In the basement of Vilas Hall — a rather blocky cement building known by undergraduates for its maze-like hallways, mice and mismatched couches — a group of dedicated students work, sometimes late into the night, to perfect their craft.
These students study theater, a constantly changing art form that comes with big risks but also big rewards. Most theater students at the University of Wisconsin know that competition for jobs will be fierce after they graduate but hold on to the hope that they might have what it takes to make it big. They are consumed by the “acting bug” — an urge to perform and produce regardless of the odds.
A few theater professors have been working hard to make sure these odds tip in the UW students’ favor by promoting a new College of the Arts, a plan that would place multiple areas of the arts — such as theater, music, art, dance and design — under one college. The arts are currently spread between the College of Letters and Science, the School of Education and the School of Human Ecology.
Patricia Boyette, the director of acting for UW’s theater program, believes the new college would benefit students immensely and give them an edge in the job market.
“[A College of the Arts] would bring us more on par with what’s happening with arts education with other top institutions. We can’t just use a model that’s 20 years old. Too many things have shifted,” Boyette said.
Boyette grew up in a time when regional theaters were popular. Actors rehearsed one show during the day and performed another at night, and companies rotated shows in and out. Now the theater program looks to focus on new facets of theater careers. In the current age, actors need to be able to adapt to film, the Internet, television and the stage in order to succeed.
“Actor training for the stage is still the ‘gold standard’ for providing effective foundational skills for any kind of performance — be it acting for stage, screen, television or the media made possible through new technology. It also provides an excellent way to improve basic communication skills necessary in just about any walk of life: business, medicine, law, the sciences, education, etc. We look to educate and train students in the art and craft of acting and also to link this education and training to individual ‘real world’ application,” Boyette said.
One UW alumna, Heather Bannister, 30, graduated with a theater degree in 2006. She is now the assistant technical director at the Memorial Union Theater on the UW campus.
Bannister never wanted to leave Madison to pursue a career in any of the cities known for theater, such as New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. She stayed in Madison and worked her way up from stagehand to assistant technical director. She believes that a UW College of the Arts would allow students to better network between different departments, which would make it easier to form the vital connections necessary to getting jobs in theater.
“It was sometimes hard to go work with the UW Opera or School of Music or anything. Having more options and having more contacts I think will be a good thing,” Bannister said.
A strong network is especially important for students who plan to live in a big city after graduation. UW senior Stephanie Vidalakis is planning to move to either New York or Chicago in a year.
“I’m terrified to graduate,” she said, “It’s going to be me going there in the dark and having to deal with it on my own.”
The way that the theater program is set up now does not give students much practical advice about how the theater business works.
“In my undergraduate study I learned quite a bit about art and craft but I graduated with no idea whatsoever about the business of my profession — about how to apply what I had learned in the ‘marketplace.’ We can’t do this anymore. We need to prepare our students in both the art and craft of their discipline and also in ways to apply that discipline to a career path,” Boyette said.
A College of the Arts would allow bigger classes, like a Business of Arts class, to be taught to students from all arts majors. Boyette said the collaboration and ability to have bigger classes like and multi-departmental classes, such as musical theater, would be the main benefits of a College of the Arts. The departments would still maintain their autonomy, but the difficulties that come with trying to correlate programs between different schools and colleges would diminish.
“The CoA does not require departments to change. Changes within any department are up to that department and its college. It does, however, provide more possibilities for collaboration across the arts and between the arts and other units on campus,” Boyette said.
Arts departments have finished voting on whether or not to have a UW College of the Arts and whether or not they think their department should join the college. The theater department has already voted “yes” to both of those questions. The proposal has been passed through the arts departments — dance, theater, design, music and art — and will go before the Academic Counsel on May 1.
Boyette said the COA administrative structure and curriculum would take three to five years to accomplish.
“There have been years of study and investigation that has gone into this proposal. There has been a lot of work, a lot of thought, a lot of dotting of I’s, crossing of T’s involved and a lot of great conversations and exchanges of ideas,” Boyette said. “We’re closer now than we’ve ever been to having a CoA become a reality on this campus.”