By Cassidy Keenan
The arts at Wheaton College have come a long way in the last several decades. Artists on campus have seen the emergence of many new classes, programs, and opportunities. Wheaton even went so far as to allow dancing on campus. (They lifted the ban in the early year of 2003, a shockingly progressive move for such ancient days.)
However, it is clear that we as an institution have a long way to go.
Theatrical performance at Wheaton beat out dancing with its arrival, but only just barely. Arena Theater’s core ensemble “Workout” was founded in 1973. This, in turn, led to the birth of an annual three-show season continuing to this day. The seasons have grown very successful, achieving critical acclaim from local audiences and even larger media presences such as The Chicago Tribune.
Also, Wheaton’s theatrical academic curriculum has expanded enormously. Wheaton offers several excellent classes for young theater-makers. They are all taught by actors, directors, and alumni with professional experience and credentials. Students can learn arts of acting, directing, scenography, integration of church and theater, and much more.
So the question remains: why does Wheaton still not offer a theater major?
The closest Wheaton College has is a communications major with a specialization in theater. General media and communications classes are the majority of the requirements available. This is hardly the ideal structure for a young theater-maker who wants more training.
The interest is certainly there. This year’s current “Workout” ensemble alone consists of 46 members of all different grades. Over half of these are theater minors, or have taken several of the theater courses offered. And the ensemble is a highly selective group. It can hardly encompass all the eager young theater-makers at Wheaton.
We have seen the development and increasing popularity of summer programs, such as Shakespeare in the Park or Mask and Meaning in the Black Hills. By the end of the spring 2020 semester, there will have been five student-directed productions in the past three years alone. Not to mention the usual mainstage performances, the most recent of which (Peter and the Starcatcher) sold out every single show before the first weekend was over.
There are students who want to learn. There is support from the community. And there are able, qualified professors and faculty members eager to expand the skill sets of young artists.
All we are lacking is the support and resources from the administration.
It’s true that most of Wheaton’s funding for these programs is reliant on generosity of alumni and donors. However, Wheaton has almost completely neglected to put the funding that it does receive toward the good use of the young artists on campus. Furthermore, the majority of the budget allotted toward the arts goes almost exclusively to the conservatory. More than $58 million was raised for the music program’s newest project, the construction of a new rehearsal space and concert hall. The one and only time Arena Theater was given a new performance space, in 1983, it was purchased for only $750,000.
And the theater administration was shocked that they had been given even that much.
I’m not writing this to attack the conservatory. I do not want to pit fellow artists and makers against one another. As a member of the theater program myself, I have enormous respect for our musicians on campus and the essential work that they do. The new concert hall is a wonderful project, and I know it will be used well.
But the disparity between the arts programs on campus cannot be disregarded. Consider the visual arts programs on campus in Adams Hall, or the dance ministry Zoe’s Feet, or my fellow colleagues at Arena Theater. There are other essential avenues of creativity on campus that are not getting the attention and support from the administration that they deserve.
One of the easiest and most practical steps for the administration to take to in order to offer more support is to offer a proper theater major. Expanding the curriculum, putting a label on it, and offering students a chance to get better credit for doing what they love—what a crucial thing. Wheaton already offers it so freely for so many other fields.
There is enormous emphasis on gaining skill and experience in all walks of life in a liberal arts school.. Students have the opportunity to find their particular calling, and to explore the way God is present in everything and anything. Yet the resources and support are distributed unequally. We run the risk of failing to fulfill what we as a school have set out to do.
Offering a theater major is a step in the right direction, and an incredibly valuable one. It would give young artists a chance to learn more, to grow more, to have practical training and experience telling stories and doing what they love. It is a fundamental opportunity that they are currently lacking at Wheaton College.
We can take this step walking, or running, or even dancing as of 2003 (anything truly is possible!). But regardless of how we move, we must come together to move forward.