Harvard to offer theater major

A few years from now, students interested in studying theater within the Ivy League may not immediately turn to Yale.

Two years ago, the Harvard Committee on the Arts and the Committee on Dramatic Arts generated a formal proposal that called for the establishment of a “Theater, Dance and Performance” major. This fall, the university has officially launched a fundraising campaign for the new program ­— a step that marks the administration’s approval of the proposal, which was drafted after consultations with professors at institutions such as Yale, Brown, Cornell and Stanford.

Harvard Dean of Arts and Humanities Diana Sorensen said that the introduction of a major specializing in theater arts is part of a university-wide effort to strengthen the arts at Harvard, which she thinks will make the school, which does not currently offer a theater major, more appealing to current as well as prospective students and faculty. Students and professors in the Yale theater community interviewed said they ancicipate a level of competition between Harvard and Yale’s programs in the admissions process, though most added that they hope the two will have a positive relationship.

“We would certainly like to have good dialogue with them, but in times of admissions, there will certainly be a competitive element,” said Associate Dean for the Arts Susan Cahan.

Yale Sterling Professor of Theater and English Joseph Roach, who served as one of the Committee’s external consultants, said that the existence of a formal theater major at Harvard will make the school more appealing to incoming freshmen as well as to professors in the academic theater community who are looking for teaching positions.

Cahan said she thinks Harvard’s and Yale’s programs may compete for applicants, but added that she hopes to foster a generally strong rapport and positive dialogue between the two.

Theater Studies Professor Deborah Margolin said she would welcome such a relationship, noting that she currently has very few close colleagues at Harvard, partly due to its lack of a theater major.

Three out of four Theater Studies majors interviewed said that during the admissions process, they did not feel inclined to apply to or enroll at Harvard because it did not offer a major in theater. Nathaniel Dolquist ’15 said he did not apply to any colleges that did not offer a degree in theater, adding that he would have given Harvard much more consideration had it offered such an option.

Laurel Durning-Hammond ’14 said she thinks that the presence of a theater major at an academic institution shows its belief in the arts as a discipline that is worthy of study and recognition, noting that she would hesitate to attend any university that did not have a theater major.

“We plan to make it clear to applicants that Harvard is a place where the arts and the humanities are a large focus of our academic attention,” Sorensen said. “Our arts have been mostly extracurricular, so now what we are trying to signal is the centrality of the arts in the curriculum itself.”

The proposal’s tentative outline for the standard major requires that students take a roughly equal number of scholarly and practice-based courses in theater, in addition to survey level courses such as “Introduction to Theater Arts.” The outline also mandates student participation in at least four theater productions as well as some form of training in technical theater.

Martin Puchner, chair of the Harvard Committee on Dramatics, which decides the courses for the school’s concentration in Dramatic Arts, said that while Harvard is relatively late in establishing a major that many of its peer institutions already offer, the task of having to build such a program now presents a unique opportunity to invent a modernized curriculum that moves beyond traditional theater topics. Puchner said he hopes this curriculum will explore contemporary topics, such as the blending of theater and multimedia technology, a field of study that traditional theater studies curricula have generally excluded.

“We need to move away from this fear of film and the new media in theater,” Puchner added. “Some of the most exciting theater happens at the intersection of these two realms.”

Scanlan said that though Harvard’s curriculum currently offers plenty of theater courses, the school has been resistant to accept the field as an academic concentration in past decades. He noted that Harvard theater pioneer George Pierce Baker, who was later instrumental in establishing the Yale School of Drama, taught playwriting classes at Harvard but ultimately left after failing to convince the administration to offer a playwriting major.

Sorensen noted that many of the academic components necessary for the proposed major already exist within the university, which offers a ‘secondary concentration’ — roughly equivalent to a minor degree — in Dramatic Arts.

While Harvard has a broad range of theater courses, Puchner explained, they are all scattered between different departments, including English, French and Music. Formalizing the major would largely comprise of gathering all of these elements into a single program, he added. The remaining tasks, Sorensen said, include hiring administrators to oversee the program, ensuring that its students have faculty advisors and organizing the necessary resources for students to stage their own productions.

Six out of eight Ivy League universities currently offer concentrations in the Theater Arts.

Comments