Dr. Eric Levin, an associate professor of theater arts, supervises Southern Oregon University's Master of Theatre Studies in Production and Design Program. The candidates, high school teachers from all over the world, converge on SOU for two weeks each summer to pursue a degree while developing their skills in technical theater. Levin and I chatted in his office on the SOU campus one summer afternoon.
EH: Tell me about the production and design program.
EL: It's a year-round program that meets during the summer. High school theater teachers learn how to design and build plays. Most high school drama teachers need more education in production and design. Some come in with very little theater experience outside of their own programs.
As soon as they are enrolled, they start doing work in analyzing plays. They are here for three summers, and between summers they do about 10 projects a year within their own high school programs. They design and build shows, costumes and sets; they do practical applications in technology. They analyze their own programs and research ways to make them better.
EH: What's unique about the creative theater process?
EL: It's like a football or a basketball team; it's just a different kind of job. At the same time, you have the creativity of any other artist. The person who wrote the play is also a collaborator for its production. You have people who are building, people who are designing, people who are stage managing and organizing. Everyone has a different job, but as you're creating, you're part of an overall artistic piece. So you have community, and you have individual artistic creativity; it's something that people need. Then you have the audience, who also shares in your creative process.
Ninety-five percent, maybe even higher, of SOU Theatre Arts students come in as performers. One of the reasons for that is that most high school teachers focus on acting. They come in as actors, but over 50 percent of those students find another way to fulfill their personal need to be creative in different areas of theater: as designers, as painters, as stage managers. Some go into directing. It's not the acting that was important; it was that creative process, and then being part of the team.
If you learn how to collaborate, and you learn how to express yourself creatively, that's fulfilling. It's not being up in front of people, it's not an ego thing. It's the same feeling that artists have when they're in their loft painting. There's no one there, there's no one keeping them there, but they're doing it. It just happens that in theater, you can't do it alone; you have to have other people. And in order to create a work of art, there has to be someone to see it.
It's a needy art. You have to have the people there at the time when it's being created. That's what makes it such an exciting art. As an audience member, you have the kind of NASCAR situation, where something might go wrong. If you're a thrill seeker, you can wait for that to happen. It usually does. No two performances are exactly alike.
All those elements keep me in theater. I don't do productions anymore, but I'm still part of it; I'm still educating the students toward what they want to do. I still feel a part of the team that puts it all together, in a very real sense.
For information and application details about Southern Oregon University's Theatre Teacher Training Program and the Master of Theatre Studies in Production and Design, see the website sou.edu/acts, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 541-442-6346.
Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her at email@example.com.