Kevin H. Lin
Taking the Stage
An Exploration of Harvard's New Theater, Dance, and Media Concentration
By Mia J.P. Gussen, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

“We like to say it’s been 400 years in the making,” Jill Johnson, director of dance, tells me of the College’s new Theater, Dance , and Media concentration, which was approved this past April. Sitting in Johnson’s office in the Harvard Dance Center, lit only by natural light, I’ve heard this comment before. Martin Puchner, the concentration’s chair, and Deborah Foster, its director of undergraduate studies, both invoked the project’s unofficial history as well.

According to the concentration’s brand-new, slickly designed website, “The idea of combining the study of theater with theater making goes back to the early twentieth century at Harvard, when an English professor by the name of George Pierce Baker offered a course in playwriting and added a workshop devoted to performance.” Since around this time, the performing arts have flourished on campus, primarily through extracurriculars in the form of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, the Harvard-Radcliffe Modern Dance Company, and the Harvard Ballet Company, to name a few of the key players.

Members of the concentration committee say the move is well timed for the performing arts, which are in an excitingly interdisciplinary phase. Unlike most conservatory models, the program places theory and practice on equal footing. And distinct even from similar liberal arts majors, it is meant to be highly interdisciplinary—not just a Dramatic Arts major but an intersection of theater, dance, and “media.” While resources and student interest remain skewed toward theater, the concentration’s confirmation is ideally meant to incite the dance component’s expansion. Among faculty and students alike there is a hope that the concentration will kindle collaboration within, among, and outside of the united departments.

NOT JUST A DRAMATIC ARTS MAJOR

One point the committee members have stressed in the development of the new concentration has been its focus on both theory and practice. Students are required to take at least four theory courses in addition to four practice-based or studio courses. There are students who gravitate more toward practice and others who are drawn more toward theory, as well as those who lie somewhere in between. But of the students who have reached out to the concentration committee so far, none seem upset over this scholarly requirement or wish the curriculum were a more traditional conservatory BFA program.

“I think practitioners—and maybe I can speak for myself as a choreographer—I don’t separate theory, history, and practice. Those are all woven and in a timeless way,” Johnson says. “I think it’s a real opportunity to reframe what practice means. In dance in particular, for example, we have to repeat a lot—not a sort of mindless loop, but rather we need repetition to move more deeply—quite literally move—into deeper understanding. And I think the complexity of that learning can be translated in many different ways, from crowdsourcing to social change.”

In addition to combining theory and practice, members of the committee feel that it is important to emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of the concentration. “When our undergraduates leave this place they will, of course, have had some vertical experience in one of those forms perhaps, but they will also have found ways to integrate the study of those three elements,” Foster says.

Eliza B. Mantz ’18, who plans on declaring TDM, speaks very positively of this aspect of the concentration. “I think that if we start to get stuck in our own little theater bubble, then our theater will become one dimensional,” she says. “When we have those relationships with people who maybe don’t even know anything about theater—or approach theater from a movement perspective or a film perspective—we can create theater that’s more interesting.”

Faculty and students in TDM have suggested that, while some concentrators may go on to careers in the performing arts, all will also learn skills that can be applied to other fields. “We’re very much intent upon developing a cohort of undergraduates who will leave this place not only able to go on into the theater world…but also able to go on to other things, for which the skills they’re learning here will be extremely valuable,” Foster says. “Those are the ability to work collaboratively, to think creatively and on the spot, [and] to use their imagination with others in concert towards an idea that they wish to express.”

WHAT'S NEW

The TDM concentration combines a number of pre-existing departments, and most of the students declaring TDM have taken one or more of the classes offered in these fields either as electives or to earn credit toward another potential concentration. Yet solidifying the new program will likely change the academic experience of these students in myriad ways.

Firstly, students will receive concentration credit for work they have already been doing. “I was essentially already making up what TDM was,” says Aislinn E. Brophy ’17, one of two junior concentrators. Before the concentration officially existed, Brophy had declared English but was pursuing a special concentration very similar to what TDM is now. “Having TDM as an actual option has really made it much easier for me in many ways,” she explains with a smile. “I’ve fulfilled a lot of the requirements I have to fulfill for it anyway, so now it’s just a way for me to explore more and have more fun things to do and more course offerings and more explicitly-stated support from people who I know are there as a support network.”

Unlike in most concentrations, students will receive credit for certain extracurricular accomplishments as well. Students in TDM are required to participate in at least four productions during their time at Harvard. Two of these must be concentration productions, but the other two can be student-organized. One draw of the concentration for some students, then, is not only the ability to focus on the performing arts academically, but also the time to do so outside of class, as the concentration’s academic requirement is only 11 courses.

The A.R.T. is also significantly involved in the new concentration. Ryan McKittrick, head of dramaturgy for the concentration and director of artistic programs and dramaturg of the A.R.T., speaks to this relationship: “The A.R.T. is more deeply integrated into the life of the University than ever,” he says. “And because of that, we are able to immerse students in the professional life of the theater and give them access to our season—design courses around each particular season.” He gives “Introduction to Dramaturgy,” a course he is co-teaching with Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the A.R.T. at Harvard, as an example: “It so happens that…every main show in our season is an adaptation—either a film or a book of poetry or a memoir or novels—so we decided to co-teach this course this year and to focus it specifically on adaptation.”

McKittrick, moreover, says he believes that more structure and advising support will strengthen the pre-existing resources: “There’s a formal structure in place with a sequence of courses and specific opportunities, so that we can really mentor students now in a much deeper way…I think it’s different when you have a framework in place and when you have the support of a department behind you,” he says.

HOW IT'S GOING SO FAR

According to members of the concentration committee, high school students in the midst of the college search have already reached out to inquire about the TDM program. They have heard from students who say they would not have considered Harvard if not for the concentration’s confirmation. Mantz says she herself was leaning towards a BFA program until she heard there might be a performing arts concentration at Harvard in the works. A number of the current and future concentrators cite this potential for incoming talent as a reason for excitement.

As for current concentrators, Brophy and Matthew H. Munroe ’17 are the sole juniors in TDM. “We weren’t going to [accept junior concentrators] officially, but they really wanted to do it, and we felt like we should accommodate that,” Puchner says.

This semester, Brophy and Munroe have been enrolled in the junior tutorial, and both speak highly of the experience so far. “We created our own syllabus, so it’s basically like we’re doing whatever we want, and it’s incredible,” Munroe says. “We just meet for two hours each week and have amazing discussions about theater.” The two centered their first unit around understanding “what it’s like to have a life in the theater,” he relays. They researched theater companies in cities around the U.S. and interviewed people they knew in the area. Now, he says, they’ve moved on to a more traditional unit, reading Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski’s work and its reception. However, their assignments remain practice-based; for example, they will complete acting exercises for their current unit.

WHERE ARE THE DANCERS

One reality of the concentration right now is that there are far fewer dance courses than theater courses available. Perhaps it is therefore unsurprising that there seem to be few—if any—sophomores who plan to declare TDM next month with a focus in dance. Sophomore dancer Laurel R. McCaull ’18, who is considering a secondary in TDM, speculates that the lack of job security, in combination with the absence of a full dance curriculum, might contribute to the relative shortage of dance-minded concentrators. She adds that many dancers on campus might have come to Harvard with a very different plan of what to study.

But Johnson assures that there will be more course offerings to come. Students are likely to see a greater number of guest faculty in the future, for instance, and she highlights the extensive list of master classes that have been offered in the past. Already, next semester, Foster will be teaching a new course on “Argentine Tango: Culture, Music, and the Dance.” And there is a course that may be offered next spring that will combine poetry and choreography, co-taught by Jorie Graham, widely anthologized poet and teacher of poetry workshops at Harvard. For now, Johnson suggests the independent study option as a supplement for those interested in dance wishing to concentrate in TDM.

McCaull also suggests that the concentration should offer more technical dance classes in addition to the exploratory courses Johnson refers to as “research labs.” “I think that might make it feel like the dance component is more well-rounded,” she says. According to Johnson, such classes are, in fact, likely on the way.

McCaull and fellow dancer Gabe S. Martinez ’18 raise one frustration that they say is shared by many of their peers: that the Harvard Dance Project, one of just a few available dance courses, only counts for half credit, even though it meets for six hours per week and necessitates work outside of class.

As Johnson puts it, one hope of the concentration is precisely this impetus to develop dance at Harvard. “The concentration has given…identity to students who want to pursue these practices as a concentration—so where they felt invisible before, they’re now visible,” she says. “It’s a call to action, because when you feel like you’re a part of a population that is invisible, there’s a certain script about that…so I think what it’s given is great agency.”

WHAT IS MEDIA

While the “Dance” element of “Theater, Dance, and Media” may seem, at worst, secondary to theater, the “Media” component is an outright mystery to many. This confusion even extends to some of the students considering the concentration themselves. “Media doesn’t mean anything to me,” says Sam A. Hagen ’18, who plans to declare TDM come November. “It means anything you want it to mean. So to me, the ‘Media’ means I can take VES classes and it’ll count.” Hagen is not entirely incorrect in this assumption. There are a number of VES courses cross-listed with TDM, and Puchner himself mentions this possibility when speaking to what media entails.

Puchner also acknowledges the potential ambiguity of the word “media”: “We fully understand that [media] is a broad term,” he says. But he goes on to clarify the reasoning behind its inclusion. “We wanted to be a forward-looking concentration…. And one of the most exciting things that is happening right now in the performing arts is the use of new media...everything from film on stage to livefeeds to social media…. So we wanted to tap into this exciting moment.”

As Foster puts it, “The media part of what we’re doing in Theater, Dance, and Media is...where media intersects with performing arts and has become such a big part of it…. How are theater artists engaging with [the virtual world], and how are they incorporating it...and making it work as a tool for their own creative imaginations and their productions?”

By way of example, Puchner highlights a course called “Live Art in the Theater Environment” that will be taught in the spring by Dean Moss, a choreographer and video artist who has previously taught classes in the VES department. According to its description in the course catalog, “the course will focus on practical strategies employed in the blending of movement, sound, image, and presence in contemporary performance works.” Of the opportunity, Puchner says, “I think it’s going to be really exciting and going to showcase a lot of things that the concentration is about.”

COLLABORATION AND NON-CONCENTRATORS

Intertwined with the concentration’s interdisciplinary nature is an additional emphasis on collaboration at many levels. For example, the new area of study presents potential for collaboration among concentrators. “Of the people that are concentrating in my year, we have writers, stage managers, directors, actors, dancers. We have people who are already really good and really passionate about a certain thing, and I think that we could combine to make something really beautiful and amazing,” Mantz says. “I think that it’s hard to individualize a collaborative art.”

Faculty and students alike profess a desire for exchange between dancers and actors as well. “While I have been saying that the dance part of TDM needs to be more of its own entity, I do think there needs to be more conversation between theater and dance, because they do feel very separate right now,” McCaull says. There is even a particular interest in partnerships with departments and concentrators outside of TDM. Foster mentions the VES and Music departments, and Puchner contributes English and perhaps Comparative Literature. Ilya D. Vidrin, a graduate student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a dancer himself, hopes collaboration could even extend into the sciences. “[My ideal vision for the concentration] would be to see the bounds of interdisciplinary collaboration pushed,” he says. “I would love to see…[students] really think deeper not just about dance, theater, and media as a concentration but as a sort of interdisciplinary pursuit within something that they might have been interested in before.”

—Staff writer Mia J.P. Gussen can be reached at mia.gussen@thecrimson.com.