3 Ways University Drama Departments Can Build Enrollment Without Breaking the Bank

Attracting Theatre Studies Students

Finding competent students has become an increasingly difficult task for most colleges and universities over the years.  This decline is mostly mathematical. Schools and programs have increased more than the number of students likely to populate them.

At the Maslow MA/MFA Program for Creative Writing where I teach playwriting, for example, there were 7 similar programs in existence when it began 15 years ago. “Today, there are 65 programs offering similar low-residency degrees,” according to Bonnie Culver, the program director.  Yikes! Can you imagine the creative scrambling we’ve been doing?

I want to be an actor” or set designer or director seldom causes
parents’ hearts to flutter with joy.

Drama programs are not immune from this statistical imbalance. If anything, they are more vulnerable. Theater as a vocation doesn’t conjure up the image of financial security for parents or for adults looking to further their education. The phrase “I want to be an actor” or set designer or director seldom causes parents’ hearts to flutter with joy. In fact, two acquaintances no longer speak to me because, after appearing in two of my plays, their son announced his intention to change his major from business to drama.

Of course, we all try to increase quality. We search for faculty with names that might draw students to our campuses. We offer special programs on weekends. We invest in advertising. These strategies are all expensive and increasingly unproductive as competition for students increases.  So, what can theater departments do if they are not one of the go-to programs in the country—Yale or Carnegie-Mellon?

Looking Outside the Box – Working with the Community

What is the purpose of all advertising? Getting your name, brand, and “face” recognized positively in your target area—in the case of some universities that have a high commuter population, this zone is the communities proximate to them.  Some universities have mastered this and others haven’t.

actors on stageI currently live in the Hampton Roads area in Virginia where a friend, P. A. Wray, opened a black box theater some years ago, The Venue on 35th.  It was a home to a number of new plays and playwrights as well as poets both established and new. 

This small venue was also open for engagement with the area’s college students. The first play ever produced on their outdoor stage was one brought in by a student who wanted extra credit – and she got it.

Imagine Wray’s surprise some years later when she got a call from a college drama student, a recent transfer from another university, who was dismayed to find out that the drama department she was now enrolled in didn’t provide their students opportunities where they could work with local theaters to gain “real world” experiences.

So this young woman went out and made her own – she worked on, and appeared in, several Venue productions and with the Virginia Playwrights Forum in their workshop productions and staged readings of new plays. She later went on to earn an MFA and she now teaches in a university program, where you can bet her students will be out in the community.

Only about 90 miles away, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has a different philosophy. In an article in The Richmond-Time Dispatch, Susan Haubenstock quoted the director of the VCU program, Sharon Ott: “’We’re looking at more partnerships with places like Virginia Rep and Richmond Triangle Players, too,’ Ott said. ‘I’ve been impressed at how present VCU is in the theater community here. Our students get right to work. We’ve had as many as 40 of our students getting professional work at Virginia Rep.’”

There are several advantages to having one’s academic theatrical presence obvious to the surrounding community

  • The opportunity for free local advertising
  • Cultivating a broader student talent pool among potential students
  • Establishing a community brand as a stepping stone into professional theater
  • Developing a reputation in your community
  • Finding local boosters

See a list of our popular and engaging Community Theater Plays

Touring to High Schools and Middle School

actors on stageMiddle schools and high schools can be stomping grounds for not only recruiting but also creating potential students.

Students of that age might not realize that they have an interest in theater until they see a production done with higher values and levels of competence than they might find productions by their peers.

University theaters may be able to introduce plays to the middle school and high school populations that, keeping community standards in mind, are a bit edgier or “stagier” than standard fare.  Mounting plays on social issues in society is also a draw. Add to that the potential of offering volunteer positions with the university theater department—well, you can see where I’m going with this. It’s Basic Recruiting 101.

Creating Seasons that Provide Plays with Diverse Casts

One never knows where the next stars are coming from. Many years ago, at Norfolk State University (NSU), then a small HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and University), the director of the drama department, Stan Wilson, was desperate to find a Hamlet for his next production.

“You’re going to be Hamlet.”

He found a young man lounging outside of a classroom door where he was contemplating dropping out. He looked the part. Wilson grabbed him by the arm and said: “You’re going to be Hamlet.”

After weeks of working with the young man, the show opened to raves. The end of the story? Wilson had beguiled Tim Reid (Venus Flytrap of WKRP in Cincinnati) into staying into school. (The current award-winning theater program at NSU is led by Anthony Stockard who has sparked community outreach, partnering with the Virginia Stage Company.)

Theater can be transformative. But students/actors—and audiences—should have at least some roles that genuinely reflect their own cultural memories. Color-blind casting has its place but it doesn’t work for all plays.

And it doesn’t invite potential students from underrepresented communities into the fold–which is why HaveScripts/Blue Moon Plays is currently seeking to expand its selection of plays that reflect under-represented audiences and actors of all types: people of different color, sexual orientation, physical and mental abilities, etc.

Besides, if you want to be totally selfish about it, you’re not only looking at broadening your student base but also your potential audience pool.

Becoming Creative Marketers

Theater people pride themselves on their creativity.  Their ingenuity could work wonders with increasing their revenue and their student/audience base.

You may also be interested in How Professors View Their Students. Faculty in the performing arts departments seem to enjoy working with their students more than other departments!

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