Guest artists are the norm

Scott Olinger, associate professor of theatre


I recently found myself (as I often do) sitting in a darkened and hushed backstage corridor, speaking with a producer. The academic year was set to begin in a few days, and I had extended the opportunity to work on a special off-campus project to a few students who were returning early to staff events during new student orientation. The producer had commented on the quality of the student work and asked, "I suppose it's not every day your students get to meet an Olympic gold medal winner and work with a Grammy award-winning producer, eh?" I grinned and replied, "Perhaps more often than you would think."

One of the things my colleagues and I appreciate most about One Course At A Time is the unprecedented access it allows to guest artists. Don't get me wrong; we're not interested in shopping out our teaching responsibilities, but we jump at the opportunity to expose our students to an array of professional artists from all corners of our field. In a traditional semester plan, you can certainly bring in a guest to meet with your class for a few hours over the course of a week, or perhaps schedule a master class on a weekend. But imagine a four-hour master class for several days, a week, or better yet, an entire block. Most theatre professionals are used to living their lives on six-week rehearsal periods before packing up and moving to the next show, and it's often not too difficult to squeeze in a three-and-a-half week residency in Mount Vernon with a little planning.

This approach has put our students in direct contact with professionals like David Apichell, the production stage manager at Madison Square Garden and touring stage manager for the Radio City Rockettes. It put actors onstage with David Combs, a member of the original Broadway cast of "Equus." Playwriting students are bouncing drafts off the likes of Naomi Wallace ("Lawn Dogs") and Keith Huff ("A Steady Rain"). And lighting designers are getting critical feedback from Stanley Crocker, touring designer for Sting and frequent designer for CMT's "Crossroads" and "Invitation Only" series.

And when we can't bring the artists here, the block plan allows us to go to them. It's not uncommon for my lighting design class to squeeze into a van and drive to Chicago to spend two hours with the production manager at the "Oprah Winfrey" show, or to tour the Electronic Theatre Controls plant in Madison with one of our two alumni employed there.

Could we do all of these things on a semester plan? Sure. You can make virtually anything happen if you work hard enough; isn't that what we want our students to believe? But if it's integral to the teaching approach rather than the exception, making it happen is the norm. It really is what you know that matters in the long run educationally, but who you know can really make a difference as well.

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