February 1, 2009

There is a kind of intellectual energy here at the University of Chicago that is hard to find elsewhere. It’s marked by a love of intellectual pursuit, creativity, and collaboration. Here, it’s okay to experiment.

This is the world that attracted Heidi Coleman when she first visited campus eight years ago.

“I was fascinated with the idea of creating an undergraduate program that was truly interdisciplinary and about engaging theory and practice,” says Coleman, Director of Undergraduate Studies in Theater & Performance Studies and University Theater, and Senior Lecturer in the College. “That possibility was here at the University of Chicago: the possibility of being integral both to a theater and arts scene on campus and in the city, and to the program I was creating.”

At the University, Coleman found both the freedom to shape a new program and the kind of students who excite her. “Here there is a passion and drive that students bring to the creative and intellectual work they do,” Coleman says. “As a teacher, this is deeply exciting.”

Freedom to take Risks

Her classes are “extremely high pressure, with a group of people focused on a common goal over and over again,” she says. The students take risks and experiment. They perform existing works—sometimes creating fully designed scenes in the class—but they also create original scenes and composition, thinking outside the box and outside the theater.

“The classroom and the rehearsal rooms are laboratories where I frequently engage in philosophical questions and ask a group of people to engage in them with me,” she says. “There’s no such thing as failure. You’re never done, and that sort of constant unrest, yet momentum, combined with intense collaborative work helps you learn what it means to be a citizen of our country and of the world, to understand how to be a collaborator without losing your identity.”

Drawing on the Core

It is often the case that the students’ other studies—particularly the texts of the common core—become the sources of those scenes. “We use the core syllabi for our material, and it’s not always from the humanities. Frequently our economics students will bring us fresh new points of view.”

They might take up Aristotle one week or the story of Oedipus, looking for ways to respond to the text in short, dramatic scenes that, she says, “involve flowing images, revelation of objects, and transformation. The things you’re learning in philosophy class are immediately applicable here in terms of the practice you’re getting in theater training.”

A Place for Boldness and Creativity

Coleman has built a thriving performance program that brings in guest artists, collaborates with the student-run University Theater organization, and engages in community outreach. She has also worked closely with the Steppenwolf Theatre as a dramaturg, a role that has informed her work in the classroom and shaped the way her students see performance.

“As a dramaturg, I work primarily with the creation of new works,” she says. “I’m a kind of an engaged witness. I work with both the director and playwright, engaging with the work as a sounding board and critical eye throughout the process.”

And there’s no better place to engage with new theatrical work than in Chicago, she says, where the theater scene is both robust and easy to access.

“New work is clumsy initially, but Chicago understands that. There is a boldness about creating new work here. It’s that “we’re going to go for it” attitude. Chicago is a real roll-up-your-sleeves city.”