Synergy by the Bay

By Schiffman, Jean | Stage Directions, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Synergy by the Bay


Schiffman, Jean, Stage Directions


San Francisco State University

Forging strong ties with the community and offering superior hands-on experience are key pillars of this school's theater program.

It's safe to say that faculty students and graduates of San Francisco State University's community-minded Theatre Arts Department are everywhere. Some, including Annette Bening, Amy Irving and Harry Groener, act in film; some are art directors in film and television. Others act, design or direct at regional theaters or form their own companies; San Francisco's Word for Word, Theatre of Yugen and Wit's End are among the local groups founded by or largely consisting of SFSU alumni. Many are in the crew at the San Francisco Opera, where the assistant head of the electrical department is also a Theatre Arts graduate.

indeed, far from projecting an ivorytower image, SFSU has long been a vibrant, interactive training ground for theater whose influence is felt throughout the region. Case in point: Professor Larry Eilenberg has been moonlighting as artistic director of San Francisco's highly respected Magic Theatre for the past five years (he recently announced his resignation there). Department chair/playwright Roy Conboy has dramaturged the equally venerable Bay Area Playwrights' Festival (founded by Sam Shepard and Robert Woodruff, the latter a former SFSU drama student). John B. Wilson, head of the department's design program and a professional scenic designer for 25 years, just completed the set for TheatreWorks' Ragtime in Palo Alto, California. Bill Peters, head of directing, has directed at the Magic, the Public Theater in New York and elsewhere. Joan Arhelger, who teaches lighting design, was the San Francisco Opera's associate lighting designer for 16 years. In fact, each faculty member is a working professional, with specialties as varied as Suzuki, Lecoq technique and comedy.

In addition, the department collaborates with the San Francisco Mime Troupe on a youth education project and gives space and advice to student spinoff companies as well as lending them costumes and props. This cross-fertilization contributes immeasurably to the teeming Bay Area theater scene and is part of what makes the department and the community at large so special. As department technical director Rob Oakley says, "Our whole program is based on trying to get people work."

Undergraduate majors in Theatre Arts choose between design/tech (about 50 students) and performance (about 400). However, performance-track students must have hands-on experience in technical areas, while tech majors graduate with a working understanding of performance. Classes include Asian Acting For Western Actors, "Theatrical Makeup" and "Writing And Performing Monologues. The Brown Bag Theatre Company stages 14 different texts per semester, all produced by students. Advanced design/tech students assist or intern with faculty members on their outside work; even undergraduates have the opportunity to design campus shows.

There are also a few MA and MFA students in design/tech, with a curriculum tailored to suit each one's individual needs (there are no graduate programs in performance or directing). "We've become much more multicultural in recent years," muses Conboy, who has started a university-supported playwrights' lab for young Latinos at the city's El Teatro de la Esperanza, where he is an associate artist. …

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