The first order of business for the University of Washington’s new degree in musical theater is not greasepaint, sheet music or tap shoes, its organizers say — but public outreach and finding talented, committed students.
The degree is a pilot program with three years of funding from the College of Arts & Sciences. As interdisciplinary as any at the UW, it involves faculty from the Dance Program, School of Music and School of Drama.
“Our first imperative is to grow,” said Betsy Cooper, dance professor and divisional dean of arts. “To grow this program and get the word out. And recruit like crazy.”
The idea arose a couple of years back, Cooper said, in a conversation over a glass of wine at the UW Club with Richard Karpen and Sarah Nash Gates, directors, respectively, of the schools of music and drama.
“I felt strongly that if we were going to do any sort of musical theater production, we needed to have a good curricular base,” she said. Musicals had been undertaken at the UW in the past, of course, but without that academic foundation, she said. “I did not want to return to that model.”
As they knocked the idea around, two things were clear, Cooper said: Talented students were leaving the state because they could not study musical theater here, and some at the UW were already trying to create their own musical theater experience. “They were expressing the need, but of course weren’t getting faculty mentorship.”
It’s meaningful that the program offers a bachelor of arts degree rather than the more exclusively performance-focused bachelor of fine arts. Scott Hafso, drama lecturer and program co-organizer, said drama does the same with its undergraduates.
“It’s in the very best tradition of a liberal arts education,” he said. “And that’s very intentional, so we can foster as well-rounded an individual as possible.”
Planning has been focused on curriculum, with required classes in theory, history and technical matters as well as performance.
“Not everybody is going to be a performer,” Cooper said. “We want to show them enough of the world so they have some choice in the direction they want to take their passion.”
Hiring Wilson Mendieta as program coordinator was a big step. A dancer and actor seen on Broadway in the 2001 revival of “Man of La Mancha” and featured in a national touring company of “Chicago,” Mendieta had just completed his master’s of fine art in dance at the UW when the job came his way. He oversaw auditions for the new program, held just two days before the school year began.
So, what were the directors looking for as nervous auditioners took turns singing, dancing and acting?
Energy, commitment — and a certain something more.
“One thing that’s hard to teach is the hunger,” Mendieta said. “I think it was important for them to demonstrate that they are willing to try things outside their comfort zone and just throw themselves in.”
Hafso said he looks for those with “a sense of presence” who enjoy “taking the space not only without apology, but with a little bit of joy.”
Two or three students joined the program through those auditions, Cooper said, and more will be brought in to form a first-year cohort of 10 to 15 people.
There won’t be any full-blown musicals this year, though some scenework may be performed publicly in the spring. Outreach and fundraising are necessary to any new program coming of age, including publicizing the new degree path to high schools statewide.
Are there jobs? Absolutely, the directors say. Mendieta said musical theater training “really opens doors” for students to work in all of the performing fields. Cooper said performers must be talented and highly trained, but jobs are available in Seattle as well as in California and New York.
In fact, Seattle is “one of the most prominent and alive areas for musical theater in the country,” Gates said. “Both the Village Theatre and the 5th Avenue Theatre are energetically fostering new work and helping the young artists, craftspeople and technical artisans of the region.” Those theaters may also serve as “professional partners” to the program, she said, taking UW students for internships.
“It’s part of our mission to increase the kinds of opportunities for students to engage in the performing arts at the UW, and this program helps us do just that,” said Karpen of the School of Music.
And so, a new performance program begins with planning and outreach now — call it a rehearsal phase — and greasepaint and spotlights to come a bit later.
“This is an indigenous American art form, a great American art form, and it speaks to our times and it speaks to our history,” Cooper said. “And so we start here, to train the people the way they should be trained — and then put on a show.”
Hafso summed up, “This will hopefully set students on a good and healthy path, with many answers — and, even more important for me, a whole lot of questions — that their own work in the profession will help to answer.”
Learn more about this new degree program online.