Onstage

University Theater Programs Educate and Entertain

click to enlarge Northern Kentucky University’s improv troupe
Northern Kentucky University’s improv troupe

W

ith the fall season, you have plenty of theater choices to consider. Beyond Cincinnati’s professional and semi-professional companies, area universities provide excellent theater fare worth attending.

Of course, these programs are part of experiential offerings that are key to students’ educations, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also entertaining. In fact, since university theaters typically want students to have a broad range of experience with excellent scripts, they typically produce some of the best plays and musicals of the 20th and early 21st centuries, as well as occasional classic works.

The University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music has two distinct degree programs offering professional conservatory training. The Musical Theatre program, established in 1969, was the first in the country focused on identifying and nurturing “triple threats” — performers who are outstanding actors, singers and dancers. (The program’s first grad was Tony Award nominee Pam Myers.) The Drama program is more recent, beginning in the early 1980s. Its grads can pursue theater careers, but many have landed noteworthy roles in television shows and films. 

Applicants gain admission to the CCM programs through a rigorous audition process conducted in cities across America. If they don’t adhere to high standards, students will not be retained. Grads earn a professional degree, the Bachelor of Fine Arts. CCM also offers degrees in theater design and technology, making use of its superb facilities — the Ralph Corbett Auditorium (seating 740), Patricia Corbett Theater (seating 375) and the Cohen Family Studio Theater (seating up to 200).

Northern Kentucky University takes a more open approach. Any student accepted at the Highland Heights school can declare a liberal arts major in theater for a Bachelor of Arts degree.

If seeking a professional career, enrolled students audition for a B.F.A. in specific disciplines — acting, musical theater, dance, design/technology, playwriting or stage management. The program also offers improv training and stages a biennial festival of three newly commissioned plays. NKU has two well-designed performance spaces, Corbett Theatre (325) and the Stauss Theatre (a flexible black-box seating 150).

Ken Jones, longtime NKU theater professor, was recently named director of NKU’s School of the Arts, a new university division encompassing all the arts. “We’re in the middle of creating exciting collaborations between music, theater, dance and visual arts,” he says. “These already strong programs are working together to achieve the next level of artistic heights. At NKU’s School of the Arts, we are training students to be professionals in their art or to use their art in their profession.”

Two years ago at Xavier University, Stephen Skiles launched a theater degree program leading to a liberal arts B.A. with an opportunity to focus on performance or design and technology. More than 250 undergraduates participate in XU theater productions; the program has approximately 30 theater majors. Most shows happen in the Gallagher Student Center Theater (seating 352).

“Our program prepares students for professional experience outside of Xavier by fostering a practical, cross-cultural and student-oriented curriculum,” Skiles says.

Skiles, a professional actor who worked at the Cincinnati Playhouse and with Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, brings numerous working professionals to Xavier’s campus. In 2013, his students teamed with actors from Cincy Shakes for a memorable co-production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. This season, Skiles has recruited Ed Stern, former Playhouse artistic director, to stage Kenneth Lonergan’s contemporary drama This Is Our Youth.

What’s onstage this fall?

At NKU, the 2015-2016 season opens with Ken Ludwig’s Moon Over Buffalo (Sept. 24-Oct. 4, Corbett Theatre), a comedy about a touring theater company. Up next will be Shakespeare’s seldom produced The Winter’s Tale (Oct. 20-25, Stauss Theatre), a play that flows from tragedy to romance to comedy. The Cat in the Hat shows up at NKU in Seussical (Nov. 12-22, Corbett Theatre).

At UC, CCM Drama kicks off with David Edgar’s thorny, provocative play from 1995, Pentecost (Oct. 1-4, Patricia Corbett Theater), about a startling art discovery that creates repercussions in the worlds of art history, politics and religion. The Drama program ventures off-campus for a collaboration with Know Theatre to stage Charise Castro Smith’s The Hunchback of Seville (Oct. 9-24), a Tarantino-esque romp through 16th-century history about the hunchbacked, adopted sister of the Queen Isabella.

CCM Musical Theatre’s first production will be a studio production of Big River (Oct. 8-10), based on Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s 1945 classic Carousel (Oct. 29-Nov. 1, Corbett Auditorium) is the mainstage fall show from Musical Theatre.

XU undertakes its most ambitious season to date, featuring two Broadway musicals, a world premiere, two classics and an edgy contemporary drama. The season begins with the humorous Broadway hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Oct. 22-24), an opportunity for college actors to play awkward adolescents. As already mentioned, veteran director Ed Stern will stage a very different kind of play about young adults, This Is Our Youth (Dec. 3-6). ©

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