By Latrelle Bright & Thom Miller
Shapeshifting. That’s how the recent news described the U.S. American Theatre landscape. The field of theatre is attempting to remake itself for the purposes of sustainability, relevance, and economics; and the programming and season subscription models seem to be at the center of this shift. Diverse programming efforts, or a broadening of the Western canon with new work from marginalized voices, is not new news. Responding to these efforts in the academic setting is new; so, three years ago, two things happened.
First, the core Theatre Studies faculty began a conversation about who we were as a program, what our gifts were as educators, and how best to prepare our students for this moment in U.S. American theatre. Already in place were courses in dramaturgy, playwrighting, and directing; however, the courses were not in concert with one another. A student could specialize in one area without knowing how it worked with or complemented the others in any formal way. Listening to the shifting shapes and the interests and expertise of faculty, we saw a clear and direct way to shape not only the department but student experiences to ready them for the evolving world of theatre. This evolution is a place that nurtures the relationship between playwrights, dramaturgs, and directors, in the development of new plays from those new voices.
Second, Gabriel Solis, the former head of Illinois Theatre, initiated a program to elevate the Theatre Studies program and the contributions of its students with a permanent place in the official Illinois Theatre season. We have developed a series called the Theatre Studies New Works Project, that is produced biennially where 2–3 new plays by students are workshopped with student dramaturgs and directors and presented in a festival format in the season. These works range from full-length plays that have gone through numerous drafts that are semi-staged and lightly designed; first drafts of plays ready for a traditional public reading; and devised pieces that are created from scratch with an ensemble.
From these efforts and with the strong support of Theatre Head Valleri Robinson, a new course titled New Play Development is now offered to ready students for a robust and respectful creative process. In addition to learning the long history of new play development and the economics of producing new works, students learn the varied ways each role (director, playwright, and dramaturg,) can support the process. We invite writers into the classroom to respond to their work, in whatever stage of development, gaining hands-on experience being in conversation with other artists. Making art is a vulnerable act, and these conversations are not always easy, so a safe, respectful space is essential. As we engage more and more with stories about people from the margins, we must be sensitive, brave, open, and forthright, and above all, humble. Wanting more stories about diverse peoples is not enough. We must make the effort to create and nurture those artists so they can do their work. This course, this program, is about that work.
All of this is particularly important to expanding the Western canon and diversifying our stages. Right now, we are reaping the benefits of a plethora of playwrights from the margins graduating from MFA programs, becoming resident playwrights at theatres of all sizes, and receiving grants and other funding to support their work and livelihoods. Our students are helping to lead this undertaking.
Recent graduate Jordan Ratliff (BFA ’21 Theatre Studies) directed the Chicago premier of Donja R. Love’s One in Two at Pride Arts Chicago. Melody Contreras (BFA ’21 Theatre Studies) served as dramaturg for Remy Bumppo’s production of Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz. Sophia Urban (BFA ’25 Theatre Studies) and Kashara Bennett (BFA ’23 Theatre Studies) served as assistant directors for Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s reading of Honey Bee Baby by Erlina Ortiz in late August 2023.
It is an interesting time to be a theatre maker and theatre watcher. Here’s to the shifting and shaping of the new American Theatre landscape, both for those who create it and those who support it, and for all of us who will benefit from doing the work.