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The Need for an Introduction

By Reva P. Minkoff

Want to act? Write? Paint? Unless you’re already Picasso, Harvard is not the place for you.

Many schools have extensive course offerings in artistic areas, such as drama and the visual arts, but Harvard is not one of them. When Dramatic Arts 10, Harvard’s beginning acting class, had its first session on Sept. 19, about 60 students showed up to audition for one of the 16 spaces in the class. The audition pieces, by Anton Chekhov and Arthur Miller, were not easy monologues to delve into, especially for someone with no theater experience. Although it was nominally a beginning-level class, the students auditioning for the class included many who had performed lead roles in past Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) productions—not beginners by any means.

The battle for entry into introductory courses extends beyond classes in dramatic arts, nearly all of which require either an audition or interview for admission. In the Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) department, the process to get into an introductory level class often requires a rigorous “audition,” and in the English department, a portfolio submission is required for every creative writing class.

When “beginning”-level classes are really for already talented students, they cease to be introductory, and they no longer give novices the chance to try something new. The mere fact that so many of the fine arts classes are audition-based or require a portfolio is enough to scare many students away from applying. An intro-level class should be geared to anyone who wants to try their hand at a new subject, not only to those with extensive experience coming in.

This does not necessarily mean decreasing the class’s workload or even its difficulty level. It just means varying the course offerings, perhaps by providing workshops, and allowing a variety of students into the class. Harvard students are talented and fast learners. They just need to be given the opportunity to show what they can do—the opportunity to be taught.

While one might argue that, for prospective actors, there are community theater productions and the HRDC, the talent level necessary to get into these productions is already very high. Unlike, say, intramural sports, drama at Harvard is not open to all those students who want to gain entry. The audition process is extremely competitive.

Furthermore, acting in a show is not a substitute for a drama course. Acting classes teach students method, scene study, vocal performance, and other skills, while shows are simply an exercise of abilities they already possess. No show teaches skills in the way a course can.

For writers and artists, there are publications that could publish their work. Again, however, the bar is extremely high, and the College offers students precious little help to clear it. Extracurriculars, then, are not necessarily a viable alternative—and certainly do not provide the instruction a class could.

So what is to be done? The solution has two parts. First, the English and VES departments should offer more introductory level courses (as well as more offerings in general) in areas such as creative writing, acting, and the visual arts. Clearly, the demand for such classes is substantial, as indicated by the high turnout at the introductory sessions. The College should consequently seek to meet the demand of its students by offering more courses and hiring more faculty—a path some in the departments seem willing to take if only their colleagues would agree. Additionally, the Office for the Arts, as well as other groups and houses on campus, should make a better effort to provide students with opportunities to try out new artistic endeavors and gain instruction—without having to pass a rigorous and difficult audition to do so.

Harvard students may be talented. But all students should be able to access a fine arts education—not just those who are naturally gifted.

Reva P. Minkoff ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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