Set the scene at Princeton University, where gothic architecture wears crawling ivy rather than red brick. Students can catch evolutionary biology major Ayla Allen walking to her repertory dance class on 185 Nassau Street every Tuesday and Thursday.
If Allen were one year younger, the scene might have been drastically different. She might have been rushing past the Quad to get to the Harvard Dance Center instead. But when Allen was a high school senior, visiting Harvard in April 2014, she left disappointed. Hoping for a vibrant dance scene she could call home, she instead found the course variety lacking—and a dance-focused major or minor nonexistent.
“I didn’t see the variety of styles that I needed,” Allen says. She later mentions that she wanted to pursue dance in other ways than class or student group work. “The fact that Harvard didn’t have a minor in dance was pretty major, just because a lot of dancers that get into professional companies later on either have a BFA in dance or were involved in a minor program with dance.”
Harvard’s Theater, Dance, and Media concentration did not exist until Oct. 1, 2015, and the secondary in dramatic arts Harvard offered was primarily theater-based. While schools like Princeton and Yale had already had larger programs running for years, Harvard’s own concentration is only just starting to take the stage.
The question of why, though, is still a mystery. But some professors have a few ideas.
“I think all universities—in particular traditional universities—have had a process… of reflection and transformation in accepting art-based courses. Traditional universities were not designed to accommodate that,” says Martin Puchner, chair of Theater, Dance, and Media and the Byron and Anita Wien professor of drama and of English and comparative literature. “People will say there are art schools, vocational schools, performing arts schools like Julliard. Traditional universities—they do the humanities, but they don’t do the art-making.”
Puchner is not the only one who has attempted to carve a brighter arts scene at Harvard. In 1956, the Committee on Visual Arts published the Brown Report, which in short called for a growth in the arts at Harvard. And even earlier, in 1905, an English professor named George Pierce Baker taught his first Harvard playwriting class called English 47. Baker expanded English 47 into Workshop 47 so students could experience the plays they had written in a laboratory theater setting, and he also founded the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club. He tried to persuade Harvard to offer a degree in theater, but to no avail. Current professors are unsure why, though Yale theater professor David Budries speculates that it came down to a simple lack of interest on Harvard’s part.
“Then he defected to Yale,” Puchner says. Baker left in 1925 and went on to become the first chairman of the Yale School of Drama in 1931.
“There was a history of attempts [to establish a theater concentration]. They failed,” Puchner says, referring to the pushes for the arts made by the Brown Report in 1956 and the Committee on Dramatic Arts—which used to offer a dramatic arts secondary field—in 2004. But in 2007, when Drew Faust was elected president of Harvard, a shift began to take place. “The president had defined the arts as an area which Harvard needed to do more,” Puchner says.
Under Faust’s leadership, a Task Force on the Arts was formed. They published their report in December 2008, writing much about the performing arts at Harvard:
“The gifted theater professionals at the A.R.T., though their stage is on campus, have relatively little interaction with undergraduates—not even with undergraduates engaged in drama….”
“... [W]e also recommend the creation of a new Dramatic Arts concentration. As befits a serious discipline with a long, distinguished, and complex history, this concentration should, we believe, be fully developed, not simply secondary to another concentration’s curriculum.”
“The Task Force also discussed in its curricular conversations what role dance might play within the Dramatic Arts concentration. A limited number of liberal arts courses on dance, taught by a vital and dedicated staff, are currently offered by the Committee on Dramatics within FAS.”
But the 70-page document’s recommendations did not immediately spark a new concentration, as the task force had hoped it would. Instead, in the same year, the Great Recession hit, and the idea for a new Theater, Dance, and Media concentration was put on ice—that is, until 2011, when Puchner took up the challenge again.
In 2011, as the chair of the Standing Committee on Dramatic Arts, Puchner helped revive the concentration’s beginnings. He knew that Harvard was ready to start a concentration because of all the resources the University had in place. Farkas Hall had been recently renovated, Puchner had “an alliance of people interested” in the concentration, and the Task Force report had already made a compelling argument for some form of a performing arts program.
“So I wrote a report and walked into Drew’s office and put it on her desk,” Puchner says. “And then I didn’t hear anything for a while… maybe a year.”
By October 2014, Puchner had put the concentration out of his mind—until receiving an ambiguous email from Faust. “It was just one sentence that said, ‘Mark and I just wanted to let you know that I’ve made the funds available to start this program,’” says Puchner. “And I looked at this email, and I looked at the email address, and it didn’t come from a Harvard account. I thought someone was pulling my leg.”
Puchner ignored the email, thinking it was a joke. It wasn’t until a few days later that Diana Sorensen, Dean of the Arts and Humanities at the time, called him and asked, ‘‘Didn’t you get the message? Aren’t you happy?”
“And I thought, ‘What?’” Puchner says. “This is for real?’”
University officials announced the proposed Theater, Dance, and Media concentration that same month, and Puchner and the Committee on Dramatic Arts launched into a six-month process to bring TDM to life. “Then the real work began,” Puchner says. “Because there are all kinds of committees that need to sign off on a new initiative. So there’s—for example—the Educational Policy Committee. Any new pedagogical educational initiative has to be signed off by that committee, by other committees, and in the end, the entire faculty. All the professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences had to vote on this. What started off as a five-page proposal ended up becoming 20 to 25 pages long. It grew with every committee,” Puchner says, laughing.
The Faculty voted unanimously in favor of the concentration in April 2015, and Theater, Dance, and Media started getting ready for its first act.
If the title of the concentration is any indication, Theater, Dance, and Media is all about combining elements. When asked why, lecturer and dance director Jill Johnson has a simple response.
“Maybe the question is: Why not?” she says. “I think the way art is being made—in particular performance art—the integration of these things has been longstanding. It’s important that in order to create a new arts degree in 2016, in the unique research setting Harvard has, to reflect research and to say well, where do we think these fields are now, and where might they go? So the idea of interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary inquiry is very much suited to the Harvard research environment.”
On a deeper level, TDM combines not only different fields but also different forms of studies within them. This may be in part to because Harvard is a liberal arts institution, as opposed to a conservatory. “Acting courses, dancing courses—these were the kinds of courses universities were traditionally weren’t so keen on because they didn’t seem as ‘intellectual’ or as ‘critical.’ They seemed mostly about training rather than part of a liberal arts concentration,” Puchner says. “And so in designing TDM with its basis in practice, we were very conscious of that. And we decided at Harvard… to enfold in our practice a lot of critical thinking, reading, exploration of those ideas and so to create an arts-making concentration that is really part of the liberal arts education. In a sense, you could say we’ve met a more traditional university ‘half-way.’”
If anything, the combination of theory and practice enhances the work. “There’s no distinction between history and theory and practice. We oscillate between those things, and that’s the way the field develops,” Johnson says, and then rearranges her feet to the fifth position. “So you stand in a fifth position in ballet, right? That’s a historical representation as much as it is a theoretical proposition.”
The concentration seeks to synthesize Harvard’s performing arts assets, like the American Repertory Theater and the Harvard Dance Center. In fact, TDM may owe its existence to that very aspect. “We could not be the concentration we are without those resources,” says Deborah D. Foster, director of undergraduate studies for Theater, Dance, and Media. For example, several of Johnson’s dance classes, like Movement Lab or the Harvard Dance Project, use the space the Dance Center has to offer. The concentration also brings in faculty from the A.R.T.: Ryan McKittrick, the director of artistic programs at the A.R.T., leads a course called “Introduction to Dramaturgy”; Marcus Stern, an associate director at the A.R.T., and Shira Milikowsky, A.R.T. artistic associate, teach directing.
If given the opportunity to pursue a TDM secondary at Harvard, Allen, the Princeton evolutionary biology student, says her decision would have been far more difficult, “I think that [TDM]—in addition to meeting student groups—would have been the gamechanger,” Allen says.
Theater, Dance, and Media began accepting students in Oct. 2015, a little less than a year after it was first announced. The concentration’s first run has been outstanding to its participants—but it wasn’t without a few bumps along the way. “I love so much about the concentration, but I do think I would love to see more of an option for a more traditional track, so that we can make sure we are developing as artists,” says concentrator Eliza B. Mantz ’18, who aspires to be a professional actor.
“We are small right now [11 undergraduates declared TDM as their concentration last year], and we’re trying to grow. And I think the more courses and faculty we add, the more tracks we can offer,” Puchner says in response. “For example—dance. We really only had one dancer. This is how we started: Jill Johnson, the head of the Dance Center. Now, she did a great job, and she brought in guests for master classes and so on and so forth. But that’s just one person having to do it all. So we just hired a second dancer—Mario Zambrano—who is going to start in the spring.”
It’s apparent that Puchner and the rest of the concentration take Mantz’s comment seriously, as well as the wishes of all the concentrators and non-concentrators participating in Theater, Dance, and Media. “We met with all the students at the end of last year and had a meeting with them to talk about the way in which the first year worked and where it needed tweaking in one way or another,” Foster says. “And some of the things students talked about—that is an ongoing, juggling challenge for everybody—is exactly how students can manage do all the things they hope to do and should do, all in a limited span of time.”
But of course, the student response hasn’t just been limited to critique. “I think the fact that TDM works with outside professionals in bringing them in and also works with the A.R.T. is so exciting,” says concentrator Thomas W. Peterson ’18. “It means TDM concentrators uniquely get contact with all these amazing people who are doing theater and performance in the world.” Peterson, for example, is currently the assistant director for a TDM adaptation of August Strindberg’s “A Dream Play”; Daniel Kramer—the artistic director of the English National Opera, a prestigious opera company based in London—is the director of this play, meaning Peterson is able to work closely with him in its production. For concentrators, putting on plays with professionals is not uncommon: Each concentrator is assigned an academic and a creative adviser, each faculty or A.R.T. or Dance Center professionals.
In addition to bringing in lecturers from the A.R.T., the Theater, Dance, and Media concentration also invites, every semester, a series of visiting artists from all over the world. Kramer is teaching a course called “Devising Physical Performance.” Vivian L. Huang, a former predoctoral fellow at Williams College, is now at Harvard for the year teaching “Asian American Theater and Performance,” a course cross-listed with both TDM and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality department. Katie Pearl, co-artistic director for the Obie Award-winning PearlDamour creative team, teaches a class on theater and activism. Beyond these individuals, TDM will bring nine other visiting artists to Harvard this year.
Allen is now at minoring in dance at Princeton. While she is able to pursue her interests at her current school, there are aspects of Harvard’s Theater, Dance, and Media concentration that she believes she would have preferred—most notably the way theater and dance are combined into one area of study at Harvard. At Princeton, Allen says, the fields are very “compartmentalized,” as theater and dance form their own separate programs.
Susan S. Marshall—director of dance at Princeton—says that the Princeton dance program does offer a wide variety of cross-listed courses in other departments, including theater and visual arts, and that many pursue minors in Dance while majoring in Visual Arts. “As a multidisciplinary academic unit, the Lewis Center [designed to serve different artistic disciplines at Princeton] is particularly well-suited to students who want to craft an interdisciplinary course of study in the arts as well as those who desire a deep, faceted, and rigorous engagement with an individual art form," Marshall writes in an email. But that small distinction between collaborative but separate majors and a single combined concentration may make all the difference.
While Allen may not be able to change history, other students now have the chance to change their futures in the field of the performing arts.
“It’s not a secret that Harvard has come very late to creating a performing arts concentration. People will say, ‘That’s too bad—why did Harvard take so long?’ But we didn’t actually dwell so much on that,” Puchner says. “We thought that the fact that we’re creating a concentration now—rather than 40 years ago, which is when many other schools created theirs—was a real opportunity to really think about where the performing arts are going.”
—Staff writer Grace Z. Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.