Part 1 Part 2
Two quick clarifications:
This series of essays comes about now that I’ve committed to a different career path. Whether or not that is because of the difficulties that exist in pursuing technical theatre is not the point. The environment created by many facets of Northwestern’s theatre communities makes it a far more toxic experience than it needs to be, regardless of one’s commitment to pursuing a career in theatre post-grad.
Additionally, for brevity’s sake, I’m going to include managers, marketers, and other professional staff in the term “designer.” In the case of these essays, it’s a catch-all term for everyone involved in theatre who is not a performer. This definition is dedicated to every stage manager I’ve had the pleasure of working with: past, present, and future.
Courses and Sequences (Or Lack Thereof)
At Northwestern, the typical course load is 4 courses a quarter for 12 quarters — this sums up to 48 classes the average undergraduate is expected to take in 4 years. The theatre major at Northwestern is among the lowest-barrier degree tracks at the university: it only requires 42 credits (6 less than the “typical” Northwestern student would take).1 This allows for an incredible amount of freedom in the courses students choose to take. The assumption, then, is that students in theatre would be able to explore just about every possible area of theatre in their time.
One of the ways that this is presented is in multi-quarter course sequences. Following the first-year rotation (currently 140-1, 140-2, 120-1, and 170-1), students can choose to embark on classes that are either taught by the same professor or build upon the same principles.
The primary way that students in the Theatre department connect with this is in the acting sequence. A sequence that begins in your sophomore year, you complete three quarters (or more) with the same acting professor studying one of the many different methodologies that exist (Hagen, Chekhov, Stanislavsky, etc.) The track that anyone studying performance takes can look like this:
This does not include any of the senior special acting topics (5+), the litany of voice classes available (3+), the various 200- and 300- level topic performance classes (10+), dance classes (6+), or any of the Musical Theatre Certificate classes (9). Students interested in performance can also satisfy their history/literature/criticism degree requirement with courses that cover the history of performance.
Conversely, this is what a track for one design area, lighting, looks like:
This does not include the one (1) other directly related design class, Computer Graphics. There currently exists no history of stage design course.
The fact of the matter is this back-of-the-envelope calculation is likely an underestimation of the number of performance classes available, but no other lighting design classes exist for undergraduate students. Furthermore, this lack of more in-depth exploration of design — in the same way that performance receives — actively prevents designers from accessing essential skill sets that come with the realities of a changing field. While Acting for the Screen is offered yearly, there is nowhere for lighting designers to learn how to light for the screen.
You could argue that those types of extensions (and more classes) are available in the Radio, Television, Film department, but these options are not available to undergraduate designers without taking several core RTVF courses that ultimately are less relevant. Furthermore, this only applies to lighting; this doesn’t directly address the difficulty in learning more advanced techniques for scenic, props, costumes, or hair and makeup design (where there is even less development). These design areas are given two courses at maximum in skills that require many years of expertise and study to perfect.
Serious Gaps in Content
Here’s where the bread and butter of my struggle with the theatre department begin to evolve. There are crucial parts of the theatre process that go completely ignored in the undergraduate theatre curriculum and this lack of any training leads to dangerous situations when inexperienced designers go out to work on other projects.
Here’s a short, inexhaustive list of areas my peers and I identified as nonexistent in the theatre curriculum:
- Technical Directing is by far the most dangerous gap in the curriculum. Technical directors are responsible for site supervision in a theatre and are — in many cases — the preventer of most accidents and dangerous working conditions that theatre artists are sometimes asked to make. This is even MORE damaging when you consider how extensive and largely unsafe the practices of student theatre are, but more on that later.
- Fight/Intimacy Choreographers are by far the most essential people in a rehearsal space for the comfort and safety of actors, directors, and stage managers. Currently, there is no way at Northwestern — affiliated with the curriculum — to learn the skills that are encompassed in safely teaching combat scenes as well as intimate moments. Any students who are interested in exploring these have to take courses at the nearby Actor’s Gym, but that represents a cost-prohibitive method that ultimately reduces the population of choreographers to those wealthy enough to afford classes.3 More on the financial considerations of this department later.
- Sound Design is often considered the sister topic of lighting design, but where lighting design has at least a two quarter undergraduate sequence, sound design has none. Students are literally hired to run Wirtz Center professional productions without a single class taught in the skills required.
- Projections and Automation Design are two more elements that are essentially standard in professional and touring productions that Northwestern students are completely unprepared for. The multimedia development of projections completely changes how a lighting designer functions, but that is never discussed in undergraduate lighting courses. Automation is now an essential part of a scenic designer’s toolkit but is left unaddressed.
There are absolutely more areas that need to be discussed – draping and cutting in costumes, millenery, etc. – but you would have to ask a costume design student to weigh in on that. This list doesn’t even include design areas that are woefully undertaught at Northwestern, given two classes or fewer. This includes critical areas such as stage management, production management, and any types of art administration.
No, MFA Courses are NOT a Viable Alternative
One of the biggest arguments in favor of the current structure that Northwestern provides is that undergraduate students can take graduate-level courses offered in their related areas. An undergraduate student interested in scenic design can take “special topics” courses and request permission to participate in the scenic design MFA classes. But this is not only something undergraduate students should not be expected to do to receive a comprehensive education in theatre, it’s something that can actively harm students no matter their preparation beforehand.
The structure of the MFA curriculum in theatre at Northwestern is very different from any existing undergraduate structure. It’s so different that I as an undergraduate do not know anything about that – and an undergrad shouldn’t have to! But that doesn’t stop me from signing up for a course that is not meant for me where I am in my education.
There is a reason curricula are structured the way they are: it allows for a gradual learning curve. Currently, the learning curve for scenic design includes two scenic design undergraduate courses and then graduate-level special topics that require a much more comprehensive design basis. Undergraduate students who take these classes are put through the wringer because graduate-level course loads exist in a very different world than undergraduate course loads. No undergraduate student should be expected to handle the 40+ hours of work a graduate hand-drafting class asks you to take in addition to three other undergraduate-level courses.
Furthermore, graduate teachers are not equipped to handle undergraduates in their classes. Arguably, they shouldn’t be required to. Northwestern’s undergraduate program exists separate from its graduate one because people are in different stages of their education when they take it. A graduate professor is advising fellow professional designers as they balance external productions, being TAs, getting married, and having children. An undergraduate professor is tapping into the part of the college experience where students are coming into their stride of adulthood, are involved in multiple extracurricular activities, and have lives that exist almost fully within the campus.
Often, the gap in assistance is filled by the MFA students themselves when undergraduates take those courses. Because these classes are built for MFAs, everything from access to materials to access to the studio to complete work outside of class hours is not addressed for undergraduate students. Graduate students are often called upon to help fill the gap in instruction – and even to let undergrads into the classroom. This isn’t fair.
Should talented designers be able to take graduate level-classes? Absolutely. But Northwestern’s undergraduate design curriculum is so lacking that it doesn’t prepare any but the most auspicious student who has years of experience of design. This not only wholly antagonizes students who are striving to reach for something better, but also completely disenfranchises anyone who decides they want to pick up a design area in college (or, god forbid, start studying design instead of performance). There is no way to learn the skills you need as a lighting designer through the curriculum itself, so why (and where) would you start?
We haven’t even begun to discuss the first year “dash” rotation, student theatre, the mistreatment of staff members, 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.
Part III to come.
Part 1 Part 2
1 This is reduced even further when you consider the possibility of transfer credits and AP credits. A matriculating student (as of 2020) could theoretically enter with 10 AP credits and then only be required to take 32 courses to graduate — so long as they met the undergraduate enrollment requirement.
2 The sad thing is, one can only loosely include “Performance in Context” under the umbrella of a design course. The class focus is not the design process, but simply the existence of design in theatre. When I took the course in my first year at Northwestern, the discussion was limited to parading designers in front of students with the images of their design inspiration. The capstone of the class is a position as a member of the run crew on a Wirtz Center professional production where you learn essentially nothing about the design process, simply the runnings of that particular show. Students do not typically leave this class with an understanding of basic design principles; they leave with the basic structure of how a show runs. These are not equivalent.
3 There exists need-based scholarships at the Actor’s Gym, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the skills taught are limited to those who are able to seek them extracurricularly. Actor’s Gym courses are taught outside Northwestern’s schedule and thus do not adjust for students who work Work Study jobs, for instance.