Part 1 Part 2
I want to start this with a disclaimer. This is just a recollection and a reflection of my experience being at Northwestern University and a member of the theatre department as a whole. This is not going to be reflective of every Northwestern experience — in fact, it’s literally only representative of mine. I only hope that I can provide some clarity for prospective students as well as students and members of the administration who seek to address these issues and change them.
I came to Northwestern with the intention to pursue lighting design. I had a little bit more experience than the average college student does with the field. I drove to Northwestern in the Fall of 2017 having already worked in a professional theatre for a summer; I clocked over three hundred hours in high school managing lights, electrics, and creating my own shows’ worth of lighting design. I also had experience with professional dance companies, stage managers, and more. Out of all the options of institutions to attend, Northwestern was the only one that allowed its theatre makers to pursue a degree in theatre and something else (more on that culture later); I wasn’t going to lock myself into a BFA program that meant I couldn’t think of anything else but theatre for four years.
High school theatre — and all of its many, many issues — taught me that technical theatre fell significantly below performance. We can hypothesize why that is — talent as a construct, not something you work for, or the fact that technical theatre represents a collaborative effort when performance, on its surface, does not — but it was a notion I was hoping to lose in higher education. Theatre, in reality, exists not because of the performers but because of every single person dedicated to the craft before the performers. Theatre exists because of stage managers, artistic directors, lighting designers, drapers, run crew, front of house staff, marketing staff, sound designers, and so, so many more. The average production has between five and ten non-performance staff for every one performer.
Northwestern’s Bachelor of Arts/Science theatre program is within the School of Communication, one of six undergraduate schools of learning. Where other institutions have divisions between major tracks within theatre, Northwestern chose instead to create a “module” system within a singular theatre major. This system asks you to take additional courses within a concentration (Theatre for Young Audiences, Playwriting, and Design, for instance) but does not separate your degree significantly from other theatre majors. This means that, no matter where your skills lie in theatre, the capped 100 seats offered to applicants all graduate with the same Theatre major.
Northwestern is somewhat unique in its orientation structure. Wildcat Welcome is a week of programming when your only focus is on orienting yourself to campus. You don’t register for classes until the end of the week and you’re set up with a support structure in the PA group: an upperclassman peer adviser and between 8-15 peers who, in the case of the School of Communication (the school that theatre falls within), are in your major track. From the very first gathering of these students I knew that this was going to be an experience different from the one I had expected in theatre. The reality of the fact was that I, a student intent on pursuing design and/or management alone, was the only one of my cohort of 8 that felt that way. The rest of my peers were intending on pursuing performance in some way, shape, or form. The numbers were more bleak in other groups; all in all, of the class of 2021, less than ten out of the hundred were enrolled with the commitment to technical theatre and management.
This disparity was unparalleled, however, with that which resulted from the department’s programming itself. Every orientation discussion held focused on the acting sequence of classes for performers, the Musical Theatre Certificate for performers, the variety of dance1 classes you could take. The conversation of design was purely limited to the discussion of the design requirements for graduation: one design-based course in the first-year sequence and two design classes out of the forty one needs to graduate. In the full weeks’ worth of programming, I couldn’t recall a single moment where undergraduate designers and managers were explicitly addressed or even mentioned.
When the faculty was paraded in front of us, not a single undergraduate faculty member was dedicated to teaching management or technical theatre. As I would come to find out, the only classes taught for undergraduate designers were taught by graduate students. The only classes taught for undergraduate marketers or managers were taught primarily by staff members. Staff members in higher education are often treated as second-class in both pay grade and respect, but more on that later.
This lack of any real concrete acknowledgement of the people in the group of 100 students who were dedicated to what 95% of theatre really is? That hurt. It hurt so much that, one of the last days of Wildcat Welcome, I had to ask one of the advisors why not a single person had ever mentioned a commitment to designers and marketers. That advisor, John Haas, was quick to point out the design module. But one module does not an inclusive theatre program make. And Northwestern Theatre is sorely lacking in any sort of true commitment to its designers and managers. And that has led to real, dangerous situations.
Why One Theatre Major Doesn’t Work
The lack of undergraduate representation in design and management is an incredibly nuanced one, but it starts at the very beginning of the process. Because Northwestern’s Theatre major is not further subdivided, admissions to the program are not compared to their peers in an accurate way. The single theatre major means that every performer is compared to every singer, director, lighting designer, props designer, costumes designer, or stage manager who is seeking to come to Northwestern theatre. With a single major path, there is no way to fix the representation issue. If the major was divided into two paths with two different quotas – say, 75 performers and 25 designers/managers, if we’re sticking with the 100-seat cap – you can ensure that the population of undergraduate managers and designers is increasing every year, not decreasing. But 25 designers isn’t enough. I would argue that the ratio for designers to performers should be 2:1 or higher, considering every production that occurs on campus (more on those later) should theoretically need more than one person per design area.
Furthermore, splitting the major allows you to change requirements. This biggest gripe I’ve experienced in four years is that every performer in the theatre major spends an ungodly amount of time complaining about the design requirements.2 They should still be required to do this. But dividing the major allows you to institutionally acknowledge the fact that designers exist while allowing your curriculum to reflect the path that designers take. As of right now, the curriculum is clearly performance-structured and the existence of performance sequences – but not the same level of design sequences – further illustrates this.
We haven’t even begun to discuss the first year “dash” rotation, student theatre, the mistreatment of staff members, design classes, the ignoring of FGLI student realities, or the lack of any care by the advisors for what designers need. But don’t worry, we will.
1 This essay won’t go into the structural issues present in the Dance program and department. That’s a whole other collection of essays that I can’t write.
2 Performers need to respect the amount of work that goes into design and management. It is what allows them to exist on a stage or screen. Additionally, the Northwestern Theatre department specifically built the Design class requirement including easy-to-complete non-theatre classes (such as Intro to Painting or Sculpture) that are not representative of theatre design principles or the design process in theatre.
3 This essay was previously titled “Northwestern Theatre Does Not Care About Undergraduate Designers.”