Making—and Studying—Theatre

Theatre Arts Program productions have included Quake, by Melanie Marnich (above) in 2002-03.

A conversation with Theatre Arts Program founder Cary Mazer.

This year Penn’s Theatre Arts Program celebrated the 25th anniversary of its first graduating major—no small milestone for a program that has never had a real departmental home, in a university not always known as a proving ground for the performing arts. Over the years it has produced a broad range of alumni who have found success as writers, actors, archivists, managers, artistic directors, set-designers, and other theatrical vocations.

One key to its success and survival has been its ability to embrace theatre as both an art form and a subject of academic study. Each year its faculty and students mount several productions, ranging from Searching for Spalding Gray and Screaming Queens, or Tales from Antiquity to The Duchess of Malfi and Romeo and Juliet. The faculty-directed shows are usually acting-thesis vehicles for senior honors students, and sometimes serve as the subject of academic courses; the student-directed productions are thesis projects for senior honors students concentrating on directing. 

The program was founded by Dr. Cary Mazer, associate professor of theatre arts and English, and offers a “full range of courses in all areas of theatre study, including acting and directing, theatre history, dramatic literature, performance theory, design, playwriting, dramaturgy, and many others,” in the words of its website ( Its core faculty consists of Mazer (who recently stepped down as program director) and three senior lecturers in theatre arts: Dr. James Schlatter (who will take over as director this year), Dr. Marcia Ferguson, and Dr. Rose Malague. The program also has a broad range of program lecturers and affiliated faculty. 

Senior editor Samuel Hughes recently talked with Mazer about the program’s past, present, and future.

Theatre Arts Program production Lady in the Dark, a 1941 musical by Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin, and Kurt Weill in 2004-2005.

How did the program get started?

The key thing to selling the idea was to convince the faculty of Arts and Sciences that theatre arts was an academic discipline—that there was something concrete and academic to study, and not just what was perceived as recreational or “talent.” And unknowingly that committee, to placate the program’s critics, stumbled across a format that is, in fact, the ideal way to teach theatre at a liberal-arts college or university. That is comprehensively, as an art form—that practice informs the study of dramatic literature in theatre and in theory, and that academic study of histories, theories, and concepts in turn informs the performance practice. So performance is both the subject and your laboratory.

What that meant was re-conceiving what a performance course could be. While it was indeed a skills course—we are teaching acting, directing, and design in our acting, directing, and design courses—they are also about an art form, about that performance method. So the conception of the major in the 1970s led to the possibility where it could become a really interesting, substantial program.

What are the challenges of having a program without a departmental home?

I don’t want to use the word interdisciplinary to dilute the fact that theatre is in itself a discipline. I could say that it’s a discipline that draws upon many cognate disciplines—of history, of theory, of anthropology, of literature. So being structured as an interdepartmental program allows us to dovetail very nicely and broadly across the Arts and Sciences faculty.

I have assembled an amazing core faculty that shares all of the ideals and all of the missions of this unique, unusual combination of academics and hands-on approach to theatre. The problem is that, as an interdepartmental program, they’re not standing faculty in any given department. The challenge has been assembling the team and trying to find a way to give them the esteem and the status comparable to a department even though we’re not.

It must say something about the quality of what you’ve done that you’ve been able to make it survive despite not having a home. There are plenty of programs without departments that haven’t lasted 25 years.

That’s true. The thing about having a home is that, were we to be a subsidiary of one of the existing departments, that would limit the perception of what we do to the message and disciplines of that department. If we were—and many people think we still are—a division of the English department, then we would be basically doing a genre of literary studies, which is not true.

A very large number of our majors are double-majors. I mean, that’s the trend in the University, but it used to be because there was the major that the student wanted to have, and the major that their parents would let them have. But I think in recent years it’s because of this genuine intellectual curiosity of the student to explore the intersections between what we can call the cognate disciplines and their theatre studies. So to study theatre and anthropology, or theatre and linguistics, or theatre and fine arts, makes sense.

It’s curious that these double majors are becoming a lot more common in disciplines like that than they used to be, when it was mostly literature.

We had a dual-degree student in engineering, with a theatre-arts-written thesis having to do with interfaces between writing and set-design computer programs, computer graphics—the sort of three-dimensional structuring and rendering. And the thesis was about technology and the theatre and the interface between new technologies and the artistic sensibilities, how to design the technology so that it could actually support creativity among even non-technical people. So it took someone who was doing not only a dual major but a dual degree to have that platform, to do that type of research.

What does this program offer that you couldn’t get somewhere else? How would you sell it to really talented high-school students who would like to come to Penn?

One of the real selling points that I make all the time is that we are, in size and in student-faculty contact, a small-college/liberal-arts comprehensive program—and we’re in the middle of a large research university. That is an unusual combination, and that speaks to what we were talking about a moment ago, about interdisciplinary theses and dual majors. That’s really only possible at a place that has those other disciplines at the level that we have it.

At a large university with an enormous range of extracurricular performing-arts activities, we remain small, intense, and intimate. And that enables us to use our performance work truly as a laboratory, rather than primarily as a showcase. By laboratory I mean both faculty research and student capstone research, ideally both of them at the same time.

So a professor or one of our lecturers, a faculty member, looking to direct a production, comes in with a hypothesis about how that script can work, how a particular theatre aesthetic can work, or the awareness of the challenges of some historical, textual, or interpretive peculiarity of that particular script as it can be made into a theatre work now. The theatre that you’re making is designed to be effective and to work on its own terms for this audience in this time, in this place.

If the faculty member goes in with a hypothesis, that hypothesis can be a hypothesis for the research of the student doing advanced research, or it could be the beginnings of a student forming his or her own hypothesis. Therefore the rehearsal room becomes the student’s laboratory as well.

And ideally, the faculty member is using the rehearsal room as her or his laboratory at the same time. Some of our best productions—by best I don’t necessarily mean most theatrically effective, but pedagogically effective—and certainly some of our best student theses came out of situations like that.

How does the new focus on arts at Penn help the program?

I’m eager to know the answer to that question myself. There are initiatives that happen from the president or the provost’s office, and then it’s still up to each school to find a way to do it.

We were invited to sit on the Provost’s Council on Arts and Culture. The [former interim] provost, Peter Conn, with the committee, drafted a statement on the arts, and one of the things they really tried to do is undermine the quotation that is always cited from Benjamin Franklin about education being “useful and ornamental”—to challenge the word ornamental as not being sufficient to describe the arts. The arts are not—with all due apology to Ben Franklin—ornamental.

One of the things that distinguishes this art form and the other performing arts from the other arts is that it is always social. It exists only when it is happening in front of people. It creates a picture of a community, draws real people from the community to come and watch it, and creates a community between performer and audience while the performance is on. To make theatre is to be part of the world. And so to study theatre is to study how one interacts with the world.

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