March 24, 2013

Students, Professors Adjust to Changes in Cornell Department of Performing and Media Arts

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Correction appended

Following a $1-million budget cut from 2010-12 that forced theater, film and dance at Cornell to restructure, the Department of Performing and Media Arts’ artistic director — a faculty member who helped oversee the production season — stepped down.

Although the department says it is trying to better utilize resources while increasing student involvement, some students say the loss of the director position has resulted in students receiving less faculty mentorship.

The department opted to replace the director position with a performance and events committee that consists of faculty members and a student representative, according to Weili Shi ’13.

Shi said that although the department’s recently-adopted initiatives give students more opportunities to engage in hands-on work, in the past, students have gained a lot through working with professionals.

“Part of what makes the Schwartz [Center for Performing Arts] so amazing is that you get to work with all these professional faculty in close relations and be directly mentored by them,” Shi said. “I feel like we’re really losing that as we make things more student-driven.”

Shi added that while PMA is encouraging “students to really put their work out there, we have other spaces on campus for that … such as Risley.”

Prof. Sabine Haenni, performance and media arts, said that initiatives the PMA department have launched, however, have benefited students — giving them more experience leading productions.

“We are exploring ways that allow students to take the lead in directing and acting [and] provide professional development support and coaching in a classroom setting,” she said. “Students will get the professional and pedagogical support that allows them to be the best they can be.”

In order to help students thrive in these positions and to ease the transition, productions will be supported by full-scale classes, Haenni said.

“[This] creates many opportunities for students to explore a play under the guidance of a seasoned faculty, while at the same time [cutting] down on the amount of time they need to spend in rehearsal,” Haenni said. “Students can get full credit for what they are doing and will [also] have more faculty mentorship and coaching.”

Shi, however, expressed concern that the department’s productions would possibly suffer as a result of the changes. For instance, she said, in previous years, the artistic director helped guide “the generation of a cohesive season.”

Additionally, the director was not necessarily a separate hire — he or she was a professor who stepped up to serve in the position, Shi said.

Michael Doliner ’13 added that the changes to the PMA department will require trying to understand “how we can get students in the department the best possible education they can get … while it becomes more of an ‘education by doing’ institution.”

Haenni, however, stressed that the department remains open to feedback from students.

“Our calendar will be somewhat different each year … we’re always willing to listen to students [and] create the best possible conditions for their creative work,” Haenni said.

In an effort to allow students to voice their opinions, Haenni held a student forum March 5 about the upcoming changes.

“The faculty on the committee who came were able to hear the response to next year’s season directly from them, which was vital,” Shi said. “[Haenni] … seemed very receptive to opinion in general, whether positive or critical.”

Haenni also said that the department has been seeking to increase student involvement through other initiatives: working to launch a student film festival and a faculty showcase and collaborating with student groups such as Red Shadow Productions.

“We need to develop more opportunities like these, bring in more students and establish mutually beneficial relationships with student groups,” Haenni said. “These are all steps in the right direction that we hope to develop further in the future.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the artistic director position will be eliminated. In fact, the artistic director stepped down in 2011. The article also said that the PMA department had one year to implement a $1-million budget cut in 2011. In fact, it had two years, beginning in 2010.

Original Author: Kaitlyn Kwan