September 13, 2010

For TFD, The Shows Must Go On

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I am writing to express my concern with the new direction of Cornell’s Theatre, Film and Dance Department. As a senior last year, I fought hard to stop the proposed $1-2 million cuts because I believed they would prove disastrous for the department and its reputation as a professional-level training program. When I graduated in May, the opinion in the department seemed to be that while the cuts would be difficult to bear, student opportunities to produce work and practice their arts would continue. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be so, as the people who did lose their jobs were people who instructed students in production and performance. According to last week’s Sun article, the model selected for the reorganization of the Department is one that favors education in theory, and characterizes production and performance as “extracurricular.” Should such a model be implemented, I would consider it a mistake.For one thing, if you think there aren’t many jobs in theatre, film and dance, there’s far, far less in the theory of theatre, film and dance. If Cornell adapts this model, it will be training students to think about art rather than create art. While students absolutely value the theory they learn in classes at the Schwartz (I know I certainly did), most were lured to Cornell by the opportunities to train in a program modeled after professional theatre — learning from and collaborating with professional actors, directors, stage managers and designers. I know this was quite a selling point when I applied for internships and jobs at theatres each summer (and was offered several). The “extracurricular” production training I received did not just help me land jobs in theatre, though. I got my first psychology internship because I was a theatre major. “Theatre majors know how to communicate, how to write well, how to solve problems,” my boss told me. She is the first person who made me realized the value of my theatre training. While my psychology major taught me about how people think, my theatre major taught me about actually working with people in creative collaboration. Aside from the skills my boss spoke about, I became a confident leader, articulate speaker and an organized planner. I am concerned that future students will not have enough opportunities to develop these skills because, thanks to the budget cuts, there are fewer teachers, fewer courses and fewer productions to teach them. Cornell must not resign students to reading and thinking about the communication, leadership and collaboration skills they would be honing if they were training in production instead of just theory. The argument that this model was the most popular amongst the department faculty is a bit misleading. A large proportion of the people who make up the department (staff and non-tenured faculty) were not privy to discussions about the reorganization of the TFD Department. It seems student opinion was disregarded as I promise that every student believes production is an extremely valuable part of their TFD education. Alumni will tell you that we use the skills we learned in acting class, directing class and productions every day. For instance, I excelled at my Teach For America interview because I came up with an engaging and well-presented lesson. I wasn’t a natural-born teacher; I learned it. My confidence, public speaking, critical thinking and communication skills were honed every day in class and especially in rehearsal. As a junior and a senior I had multiple opportunities to direct, which positioned me as a strong leader to every program I applied. I learned to be comfortable speaking to an audience in Prof. Beth Milles’ Commedia class. I learned to plan rehearsal purposefully and execute my plan effectively in Prof. David Feldshuh’s directing class, and then found his teaching was highly applicable to planning and executing lessons. Now that I am teaching, I find flexibility and adaptability my best assets. I learned those in Prof. Melanie Dreyer’s Meisner Technique class, as well as in every production I participated in when things didn’t go quite right on-stage. I couldn’t manage balancing my teaching responsibilities and graduate school if I hadn’t learned all kinds of organization techniques as staff member Jenny Tindall’s Assistant Stage Manager. And if I hadn’t received the strong education I did from Cornell’s Theatre, Film and Dance Department, I wouldn’t be able to start an after-school theatre program for my students who have extremely limited exposure to the arts. For three years I represented Cornell happily as an Arts and Sciences Ambassador and a caller for the Cornell Annual Fund. Now I find myself shocked by the disrespect the school seems to have for the practice of the performing arts. It is embarrassing that such dramatic cuts to the Theatre, Film and Dance Department come at a time when other rigorous schools like Princeton are realizing the power of the performing arts and funding performance education. Now that cuts have been made, it is the responsibility of the College of Arts and Sciences to maintain the integrity of the program it advertised to the students when they chose to attend Cornell. The education I received at the Schwartz Center valued theory and production equally. This is because neither knowledge nor practice is worth much without the other. That, I learned as a Teach For America Corps Member. We are actually told to structure our lessons with 20 percent instruction and 80 percent student practice. Think about it: You would never remove lab experience from chemistry instruction. Lab experience is necessary for understanding chemistry. So why is it okay to decrease opportunities for students to practice theatre, film and dance production? It is not theatre, film, or dance education without ample opportunity to practice what is learned in class through actual acting, actual designing, actual stage managing, actual directing, actual filming and actual dancing.  Please remember Cornell’s motto of “any person…any study.” Cornell set out to fully educate each student in his or her chosen study. By cutting productions and practical classes, Cornell would basically be saying that it only wants to give theatre, film and dance students 50 percent of the education they came to get. This is irresponsible. Please maintain balance in the department so that students can continue to receive the rigorous, professional training that will make them highly qualified candidates for any profession they choose.Kelly Durkin ’10 is a graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences. Feedback may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Kelly Durkin