Training with a Twang

By Nance, Kevin | Stage Directions, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Training with a Twang


Nance, Kevin, Stage Directions


NASHVILLE SCHOOL SPOTLIGHT

Vanderbilt University's highly focused, top-notch theater program proves there's more to Nashville than country music.

It's a choice that every prospective theater major must make: a large program or small one? Vanderbilt University's relatively small theater department-with its six-member faculty, 25 majors and 15 minors-is dedicated to the proposition that less can be more.

"We recognize that being a small program has some drawbacks, but overall I think our size is an advantage," says Jon Hallquist, who cochairs Vanderbilt's theater department with his wife, Terryl. "Because we're so small, we can give our students a lot more opportunities to become involved in productions. We've taught in a much larger program [at the University of Michigan] where there were both undergraduate and graduate students, and unfortunately there were some undergraduates who never got cast."

The Hallquists concede that there are holes in Vanderbilt's program-the department doesn't have the faculty to teach vocal production, diction and movement for actors, for example-but they point out that they have an excellent track record of preparing students for graduate school. Recent Vanderbilt theater alumni are enrolled in graduate theater programs at Yale, Harvard and Columbia universities.

And although Vanderbilt's theater curriculum is substantial-it includes a wide variety of courses in acting, directing, dramatic literature, theater history and criticism, as well as theater design and technology-it's carefully balanced with practical application. "Teaching doesn't just happen as part of formal classes," Jon Hallquist says. "It goes on in the afternoons, in rehearsal, back in the costume shop, in all kinds of informal settings." Says Terryl Hallquist: "We're a living laboratory. I can't imagine just teaching theater and not doing it."

No need to imagine it. At Vanderbilt, theater students find themselves involved in productions, onstage and off, on a consistent basis. "If you really want to, you can quickly become indispensable," says junior Stewart Farrar, who plans to pursue a career in scenic and lighting design. "You can climb up the ladder very quickly, because you're working closely with the faculty. Before you know it, you're involved in design."

Patrick Murphree, a senior who plans to enroll in graduate studies in theater history in the fall, also appreciates the up-close-and-personal aspects of the department. "Because it's a small department, the faculty has more time for students," he says. "You're always interacting with them in non-academic settings as well, so it encourages a greater sense of camaraderie and mutual support. It's not the typical feeling of, `I'm the professor, you're the student.' Instead, it's We're partners in this production."'

Besides its coziness and personal attention, the Vanderbilt theater program has two other major assets. The first is Neely Auditorium, a 30-seat black-- box performance space housed in a 1925 Gothic-style building at the heart of the tree-lined campus. Originally the central meeting area, Neely hosted chapel services, classes and commencement ceremonies for decades before it was redesigned as a theater in 1976.

The auditorium now boasts flexible seating that allows for a variety of configurations adaptable to everything from ancient Greek drama to Shakespeare to cutting-edge contemporary plays, such as Tony Kushner's Angels In America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, which the theater produced last season. …

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