Department HistoryBy Lee Devin and Allen Kuharski
Swarthmore College has long had a tradition of extra-curricular theatre production, but the idea of academic credit for such activities was long rejected by the College's faculty and administration.
Beginning in 1970, Lee Devin and Robert Teitelbaum joined the Department of English Literature and conceived a new idea for an undergraduate theatre at the College. They sought to make use of the College's strengths (talented, hard-working students and a tradition of intellectual rigor) and avoid direct confrontation with its prejudices (denying academic credit for courses in artistic practice as opposed to its history, theory, and criticism). Both the Department and the College were adamant that our liberal arts mission should not be compromised by a vocational emphasis on "training" as distinct from education, and that a high intellectual content of all courses be recognizable by the entire faculty. Lee and the College's provost at the time decided to call the program simply The Theatre. It was housed within the Department of English, and Lee took the title, Director of The Theatre. The Theatre formally existed for twenty years, after which it was renamed the Program in Theatre Studies.
In 1970, an acting class became the first "studio" course offered at Swarthmore for academic credit. Lee had not intended to teach acting right away, but rather to produce a play. When a large group of students showed up, Lee asked if they'd like to do a class in acting, using the same time period they would normally spend rehearsing and performing a play. The students agreed and Swarthmore's first acting class (simply called "Ensemble") began. The Department of English Literature offered the class for academic credit. This established a tradition of improvisation using available resources as well as of curricular innovation that continues today.
Over the years, the commitment to regular instruction in the arts grew on campus. Theatre, music, dance, and studio arts attracted more student interest and faculty and alumni support. In 1973, English offered a Concentration in Theatre as part of its degree program. A major in Theatre Studies followed in 1988. In 1989, work began on the Lang Performing Arts Center, a state-of-the-art complex designed to house Theatre, Dance, and English-as well as the List Gallery. The two performing arts programs, thus freed from inadequate and even dangerous spaces, began immediately to grow in size and complexity, and eventually to bring their courses and activities together. In the case of Theatre, the Frear Ensemble Theatre, a beautiful black box experimental space, made room for curricular enhancements inconceivable before. While the Theatre Program has remained true to its belief in small-scale studio work as the proper expression of an undergraduate curriculum, the Frear has made possible a dramatically expanded variety of work in acting, directing, playwriting, and design. This variety is combined with an emphasis on collaboration as the primary theatre-making experience. The Main Stage of the LPAC has also provided a superb venue for a series of distinguished guest artists performing and teaching on campus, as well as for a wide variety of curricular and extracurricular student productions.
In 1989 the English Department supported the creation of a third full-time position in theatre. After their concurrent hiring in 1989, William Marshall began teaching scenography and Allen Kuharski directing, performance theory, and theatre history. These additions established the potential for stability, growth, and imaginative energy not hitherto possible. The expanded curriculum was further enriched by a roster of accomplished adjunct and guest faculty, including Abigail Adams, Roger Babb, Carla Belver, Sue-Ellen Case, Marcia Ferguson, Jacek Luminski, Edith Meeks, James Murphy, and James Schlatter. In 1994, a second tenure line in Theatre Studies was approved, and as a result in 1998 Allen Kuharski became the second Director of the Theatre Studies Program. In 1999, a fourth full-time position was added in Theatre, and was filled by Ursula Neuerberg Denzer. In 2000, Eugene Lang generously endowed two new professorships in music and the performing arts (the second alternating between the Programs in Theatre and Dance). This Spring, Quinn Bauriedel '94 will become the first alumnus of the Theatre Studies Program invited back to teach.
The Theatre Studies Program today serves over 200 students a year through an average of twenty-three courses and seminars. In 1989 there was one theatre major in the Theatre Studies Program. Today the Program serves an average of eight majors and minors in each graduating class, and has developed a dynamic honors curriculum. Theatre Studies majors have combined their studies with fields as diverse as mathematics, computer science, engineering, political science, psychology, linguistics, education, and religion-in addition to literature and the other arts programs offered on campus.
The Theatre Program's typical "season" of performances consists of three bills of projects generated by our directing workshops, a faculty-directed production with advanced acting students, the senior company (a project collectively created by fourth-year majors and minors), one or more honors thesis projects, and at least one major residency and performance by a distinguished visiting company. The overwhelming majority of this performance activity is for academic credit within rigorously structured laboratory courses with intensive faculty involvement as teachers, collaborators, and mentors. The laboratory nature of our courses in acting, scenography, directing, dramaturgy, and playwriting in principle parallels the work of our colleagues in foreign language, education, engineering, and the natural sciences no less than the other arts programs on campus. The Program has an excellent record of placing students preparing for entry-level professional work or post-graduate conservatory training in a wide variety of internships with leading theatre companies around the country.
With the generous support of the William J. Cooper Foundation, the Theatre Studies Program has hosted extended residencies and performances in the LPAC by a roster of distinguished guest artists from the United States and abroad. These have included actor and director Joseph Chaikin (1991; 2001), critic and dramaturg Jan Kott (1991), designer Ming Cho Lee (1992), the San Francisco Mime Troupe (1993; 2000), the Qi Shu Fang Peking Opera Company (1994), actor and playwright Peggy Shaw (1994), the Ridge Theatre Company (1997), Sotigui Kouyaté and Company (1998), the Silesian Dance Theatre (1999), Teatr Provisorium & Kompania Teatr (2000), and Great Small Works (2001). In addition, the Theatre Studies Program has cosponsored and facilitated numerous performance events with other departments and programs on campus, as well as a variety of extracurricular productions and workshops funded by the Drama Board. Theatre Studies has also co-sponsored the presence on campus of feminist and queer theorist Sue-Ellen Case (Lang Visiting Professor for Social Change, 1993-94), Polish choreographer Jacek Luminski (Lang Visiting Professor for Social Change, Fall 2001), and Ghanaian playwright and poet Kofi Anyihodo (Cornell Visiting Professor, 2002-03).
Through both teaching and performance work, the Theatre Studies Program has joined with students and colleagues in various ways across the College curriculum. Major guest artist residencies have been partnered with the Department of Music & Dance, the Sager Committee, and the Intercultural Center. The Art Department sponsored an exhibit of Allen Kuharski's collection of Polish theatre posters in the List Gallery in 1996. Program courses and seminars are cross-listed in Dance, Asian Studies, Francophone Studies, and Women's Studies. In 2000, the Theatre Studies Program joined forces with Dance, Engineering, Environmental Studies, and the College's Foreign Study Office to launch an innovative new semester abroad program in Poland.
The Theatre Studies Program has been involved with a number of ongoing collaborations with professional theatres in the Philadelphia area and beyond. Our students and faculty have benefited from ongoing ties with the People's Light and Theatre Company in Malvern, the Pig Iron Theatre Company in Philadelphia, and the Silesian Dance Theatre of Bytom, Poland. The Program regularly offers its facilities to selected guest artists to create new work in the summer, especially College alumni active professionally in the performing arts. The Program has coordinated events with the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, the Painted Bride Art Center, and the University of the Arts.
The LPAC and its ancillary spaces have achieved the purpose of the primary donor, Eugene Lang, to enhance college life and study by introducing serious opportunities in the performing arts for all students. Some students now come to Swarthmore because of the Theatre Studies Program: the building is a primary cause of this change. The students in our classes who are not Theatre Studies majors come from all over the curriculum, and in turn spread theatre across the campus. It's important to us that these students do not merely attend the theatre: they participate in the kinds and quality of experience necessary to create it.
Many of our majors and minors have taken up careers in theatre, television, and film. The range of their post-graduate artistic, academic, and professional activities inevitably both reflects and surpasses Swarthmore's theatre curriculum, and now extends to a number of foreign countries. Swarthmore Theatre Studies graduates are regularly employed at leading theatres around the country as well as admitted to prestigious conservatory and doctoral programs. In the Philadelphia area, graduates of the Program have established the critically acclaimed Pig Iron Theatre Company, which has toured extensively abroad and employed over a dozen College alumni to date. Gail Lerner '92 was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Live Action Film earlier this year. In keeping with our liberal arts mission, however, an equal number of graduates of the Program have successfully gone on to careers in medicine, law, engineering, business, education, and public administration. The study and practice of theatre has in retrospect proven an exemplary expression of the ideals of a liberal arts education.
The Theatre Studies Program looks forward to contributing to the College's educational mission in the future in ways both familiar and new. We see ourselves as an educational and artistic laboratory, a place for testing the talents and abilities of our students and faculty alike. More broadly, we are here to test both new practices for a rigorous liberal arts education as well as the historic and contemporary practices of performance. Our mission extends to the development of new collaborative models between the academy and the professional theatre, and the building of new bridges between the American theatre and the rest of the world. The synergistic and collaborative nature of theatre as an art inevitably makes our work interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and socially engaged. Our emphasis on collaboration, ensemble, and collective creation parallels the traditional Quaker values of decision-making by consensus and non-hierarchical organization. The performative nature of our work permits us to share the results of our research with the campus community as a whole. Our Program has enjoyed its greatest success when functioning as a crossroads where our students can fully engage each other, our faculty, master artists, other disciplines and cultures, and ultimately the world beyond Swarthmore-while simultaneously nourishing each student's own individuality, talents, and aspirations.
The Lang Performing Arts Center has provided an ideal meeting place-and crucible--for all these energies. Our Program works both to honor and to expand the College's traditions, to be a visible expression of Swarthmore's values both on campus and in the world, and to enrich our community with new relationships and understandings best made-and at times only possible-through the practice of the performing arts.