- by Jacob Coakley
We sit down with the chair of Performing Arts at the University of Southern Indiana, Elliot Wasserman
Stage Directions: You’ve got a lot happening in your programming at the University of Southern Indiana! Can you tell me how all this theatre fits together?
There are really three theatres at USI. We have New Harmony Theatre a professional, LORT-D summer theatre. Then, the theatre department produces its University Season during the year, and within the University Season we create some partnered productions with New Harmony. The shared resources of these two theatres produce yet a third that we call the Repertory Project. Rep shows combine Equity actors and an Equity stage manager with university actors and university stage managers. This training opportunity also allows the performers and the stage managers to enroll in the Equity membership candidacy program. Many students graduate with significant points towards membership in the union. In this way we provide both professional training and professional advantage to our students.
Of course, not every theatre student will decide to take his or her education into the world of professional theatre; therefore, we are also dedicated to the liberal arts Baccalaureate education and its broader vision. In addition to placement in some of the top theatre M.F.A. programs in the country, we also see our students apply their education toward business, communications, and education careers, as well as to other graduate programs of study. These students find their transitions well supported by the skills theatre develops.
A few years ago you became artistic director of New Harmony Theatre, and the theatre is officially part of the Performing Arts Department within the University. How has that benefited theatre students at USI?
In two ways. In the Repertory Project, students have a unique opportunity to partner with Equity actors and stage managers. We choose plays that balance the partnership between our students and the professional.
Now in New Harmony Theatre seasons, our cast breakdown and stage management needs are determined by Union requirements so the acting roles are filled by professionals along with the stage management hiring. However, NHT is a campus of learning nonetheless. Students have understudied, assistant and apprentice stage managed, worked under professional designers, managed the box office and filled positions backstage, in the scene shop, etc. But the theatre maintains its professional status in every regard. That’s very useful for our students. They have to meet its standards and therein lies the educational emphasis. There is a second benefit to producing a nationally recognized theatre: Here at USI every faculty member hired in our department is a working professional with a significant resume. So students here benefit from working with people who have a leg in the professional world and know something about that life.
In another year you’re going to open a third new theatre.
An incredible space of inspiring architecture and state of the art systems. In point of fact, when this new theatre opens, almost every facility we have will be less than 5 years old. In essence, everything will be new. Our new thrust stage theatre has been planned around our educational mission, and it will be one of the most beautiful and most intimate theatres in the region.This is a 17 million dollar theatre designed to seat 300 people in a steeply raked house that forms a cradle around the stage and its actors. It offers acting students a chance to to learn their craft in an environment that places great emphasis on the honesty of the work while providing our design students a remarkable canvas upon which to create.
In these partnership programs, a lot of times the grad students get most of the work at the theatres. But you don’t have a grad program. How does that access help undergrads?
By providing immediate access to production work. From freshman to senior year, our students have robust opportunities to apply what they learn in class. Theatre was once taught specifically on an apprenticeship basis, you know. From the day they walk in our students experience that approach. And why not? There isn’t time to waste. Four years zooms by. It does. From the very beginning, we tell students: you are creating yourself each and every day. From the very beginning you are developing a plan, and from the very beginning we help you do that.
USI Theatre Department Highlights
• USI is one of the few universities in the country to include professional Actors' Equity Association Productions within coursework
• Students work alongside professionals in the field
• Undergraduates earn points toward their Actors' Equity Association membership
UNDERGRADUATE DEGREES INCLUDE EMPHASES IN:
Acting and Directing
Design and Technology
• USI’s production of Rent received distinguished national awards at the 2012 Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival
• A new state of the art teaching theatre opens in fall of 2014
• 10,500 total student enrollment
• Average class sizes of 25 students
• Located in Evansville, Indiana—Indiana’s third largest city
• Students represent 43 states and 61 countries
• Recognized as a Carnegie Foundation Engaged University
• Students enjoy modern suite-style on-campus housing facilities
• Academic merit-based scholarships available