In the Family

By Keyes, Bob | Stage Directions, August 2006 | Go to article overview
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In the Family

Keyes, Bob, Stage Directions

The theater department of this New England school fosters a closely knit atmosphere.

The theater community at the University of Southern Maine feels something like a family.

With approximately 100 undergraduate majors, the department's eight full-time faculty and half-dozen part-timers develop close relationships with the students over the course of their studies. The students, in turn, earn the responsibility of leadership before going out in the world and earning a living in theater.

They play key, hands-on roles in charting the course of the department, whose most famous graduate is TV actor Tony Shalhoub ("Monk"). Other graduates fill the ranks of professional regional theaters across the northeast and New England, working as actors, directors and designers.

Some have enrolled in graduate schools, while others have landed on Broadway or ended up in Hollywood working on TV and in films. The school also has an active intern program that places students in professional companies in Portland and elsewhere in Maine. Eight interns-five in tech, three on stage-spend the summer at the Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, which has close ties to the school.

"We're pretty proud of the fact that a fair number of our students are out there working," says Department Chairman Charles S. Kading, who attributes the school's placement success to a rigorous training program that's noted for its thoroughness and intensity.

"Students are given the opportunity to do a ton of work here," Kading says. "It's not impossible for students to direct a mainstage show, and there are many student designers doing mainstage shows. You can come here and get what you need to get going with a career in theater."

The department has a four-year undergraduate program, offering a B.A. in theater. It's a 70-credit course of study. Students learn performance, theater history and backstage skills. USM added a sound design curriculum last year, complementing existing programs in lighting, costume and scene design.

The department offers concentrations in playwriting, critical analysis and theater education, and collaborates with USM's School of Music for a degree in musical theater.

About 25 percent of the department's graduates concentrate in design, Kading says. "Personally, I'm pretty proud of the fact that we have a rigorous production side to the department. But we also have a rigorous scholarship side. It's the most intense undergraduate program in the region."

USM students have earned regional and national recognition through the American College Theatre Festival. The department has traveled to the Kennedy Center three times and won national awards in performance, playwriting and forensics. Located in both Portland and Gorham, USM is the largest of the seven campuses of the University of Maine system. It is also the oldest, founded in 1878.

The theater department is on the Gorham campus, about 15 minutes from Portland, in a stately shaded building known as Russell Hall that was constructed as a Works Progess Administration project in the 1930s.

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