- Wandering Thespians: Performance Across the Liberal Arts Curriculum
Wandering Thespians was not born out of frustration or sublime artistic insight. It was simply a good solution to a practical problem. I needed to provide the students in Calvin Theatre Company (CTC)—the theatre production class at Calvin College—with more opportunities to perform over the course of the semester, and I wanted to encourage greater support for the theatre program across campus, making it more visible to the campus community. 1 For decades Calvin’s theatre program had enjoyed great success, usually selling out or nearly selling out most seasons’ shows. Our audience consisted primarily of segments of the campus community and local alumni who loyally followed the department’s acting company from Sophocles to Synge, Molière to Wilde, and Miller to Friel. However, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we noticed, along with many in the American artistic community, that our loyal following was becoming grayer. We also perceived that many of our new, younger faculty and staff from across campus did not attend our performances, even with a generous complimentary ticket policy for faculty and staff members. Moreover, the college administration, while very supportive, began requesting that the program meet each year a specific box-office income figure. Theatre at Calvin, along with other arts programs across the country, was increasingly pressured to consider the bottom-line. If an aging constituency and funding pressures were not enough, student attendance increasingly wavered from show to show.
Our concerns probably matched those of many other colleges. How could we get these newer faculty and staff excited about our program and lure a few more of them into the theatre each term? How could we transform these same faculty into active advocates of our program and supporters of our artistic season? How could we guarantee that the college administration would fund the program? How could we increase student interest in and awareness of the theatre? How could we show colleagues and students in different disciplines how valuable theatre is to their particular educational experience and to campus life more generally?
Confronted with a seemingly hopeless set of problems and with the support of my colleagues, I decided to launch an advocacy program, a traveling troupe called “Wandering Thespians,” out of the Calvin Theatre Company [End Page 93] class. 2 Wandering Thespians did for us what theatre does best: it took theatre storytellers to the stage of real academic life—the campus classroom. As Director of Theatre, I wanted our campus community to recognize not only our artistic work in the theatre, but also the pedagogical potential that theatre can bring to the classroom. After all, our bread and butter as a liberal arts classroom was high-quality instruction with intensive faculty-student interaction. The appearance of young actors in various classrooms across campus made important friends and advocates of our program, served other departments, and underscored the theatre’s educational importance in the liberal arts tradition. Also, it gave meaningful theatrical work to students who might not have been able to participate as fully in the mainstage productions. My theatre colleagues fully supported the idea, volunteering to direct a portion of the offerings and to support student directors and performers.
In the fall of 1993, our 85-student theatre production class, which was unusually large, staged Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. The play requires a small cast and relatively easy tech; maximum standard crew and cast capacity for the production was sixty-six students. After establishing a concession crew and slots for students to create their own monologue notebooks, I needed to provide some meaningful occupation for twelve to fourteen students. Ordinarily, they would have sewn costumes, found properties, hung lights, or served on a running crew. Overloading the conventional crews wasn’t a viable option because there would not be enough time over the semester for students to fulfill their twenty-hour crew requirement. Wandering Thespians seemed the perfect opportunity to marry need with vision by involving people who either weren’t aware of our work or who were not yet interested in the theatre.
A troupe of student actors and directors now...