A decline in Bethel University’s Theatre Department raises questions.
Janice Collova | For the Clarion
On the night of Nov. 2, a handful of students gathered outside the choir room, shuffling through sheet music and chattering in hushed voices while listening to a broadly built freshmen fill the choir room with a belting showtune. A week later students will scramble to the bulletin board outside the theater classroom to see what parts they got in The Music Man, set to perform in Benson Great Hall the first weekend of February.
As excited as these students have been about the process, one thing is unnerving: only thirty people auditioned for the musical. As a result, Bethel alumni and faculty have been casted in roles that could have been offered to students.
Meg Zauner, the theater professor who will direct and choreograph The Music Man, is stunned. She recalls that when Bethel produced West Side Story back in the early 2000s, at least 120 students auditioned.
The Music Man is not the first Bethel production to have a low turn-out at auditions. Brent Adams, theater professor, says that the turn-out for auditions has fluctuated over the years. He notes that “this ebbing has been longer than other ebbs,” Adams said.
A declining interest
Adams offers two reasons for a declining interest in theater within the Bethel community: a lack of exposure to theater in secondary education, somewhat due to budget concerns, and a cultural emphasis on portable devices, or “the small screen.”
Adams says the focus on popular technology makes people “less comfortable with live arts” and “less likely to participate [in] performing, engaging with others to build a show.”
Zauner believes some students lack interest in theater because they believe theater is irrelevant to their college education. For instance, a business major might not sign up for a theater class because theater seemingly has nothing to do with business. But Zauner argues that theater is “helpful for so many majors.”
Zauner uses nursing and history majors as examples. She says nurses need to empathize with their patients. If nursing students participate in theater, they can learn how to empathize, because part of theater is pretending to be someone whose perspective and experience is different from one’s own. History majors can learn more about a particular time period and engage in its fashion and décor by being in a play that takes place during that period.
On a more general note, citing theater involvement on a resume is attractive to employers, in any field, as employers “need someone to talk to people.”
“You can know a lot about technology,” Zauner said. “But if you don’t know how to work with people – what’s the point?”
“The point of college isn’t to get a job,” Zauner said. “It’s to get educated, get well-rounded … here at Bethel we talk about becoming whole and holy persons.”
Zauner says that when she attended college, it was more common for students to take classes in a variety of disciplines. Now she believes students are so focused on taking classes related only to their majors.
“You don’t have to love everything, but if you don’t expose yourself, you become very narrow,” Zauner said. “Just look at our society.”
Professors aren’t the only ones who notice a decline in interest.
Senior theater major Carlie Abel feels that one reason for the decline is how admissions tour guides present the theater department to prospective students. She says that tour guides are more likely to elaborate on details with the science departments, and in turn be dismissive of the arts, only sharing brief information.
“It’s an us versus them thing,” Abel said.
A budding curiosity
Throughout her whole college career, Sara Caldwell has always wanted to do a play. However, there is one thing that keeps the senior English major and self-proclaimed Shakespeare-lover from auditioning: time.
“There’s so much stuff you have to do, so much practice time … it’s not an option [for me],” Caldwell said. “Which is sad, because it would be so fun.”
Caldwell, who has no theater experience, has managed to find some time to see Bethel productions; she enjoyed seeing As You Like It last spring.
Students with lots of previous theater experience also face the obstacle of time. Some students can’t commit to theater while at Bethel because of labs; others, because they’re working to pay off school; still others, because of sports. Stage fright and lack of talent is another issue.
Even if students never participate in theater, the department encourages students to take theater classes.
Adams recommends to anyone and everyone to take Creative Performance, the department’s most basic acting class. “You get a stronger sense of comfort in front of people,” Adams said. “It makes you more engaged with the world around you.”
Adams says that at a basic level, everyone can act. In everyday life, we interact with different people in different ways; how we interact with our professors varies from how we interact with our friends. Theater, Adams says, is just taking that basic skill of social adjustment and transferring it to telling a story and engaging with an audience.
Zauner also encourages students to take classes, pointing out that many of them have an “A” tag, an Artistic Experience course that’s part of the general education requirements for graduation.
Students say they are more likely to see a show if they are familiar with the story or have friends in the cast.
“If I don’t know what [the play] is,” Caldwell said. “It’s not my first instinct to see it.”
Adams says one reason why students should attend productions to support those participating, “which is no small thing.”
Some more basic reasons Adams gives are that it’s cheap (or free, if you get to the box office soon enough) and easily accessible.
For other reasons, Adams returns to the importance of theater in education.
“This is a Christian liberal arts university. If you’re not engaging in the liberal arts, you’re throwing away opportunities … you always have a screen, but the beauty of live theater is that it’s present … watching [theater] you can find out maybe that’s something you want to do,” Adams said. “This is a great time in your life to explore.”
For Adams, theater is derived from a more spiritual perspective.
“God is the Creator,” Adams said. “If we’re going to get closer to the Creator, we need to get closer to engaging in the creative arts.”
Spreading the word
Nathan Strecker, who has acted in and built sets for productions, suggests that the department could use “more than posters” and set up a booth in the BC.
“Many people don’t even know [theater] is an option,” Strecker said.
The theater department advertises upcoming productions primarily through posters taped in stairwells and by the DC, and tacked to bulletin boards in the BC. The department also advertises through E-Announcements, manages a Facebook page, and occasionally puts a poster on a stand in the Egg.
Zauner wonders if people are actually looking at any of these mediums, and if there’s a better way to get the word out.
“We can only do so much,” Abel said. “We need people to take an interest, take a chance.”