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Administration-Friendly Theatre Programs

Jacob Coakley • Training • October 1, 2010

A moment from a production of subUrbia at Dean College

Seven ways to ensure your department stays in good terms with your school.  

A theatre department on a college campus can only be as good as the support it receives from the administration. Cutting-edge productions, enthusiastic students, and imaginative professors are all for naught if the people in the chancellor's office are unappreciative-or even worse, oblivious-to success and achievements. Here is some advice to ensure your department and the work you do is successful in the eyes of those who hold the purse strings.

1. Know Thy Mission, Know Thy Self
"The first thing is the department has to have a clear sense of itself and mission," Ralph Zito says. "Then you have to articulate that clearly to the university." Zito is the new chair of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University. Previously he served as the chair of the Julliard School Drama Division's voice and speech department.

2. Educate & Communicate
"For most administrators, I think it come down to two things," says Kelly Morgan, dean of the School of the Arts at Dean College in Franklin, Mass. "Does it serve the curriculum as a whole? What does it cost?" If you address those points you have a good shot of at least getting them to open their eyes. Also "talk to them about the broader scope, all the designers, lighting designers, gaffers, fight coordinators, etc., who the actor takes a bow for." Don't stop at just getting them to a performance, but take them backstage and show them all the skills needed for a production.

Be mindful of their background and frame things in ways they understand, advises John Michaelsen. Michaelsen has been the overseer of the Department of Theatre and Drama at Indiana University, Bloomington since 2004. "It's a great university and a great place to go to school," he says. The theatre department is full service offering BAs, BFAs, MFAs, and PhDs in various theatre disciplines.

When speaking to an administrator whose background is in science or math, talk about the "lab" work your department is doing. Also, go into the technical details of how shows are put on in ways they can appreciate. "Seek a vocabulary that people can understand." Nuts-and-bolts is better than lofty speaking only in aesthetics.
When you're hankering for that new light board, it's tempted to brag about the bells, whistles and channel faders.

But "don't be verbose. My style is to make it clear and to the point: This is the need, this is what solves it, this is what it costs, and this is how it benefits students. It is a terribly competitive world, and we must provide every skill we can provide for the students."

Also let them hear first hand from the students-have them discuss the value of what they learn. "We have great, articulate students and they are often better at making the case in certain situations than probably we are!"

A scene in Syracuse University’s production of Samm-Art Williams’ Home

3. Avoid the "It's Only Theatre" Label.
The upper administration at Dean understands that the theatre department is integral to the student becoming a citizen of the world, Morgan says. "Whereas a number of administrations might cut theatre program, and look at it as the ‘black sheep' of school, it's not the case here."

"Believe me, even at a place like this, we're not immune from people misunderstanding what goes on here, so it is important that you clearly state what you do and produce something for students and alumni they can partake in," adds Michaelsen.

4. Real World Applications
Morgan says that while having insight into the human condition is a core philosophy of the school, they also prepare students for the transition of being an artist as a businessperson. He wants students to know such things as how to do their taxes as an artist and how to transition from there to entertainment mega-markets. Easing the transition from school to life adds relevance.

Michaelsen says to take nothing for granted: For example, if you're a liberal arts college, don't just talk about those who get degrees in Theatre, but all of your students: the acting class students who gain a sense of confidence in their presentation skills to do well on a job interview;  the tech class that provides skills that are applicable to other disciplines. "We teach AutoCAD, how to make costumes, and build stage elevators-all things that some administrators might not think of us doing."

5. Real Campus Applications
Zito says using what else is on campus as a resource is a way of reaching out and creating better understanding for what a good theatre department means. The law school, the architecture school, the school of government, etc.-all offer a research element. Soliciting them for background or information on those vocations for a production offers an opportunity for others on campus to be exposed to what's involved in working toward a theatre degree.

Also reach out to everyone, from the administrators to the students. Ask for ideas on what kind of plays to do. Interact with other professors-is there a scene from something that could be done for their philosophy class? Could 12 Angry Men inspire debate for law students? "There's a lot of ways to make bridges on campus, and that's something administrators really appreciate," Morgan says.

6. Always Have a Plan (Or Three)
"Have a sense of priorities, and constantly be educating administrators to what you do and the importance of the work," Michaelsen says. "That way when you do ask for something, there's a basic understanding."

Not everything at Dean is accepted, and the administration does push back, "and that's good," Morgan says. It leads to a vetting process for the argument. "Do the research. Don't just say I want this new technical toy; you have to say why it's important for the curriculum, how it serves the college as a whole, and how it's going to get students work ahead of others in this tough job market."

"If it's a good idea, and you're persuasive, they will always listen," Michaelsen adds. Think the idea through, be clear, and keep it short and to the point-as in "elevator pitch." "These are busy people, and if you have an opportunity to present an idea, have done your homework." The idea needs to be complete, too, so they can think of funding.

Always have at least three plans for projects ready to go-even if there might be an item or two that "shoots for the moon." Administrators can sometimes end a year with a surplus and want to invest in something. So have a list, and a varied one at that. One of the biggest items is trying to add personnel, because that requires salary, benefits, and "everyone loathes taking on that kind of expense." Don't shy away from that being on your list, just understand that challenge and temper it with smaller, less expensive requests too.

7. Be a Great Public Relations Agent
"It's a public relations issue," Zito says. "Make sure that campus-wide everyone knows you're there and what you're doing." This can include intriguing ads for the campus that catch the imagination and spark conversation. But "work together with the university to keep theatre very much in the forefront of university life."

"We try to make sure that the administrations understands what we're doing here and the impact we have," Michaelsen says. Invites to productions are obvious, but go a step further when you're doing something unusual, and especially reach out then.

He adds that always be providing the administration nuggets that allow them to tell others-including donors-what is new and exciting in the department. "Always be informing them, because they have to talk to people all the time, and if they can say we have ‘x' and ‘y' going on in the theatre department, that's to your and their benefit." 

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