Southern Oregon University's Theatre Arts Program is garnering praise from theater professionals, even as it turns away students because of a lack of space.
Built in 1982, the Theatre Arts building was designed to accommodate 60 students.
The building now hosts 250 theater majors, said Program Coordinator Deborah Rosenberg.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Southern Oregon University's Theatre Arts Program have forged a relationship that sends dozens of students and theater professionals back and forth between the two institutions.
Students are funneled into internships and acting roles at OSF, while actors, directors, stage combat experts, voice instructors and others teach classes and help with SOU plays.
OSF Director of Company Development Scott Kaiser — who scouts universities across America for theater talent and also heads OSF's actor training program — said SOU is unique.
"It's our local feeder department. We have relationships with schools all over the country, but we have a special relationship with SOU because they're right down the street," Kaiser said.
He said he auditions SOU seniors who are ready for a significant commitment to OSF.
Many universities in large urban areas have ties to their local professional theater companies. SOU is able to have ties with a world-class theater company even though it's not in a big city, Kaiser said.
That ends up benefitting SOU students, he said.
"We're building a bridge for them between college experience and a professional career or graduate school," Kaiser said.
Kaiser has directed at SOU, making him one of many OSF company members who has directed or taught at the university.
"Not only do they come to OSF, we go down the street. It goes in both directions," he said.
OSF actor Michael Hume, who has directed productions at SOU, said in the 1990s, there were only a few SOU students at OSF.
"Now we have 30 or 40 kids down here," said Hume, noting that they can be found working in stage management, acting, design, dramaturgy, lighting, sound, carpentry, the costume shop and many other areas.
Hume credited the community-oriented focus of OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch for much of the increase.
Rauch became artistic director for OSF in 2007 and is co-leader of the theater company with new Executive Director Cynthia Rider.
Hume said OSF company members enjoy having the SOU students around because of their youthful energy and enthusiasm.
With the two institutions in such close proximity, it makes sense to build ties, he said.
"To me, it's the perfect marriage," Hume said.
Each year, 120 students want to get into the program but only 65 are admitted, she said.
"We only have two actual classrooms. We teach in the lobby. Kids rehearse in the bathroom," Rosenberg said.
The theater program needs $11 million to remodel its building and add classrooms, bathrooms, rehearsal space and other facilities, she said.
But with tight state funding for higher education needs, faculty members and students don't have high expectations that the money will come through.
The university is also seeking donors for the building remodel, Rosenberg said.
In the meantime, theater professionals in Ashland are praising SOU's students and a program that turns out well-rounded graduates.
"They are hard-working young people," said Oregon Shakespeare Festival Director of Company Development Scott Kaiser, who crisscrosses the country scouting universities for theater talent. "Most are putting themselves through school by working. They take classes by day and do shows at night."
Veteran OSF actor Michael Hume, who has directed students in SOU plays and taught in classrooms, said the students are hard-working, focused and savvy.
Last year, several aspiring stage managers in the SOU program asked him to write letters of recommendation, he said.
"I was able to say, 'These will be professional stage managers,'" Hume said.
Rosenberg said students are required to study multiple aspects of theater.
"We expect every student to understand all of theater," she said.
That helps break down the cliques and hierarchy that can develop in a theater company, and also creates multi-skilled graduates, she said.
"We have actors learning to sew for the first time. We have costume designers take acting and understand how scary it is to be on stage," Rosenberg said.
Some students who come into the program expecting to focus on one area, such as acting, discover they have talents in another specialty, such as costume design, she said.
The students take classes and also work on the six plays that SOU produces each year, Rosenberg said.
In a recent makeup class, aspiring actors, lighting designers, costume designers, technical directors and singers all practiced how to apply makeup to transform themselves into animals.
In a previous class, they became aliens, and in an upcoming class, they will replicate the blood and gore of wounds.
Senior Alex Groveman had dark circles around his eyes and had created the look of fur with makeup. He held up his source of inspiration, a photo of a snarling raccoon.
His classmates offered critiques of the results, with instructor Rosenberg guiding the discussion.
"Good luck with that rabies," Rosenberg told Groveman.
"Thank you," he responded. "I'm heading to the vet later."
Senior Laurel Livezey had given herself a wrinkled muzzle and brow, replicating the look of a pug dog.
She said acting is her main focus, but she's gained experience in all aspects of theater.
"Theater is so much more collaborative than people tell you," Livezey said. "You really have to know what each side goes through. I've been up in the catwalks adjusting lights. As an actor, I know how much work went into this one light that's hitting me. I know how much pressure everyone is under. It's empathy — knowing what everyone is going through and respecting that."
Senior Delaney Matson had turned herself into a "Planet of the Apes"-worthy chimpanzee.
She said she is learning the intricacies of a variety of jobs, including costume design and stage management.
"I love it here. It's really great. I like that they're training us to be professionals, even though we're students," Matson said. "They expect us to be just as professional as they are."
The next productions to take the stage at SOU are "Avenue Q," from May 16 through June 2, and "The Illusion," from May 23 through June 2.
For more information, visit http://www.sou.edu/theatre/patronres.html.
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.