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Theater, For Credit

By Susan E. Mcgregor

In theatrical lore, one should never utter the word “Macbeth” in a theater, unless it is during a performance of the play. Even during the production, it is referred to as “The Scottish Play,” and its lead characters as “M” and “Lady M.” If one should violate this rule, then either the specified blessing must be said immediately, or one has to leave the theater, turn around three times backward, and then knock on the theater door, and wait to be let back in. Seriously.

The ghosts of the Scottish play, however, are ones that visit all theaters. Here on the Harvard campus, there is a second specter which appears to the theater community from time to time, and which has recently been sighted once again: the apparition of a Theater Concentration.

As someone who has never quite managed to not do theater any semester since coming to Harvard, I can tell you the idea is not a new one. However, growing student and faculty interest as well as the currency of the Curricular Review have set the stage for actual change. And while one might assume that the theater community would whole-heartedly support such a move, the hour-plus debate on the topic at the last Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) open meeting demonstrated that while the original push for a theatrical concentration may have come from the theater community, it is still a complicated and contentious issue.

“I think this all started with, ‘Oh, we’re doing so much work, let’s get credit for it,’” Marcus Stern, the HRDC faculty advisor remarked at the meeting. And that’s true. That’s because when Biology concentrators spend fifteen or twenty hours a week doing research in a lab, they can get course credit. But when I do a show, not only do I not get course credit for my fifteen to twenty hours a week of rehearsal; I get met with blank stares when I pronounce the phrase “tech week.” Of course, one might argue that bio concentrators are preparing for their future careers. So are we. Off the top of my head I can think of two directors, a handful of actors, a lighting designer and a stage manager who have all gone professional from Harvard theater—in the last three years. And there are plenty more on the way.

Besides the kids going pro, there has also been a recent increase in the number of performance studies (the theoretical aspect of theater and performance) concentrators. By this June, a dozen students will have graduated with Special Concentrations in some form of performance studies within the last five years. But student interest in making and learning about theater has never been the question. As Austin Guest put it at the HRDC meeting, “This whole thing really hinges on the theory versus praxis issue.”

In non-theory talk that means: how would an independent community that is learning about theater affect the community that is making theater, and can they coexist? According to Marjorie Garber, chair of the Visual and Environmental Studies department and a member of the Committee on Dramatics that has been considering the issue, any potential theatrical concentration would not infringe on the current autonomy of the student theater community. “Those spaces would not be co-opted or reserved for concentrators,” Garber wrote. Yet an obvious difficulty is waiting in the wings. What if a Performance Studies concentrator wants to make a theatrical production his or her thesis? Should the show be guaranteed a spot in the student theater season? Up to this point, the Performance Studies concentrators who have done thesis productions were already experienced members of the theater community, and had to provide alternatives to a performance in case their shows were not given space. But one can hardly imagine that a highly invested thesis advisor won’t at some point insist that a particular student’s thesis be given space. What could the student theater community do? As John Drake, ‘06 notes, “There’s no way a Dean will let an extracurricular group dictate to a concentration.” And in a season with less than ten slots total, even the handful of students in the concentration would significantly alter the character of student theater at this school.

While I—and I think most of the theater community—would celebrate the expansion of theatrical educational resources at Harvard, such a move must be managed carefully. Certainly we have a vibrant and experimental community that would take full advantage of any additional opportunities that the College would offer, but that community could be easily threatened if its needs are not considered carefully. Without the guarantee of dedicated extracurricular performance facilities of at least the current size and quality, the student theater community could find itself at the mercy of a department one quarter its size. It’s essential that the community organize and take an active role in the discussions of this issue. Because if we let ourselves get shut out of our performance spaces, it will take far more than turning around three times and knocking to get us back in.

Susan E. McGregor ’05, a Crimson editorial comper, is a special concentrator in Interactive Information Design living in Quincy House.

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