History of College Stage Management Courses? Not Yet!

by Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier
Screenshot of “Announcement of the New Department of Drama,” The Tartan; Vol. 8, No. 15; Carnegie Mellon University; Pittsburgh, PA; January 15, 1914; page 8; digitalcollections.library.cmu.edu; December 17, 2017.
Screenshot of “Announcement of the New Department of Drama,” The Tartan; Vol. 8, No. 15; Carnegie Mellon University; Pittsburgh, PA; January 15, 1914; page 8; digitalcollections.library.cmu.edu; December 17, 2017.
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To college, or not to college? While some colleges and universities offer BFA degrees focused on stage management, many do not. Ask anyone in the stage management field and many will have a particular opinion on higher education – Should you choose a school with a BFA in stage management, allowing you built-in access to mentors, stage management courses, and a support network? Or do you go to a smaller program where you may not receive much of a stage management education in a classroom setting, but as the only stage manager in the theatre department, you end up graduating with 10 or more shows under your belt? OR, do you skip college and apply straight away for every apprenticeship and internship a high school graduate can get, maximizing on the networking opportunities that jumping straight into the field may open for you?

The usefulness of post-graduate studies (i.e. an MFA focused in Stage Management) is another can of worms that professional stage managers have varying opinions on and often leads to more questions about your personal goals.

Occasionally these conversations (particularly ones that I am a part of) often turn to the historical importance of these collegiate and post-graduate programs, raising necessary questions: When was the first theatrical college class created? The first stage management course? What about theatrical degrees and ones that emphasized stage management? While I still have much to research on this topic, I can begin to address a few of these questions.

George Pierce Baker is arguably the father of college theatre. Immediately after graduating with an English degree from Harvard University in 1887, he began teaching in Harvard’s English Department. While it took much petitioning, he eventually started a playwriting workshop in 1905 called English 47 (also known as “Workshop 47”). While Shakespeare was covered in their English classes, Workshop 47 allowed the students to learn about plays and playwriting through the creative process. In 1913 he created the “47 Workshop” which gave students the opportunity to learn the production side, albeit as an extracurricular course without college credit. Baker hoped that the playwriting course would lead to other theatrical offerings, however, Harvard was quite staunch in its refusal to expand its theatrical offerings. Frustrated, Baker moved to Yale University in 1925 to head the new drama department. While Baker was not the only professor teaching theatre courses at this time, he was perhaps the most prolific, having taught Eugene O’Neill, Sidney Howard, George Abbott, among others.

During the first two decades of the century, college courses and theatrical clubs sprang up all across the nation. Professors such as Brander Matthews at Columbia University, Dr. Arthur Hobson Quinn at the University of Pennsylvania, and Thomas H. Dickinson at the University of Wisconsin, lectured and wrote on dramatic literature and stage history.  Many helped their students set up university theatre clubs and assisted with the productions. Students used their campus newspaper to attract new members, announce auditions and advertise performances.

On February 9, 1914, the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now known as Carnegie Mellon University) became the first college to offer a bachelor’s degree in the theatrical arts. The courses required for graduation included:
Screenshot of “Announcement of the New Department of Drama,” The Tartan; Vol. 8, No. 15; Carnegie Mellon University; Pittsburgh, PA; January 15, 1914; page 8; digitalcollections.library.cmu.edu; December 17, 2017.

Screenshot of “Announcement of the New Department of Drama,” The Tartan; Vol. 8, No. 15; Carnegie Mellon University; Pittsburgh, PA; January 15, 1914; page 8; digitalcollections.library.cmu.edu; December 17, 2017.

Yep, you read that right. Stage Management was one of the first required courses for theatre students and was worth 3 of the 144 required credits for the degree.

While I still have much research to do (including a research trip to CM’s university records and archives), I have found a few tantalizing details about the stage management course from archival issues of their student newspaper, The Tartan, and The C.I.T. Alumnus magazine. In the “Alumni Notes” section of a

 July 1919 edition, the editor notes that at the time of publication, the stage management course was being taught by Mr. Howard Smith and Mrs. Sarah Bennet Smith. While I’m uncertain of the specifics in her role as course administrator, it is exciting to see a woman’s name associated with a collegiate stage management course as early as 1919.

Here is hoping that a research trip to Carnegie Mellon is in my near future!

©Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier. All Rights Reserved.