their different perspectives derived from their diverse roles in the company.

The students have appreciated learning from their professors in such an intimate setting. Claire Feuille ’18, another program participant, commented on how beneficial it has been to work alongside professors.

“[Horton] is an incredible actor,” Feuille said. “I’ve learned so much from seeing him do a table reading.”

They have also appreciated being treated like true professionals. Dunne remarked that the program is “taking theory and putting it into practice” for the students. Participant Tess McGuinness ’18 said that the students are given a lot of responsibility.

“They have thrown us into this professional environment to see how we thrive,” she said.

Funding from the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning and the Leslie Center for the Humanities helps provide students with housing and a stipend. This allows them to experience the life of a theater professional who is “getting paid and working under union rules,” Dunne said.

In addition to their daily interactions with professionals in the company, the students will also benefit from formal master classes with actors from “Macbeth” and from attending and discussing shows while in New York City. This experience will allow them to understand what they are “getting themselves into” as prospective professional actors, participant Jackie Pageau ’18 said.

When Dunne started her career as an actress after her college graduation, Dunne said that she was not prepared for the world of professional theater, particularly because there is no clear path to a career in the arts.

“You need to find people who can open doors for you,” Dunne said. “That is what we hope the program will do.”

Furthermore, the students’ work this term will make them eligible for 11 of the 50 “equity points” needed to gain a union card, one of the biggest obstacles for newly-graduated actors, Feuille said. The students in the program are grateful for how supportive Dartmouth is being towards their growth as theater professionals.

“For theater, you need a special kind of education, and Dartmouth is making sure we get that,” Ogden said. “This is one of the most competitive and unpredictable fields.”

Apart from the Dartmouth professors, each student has a different mentor and role within the company, taking the lead on projects throughout the organization. All five students have an interest in pursuing a professional acting career in the future but are enjoying the comprehensive view of how a regional theater functions, provided by the internship, Ogden said.

Ogden is the only student who will not travel to New York City in October for the production of “Orwell in America” because she is acting in the local “Macbeth” production. The other students’ projects range from being an assistant stage manager like Lela Gannon ’18 to redesigning and updating the company’s artist database and writing context pieces for performance programs like Feuille. Pageau is helping create and facilitate an adult learning class centered on the company’s production of “Macbeth.” McGuinness’ work has focused on promoting the company’s 2017-2018 season by writing role descriptions and marketing blurbs. She is also organizing pre- and post-performance discussions, which she will help moderate.

Hackett applauded Northern Stage’s commitment to education and hopes that the program will be able to continue in the future, particularly because it functions as an experiential learning term.

“We are all super grateful — it has already been an incredible learning experience, and it’s only been two weeks!” Pageau said.