U.S. colleges cutting theater programs


In another sign of troubled times for "the theater," colleges and universities nationwide are cutting back on drama programs or eliminating theater departments altogether.

Last week, the University of Maine said it plans to drop its department. That comes on the heels of the termination of Washington State's theater program and Florida State's plans to phase out two graduate programs in the field.

Several other colleges including Cornell, the University of Washington, Wesleyan, Arizona State, the University of Illinois, UNLV, the University of Arizona and Brandeis recently have made sharp cutbacks in legit programs.

The cuts are a result of the bad economy and schools' needs to reduce costs.

Not surprisingly, advocates -- this week is Arts Advocacy Week -- believe colleges are making a mistake targeting the arts.

"They just don't get it," says Debra Booth, director of the soon-to-be-defunct graduate theater-design program at Brandeis. "They're making everything smaller to save money, and they focus on the arts because they think no one will care or notice."

Brandeis is one of the few schools offering a master's degree in theater design, but the program will be axed in 2012.

"It is a very sad day for theater," says Charles Berliner, a graduate of the Brandeis program and a theatrical designer for 40 years. "This is a big blow. You'll have one less place training professional people."

He noted that several Brandeis grads have had award-winning careers in theater and Hollywood, including Oscar-nominated Julie Weiss, the costume designer on "Frida" who did the original design for Broadway's "The Elephant Man."

The past few years have been tough on U.S. legit houses.

Broadway theaters are holding their own during the recession; gross revenue was up slightly last year compared with 2008, hitting nearly $950 million. But regional and nonprofit legit houses are suffering. The Pasadena Playhouse is one of many venues to have shuttered recently. So, too, Stamford Theatre Works in Connecticut and the Foothills and North Shore theaters in Massachusetts.

"Contributions have been soft in the nonprofit sector, and there is a great deal of uncertainty as to what the future holds," says Susan Medak, president of the League of Resident Theatres. "These companies aren't doing a lot of hiring. I'm sure that's unnerving for a lot of people graduating from college right now."

The loss of theaters is hurting plenty of legit actors, directors and writers.

"Professional nonprofit theater has been deeply affected by the economic downturn, causing many of the theaters to rethink their seasons by choosing smaller-cast shows or shows with fewer bells and whistles," Actors' Equity spokeswoman Maria Somma says.