Three NOT so great things about being in a Small Theatre Program

Pete Sheldon

  • OnStage Columnist

Now don’t get me wrong, I will always cherish the fact that I can walk into a class and know everyone by name. In a similar vein, I’m glad that all my professors know me by name. It’s great to know that the odds of taking a class with one of my best friends will increase exponentially because I’m in a small theatre program. I’m always proud of the small community and sense of care the students and faculty build out of being able to work so closely with one another. However, and this is a big “however”, nowhere is perfect, and each program comes with its own pet peeves and little problems. What I’m about to list are simply some of the unavoidable annoyances that were prevalent in what was otherwise a wonderful undergraduate experience.

Now with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to some not so great things about being in small theatre program.

1.    Gossip

Hello, gossip my old friend. This is something almost everyone has participated in at least once. Some offstage drama happens in rehearsal and then everyone in the department talks about it the next day. Two people make out at a party and it’s discussed during the three in the morning Waffle House run. As human beings, the free exchange and analysis of what goes on around us is essential to being, well, human. However, in the repeated participation of this practice, I feel we forget that we are talking about human beings with actual feelings. In a small community, we also tend to forget that the morning’s gossip session will get back to the person discussed by lunch.

This can permeate hostility within the program, and in short, damage the sense of community that should be at the heart of every small program. At the end of the day, everyone has their personal business and if it isn’t directly affecting the way that person or anyone else functions within class or productions, it doesn’t need to be discussed. Goodbye, gossip my old friend.

2.    Everyone does everything! (Not in the  good way)

This is a bitter sweet part of being in a small theatre program. There are many small but challenging ways to be involved and grow in the craft. With limited people, this sometimes leads to students being a little over-committed. For example, an actor within my department was cast in a mainstage production.  On top of this, he acted in several scenes for undergraduate directing classes, directed a student film, worked, and had to memorize lines for the rest of his classes. While being this involved yields many rewards, it can’t be done without prioritization. This prioritization often leads to some projects not getting the effort they deserve, sleep deprivation, and more breakdowns than are necessary in one semester. It’s not just the students either. Many of my school’s faculty teach several courses while directing or being heavily involved with the mainstage productions.

Sometimes I wish there was a limit set to how much one student could do in one semester. Then again, that might be seen as denying someone an experience they are willing to work for despite their already over-committed schedule. Indeed, some people thrive in this environment and some learn valuable multi-tasking skills.  I just wish there was something that alleviated some of the pressure from the faculty and students so that they’re not zombies by midterms.

3.    Faculty Drama

This might apply to most theatre programs (or maybe it doesn’t), but it is maybe more noticeably prominent in small theatre programs. When there is such a small amount of faculty, they inevitably have to work together on several productions. Usually these faculty members quickly generate a working relationship with each other, and the relationship isn’t always harmonious.

Two faculty members who are more than disgruntled with each other usually show their disdain during the heat of tech week. Other times, there’s the backhanded compliment slapped around at a faculty/production meeting or one talks smack about the other to the students in their classes. New faculty members try introduce different ideas to a department and the long standing faculty members do not approve in the slightest. When students are witness to this type of behavior, again, it rattles the sense of community that is the foundation of any theatre department. This type of behavior doesn’t provide the students with a good example to follow in their professional career. It’s one thing to say you’re never going to work with anyone ever again, but this is simply not possible in a small theatre program.  

Faculty need to remind themselves that what they are teaching is a collaborative art form, and each main stage production isn’t just a show that can be thrown away as soon as it is done. Instead, the production is a learning experience to the students who are involved, and it needs to be a space that is collaborative despite personal grudges.  

So, there you have it. Again, I have enjoyed my experience in a small theatre program. I’ve known others who have benefited from their own small theatre programs as well. Aside from this small list, I have absolutely no complaints. What I have written is merely a few common grievances that I’ve noticed in mine and others experiences within their theatre programs. In no way does this reflect all small theatre programs, but these are things that I wish would change.

One article isn’t going to change the things I’ve mentioned, but maybe it will give those in small theatre programs an awareness of them. Hopefully this awareness can then lead to an even better undergraduate experience.

Photo: Williams College