June 6, 2011

UT/TAPS sets students’ sights on shaping the future of theater.

Heidi Coleman wanted to give her class an in-depth look at the current state of theater in Chicago—so deep that they needed to leave the classroom altogether. Coleman, Director of University Theater, as well as Director of Undergraduate Studies, Theater and Performance Studies at the University of Chicago, conceived of a Budgets and Buildings class that would expose her students to seven different theater companies throughout the city. After a quarter of conducting field research and writing plans for new theater companies, the students are eager to make their marks on the future of Chicago theater.

As UT/TAPS persistently endeavors to connect students directly with professional, established artists, these on-site visits opened a dialogue with executive and artistic directors at Court Theatre, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Lifeline Theatre, the Greenhouse Theater Center, the Writers' Theatre, and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. Being part of such thoughtful and provocative conversations vastly changed the students’ perceptions of theater in the city.

“I thought the biggest challenge to the Chicago theater community was funding,” said Hannah Cook, a fourth-year Political Science major who didn’t need another class to graduate but wanted to indulge her lifelong love of the theater and see another side of it. “They’re much more concerned about building relationships with audiences and potential audiences. They’re looking into the near future when theaters become community spaces in the truest sense of the word.”

Fourth-year Linguistics major Graham Rosby added, “As a lifelong Chicagoan, I smugly considered myself to have a strong handle on Chicago’s theater scene. Man, was I wrong.” Outside of Court and Steppenwolf, Rosby didn’t recognize the other theaters the class visited and was most impressed by Lifeline’s ingenuity when it comes to space.

“They occupy an old Com-Ed substation and use every square inch of it,” he said. “Scenic shop in the basement, rehearsal space and prop storage upstairs, and then lobby and theater space on the main floor. That kind of self-sustainability is really remarkable.”

Applying lessons in class and beyond

But the insights went deeper than space and aesthetics. During the quarter students also worked in small groups to create hypothetical theater companies with an eye on final class presentations focused on pitching for grant money. The idea was not only to impress the “donating board” with their fiscal plans, but to showcase an elevated awareness of community outreach and an inspired level of programming that could potentially form the basis of a new company, especially in response to changing technology.

Andrew Cutler, an actor, director, and a third-year Theater and Performance Studies and English major who hopes to run his own theater company someday, shared that “social engagement through art is really what I’d like to do with my life. Our most unique factor was that we proposed an idea whereby we’d let our audience vote on a show, which I think is a very exciting idea.” His company added a pre- and post-show sit down with company members to discuss current and future productions.

For those who won’t be running their own company, starring in or directing a show down the road, this was still an eye-opening lesson on how to embed themselves and stay invested in the community.

“Many of the executive directors spoke with us about the importance of having professionals like lawyers and accountants on their boards,” Cook said. “I remember half the class asking ‘how do we find these mystical theater-loving lawyers who will help us with taxes and contracts’? It was a dramatic realization that there are ways to use our non-theatrical skills to become more deeply involved.”

There are also very bold ambitions that grew out of seeing where a need exists. After hearing a difference in opinion as to whether or not Chicago needs any new theater companies, Rosby said that he’s inclined to pave the way for a troupe to challenge Second City’s monopoly on sketch comedy. “[Chicago has] plenty of improv houses,” he noted. “But nobody takes the rehearse-and-do-sketch model because most of those people are putting their videos online. I think I’ve got the chutzpah to try and make that company come together.”

Looking ahead

Coleman, who has helped grow the UT/TAPS program into one of the most popular on campus, continually challenges herself to create experiences that aren’t offered anywhere else. A lab series this quarter featured guest speakers including Tina Landau, Oskar Eustis, Amy Morton, Joyce Carol Oates, and Mark Morris. Currently Coleman is working on her next initiative—a two-year residency with local playwright Mickle Maher that will culminate in a premiere at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in 2012. These are only a few of the ways that UT/TAPS brings in established artists to directly engage and even collaborate with students.

Courses and projects like this also require significant support and smart partnerships. Some of the lab series speakers, for example, were also visiting campus or the city for other events. For the Budgets and Buildings class, Coleman and students made seven site visits in a single quarter. Transportation for that ambitious schedule was funded through a combination of grants from the College and through a Course Arts Resource Fund grant from the Arts Council.

Coleman and UT/TAPS have big things in store, but for now she admires her current students’ willingness to explore new ways to shape Chicago’s theater world. She also looks forward to watching some of them form a company that can go the distance.

“This group of students, they’re very thoughtful about engaging the community and what that means. A lot of their projects would work,” she said. “And now there’s a really strong network. We have people working in every theater in Chicago so an emerging company has the resources it would need to succeed.”

By Mary Logue

Heidi Coleman, Director of University Theater, taught a Budgets and Buildings class that exposed her students to seven different theater companies throughout the city of Chicago, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. (Photo courtesy of UT/TAPS)