NWU Theatre: Doing the art (and finding the work)

NWU theatre students find roles and success after graduation.
Few undergraduate programs field such a high percentage of students in professional theatre as Nebraska Wesleyan’s Theatre Department.

The program has produced alumni with impressive credits. One alumna landed roles in NBC’s Law and Order, the movie It’s Complicated (alongside Meryl Streep), and the touring production of August Osage County. Another played Tybalt at the Tony Award-winning Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. A third is sound engineer at Nashville’s Dollywood, while a fourth landed a lead in the touring production of Hairspray. Scores of other NWU theatre majors pursue professional careers on and behind major stages from Los Angeles to London.

How have they succeeded? Why did 90 percent of the program’s 2009 graduates find work in theatre?

The answer is straightforward.

Jessica Stopak hard at work at the Oslo Theatre, associated with Florida State UniversityA year-round program gives opportunities.

We annually mount 40 productions involving nearly 100 theatre majors. Professors direct 14 full-length productions. Students direct another five alongside faculty. Students produce another 25 one-act or hour-long shows. The system is tantamount to a professional theatre company with majors working in at least six shows a year.

Casting is never by seniority.

Students act and direct based on their needs for artistic growth. New students are onstage by October in an intense rehearsal process akin to repertory theatre. Many begin directing their sophomore years. All are exposed to a demanding litany of acting styles and methods.

Students benefit from breadth.

Our actors often learn from collaborating dramaturges. Students’ courses may focus on the stage history of a single play, such as Lysistrata or Tartuffe. Students also experience avant-garde theatre such as a reversegendered Hamlet, an all-female and all-male Twelfth Night, or traditional plays paired with nontraditional fare, like Hamlet and Hamlet Machine.

Students participate on the world’s stage.

One student recently interned at the Globe Theatre in London, while others studied in Finland, Italy, France and the Czech Republic. Still others traveled to Japan, Thailand, India, Costa Rica, Ghana, and elsewhere, adding perspective to their understanding of drama and the liberal arts. Many students complete dual degrees or fulfill requirements for both the Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Fine Arts as a way to expand their knowledge and credentials. Theatre BFA degrees include emphases in acting, directing, design and technology, musical theatre, or theatre studies.

Jessica Stopak at the Oslo TheatreFacilities and faculty are strong.

Five rehearsal spaces support three major stages. The region’s largest costume and prop libraries provide complex sets and costumes for each show. Guest-artists work alongside a master carpenter, costumer technologist, library manager, fight coordinator, dance instructor and musicians. Professor of Theatre Jack Parkhurst (’69) said, “Our faculty works as an ensemble. Each professor can do it all—teach, act, design sets, cast shows, build costumes, and direct. The result is hand-in-glove communication among ourselves and our students.”

These features of NWU’s Department of Theatre combine with the incredible work ethic of its students. Hard work in the right environment results in the incredible successes our alumni have experienced. Our students find the life of professional theatre—a life characterized by ensemble effort, a zest for truth in art, and a seriousness of purpose tempered by the joy of the work.

Dramatic art is ephemeral, but developing students’ ability to create it and live its professional values is the lasting commitment of the Nebraska Wesleyan theatre program.

Special thanks to Professor Emeritus of English Roger Cognard for providing the essay from which theatre faculty developed this article.