To major … or not to major

To say that the theatre department lacks the numbers of other departments would be an understatement. The program’s five graduating seniors are miniscule in comparison to the 200 plus students who will earn degrees in business this spring.

Wake Forest, better known for its high ranking business school, often escapes the mind of those looking for a school to study the performing arts. In fact, if choosing to attend college at all, aspiring thespians often flock to the country’s renowned conservatories, such as NYU or Yale.

Graphic by Molly Dutmers/Old Gold & Black

Graphic by Molly Dutmers/Old Gold & Black

So the question stands: why would a student choose to come to Wake and indulge a small theatre program? With the value of a degree in theatre plummeting while the cost of higher education continues to sky rocket, it comes as a surprise that students would still become involved in the craft at a private liberal arts university.

Theatre at Wake Forest is not all singing and dancing to catchy show tunes, nor is it a strict concentration upon Shakespearean sonnets. The director of the department of theatre, John Friedenberg, says that Wake Forest Theatre is purely academic.

Academic theatre is that which includes a various types of shows and focuses on a well-rounded education. Students are exposed to a variety of works rather than focusing on one type of production for an extended amount of time as one might at a conservatory.

Choosing the Major

Unlike the majority of incoming students, senior Celia Quillian arrived at the university with her eyes set on the theatre department. Quillian is a presidential scholar in theatre, and though she is not required by her scholarship, she is a major as well.

“I applied to 12 schools and all of them had a theatre department of some sort,” she said. “Something that really pulled me into Wake was their studio series.”

The department’s studio series consist of student directed works. In addition, there are four Mainstage shows per year which are not exclusive to theatre majors. While still debating whether or not to major, Quillian found comfort in the fact that she would still be able to take part in performances even if she decided against majoring in theatre. In the event that she did not choose theatre as a major, she would still be able to remain heavily involved.

Quillian saw primarily negatives when contemplating applying for colleges with conservatory programs.“A conservatory would mean only acting all the time,” she said. “That’s all you do and I figured I would get bored with that because I adore acting but I really want to explore other sides.” For academically motivated students like Quillian, the liberal arts factor of Wake Forest offers a sort of backup plan.

The Involved Non-Theatre Major

An audience member attending a university show might be misled in regard to the popularity of the major by the large number of students participating in the performance. The recent production of “Hairspray” used the help of dozens of students in both the acting and tech work.

A deeper look reveals that the majority of the actors who took part in the production belong to other majors and interests. Among the 31 listed actors, there were only seven declared theatre majors (three out of the seven were double majors in communication), the rest of the actors have majors outside of the theatre department. But the cast of “Hairspray” had several freshman and sophomore actors, many of whom are considering a theatre major.

Junior Lauryn (Susie) Webster, who played Motor Mouth Mabel in the musical, received praise for her performance. Yet, she is a sociology major, and her towering height exposes her identity as a member of the women’s basketball team.

Senior Michael Dempsey, a double major in political science and English, has also found a temporary home within the theatre department. Though he has performed in more than 10 shows in his time at Wake Forest, he is not a theatre minor and has no intention of pursuing theatre after college.

Why? Theatre was an extracurricular he seemed to fall into by chance and is now something that he is heavily involved in on campus. Dempsey is actually the vice president of Anthony Aston Players and in addition to acting works behind the scenes of productions and in the shop. But when completing his college search he didn’t even look at theater programs and admits to being caught up in the national rankings. For Dempsey, the department could be termed a pleasant surprise.

“The first time getting cast in a show is a really big deal because … it kind of snowballs, you start getting cast for a lot of other stuff,” he said. “I have a lot of other friends who do theatre at other colleges, a lot of their theatre programs are geared toward the graduate students, which means that the undergraduates usually don’t get a lot of opportunities to do acting.”

Dempsey described the benefits of being able to act more than those that have majored in the craft at other universities.

“At the same time, their career or their career track is specialized in theatre in the sense that they’re still doing so much more as opposed to me who is only in the department to be in shows,” Dempsey said. “I still have other stuff that I have to do outside of the university theatre, verses those universities where that is their career, this is their job.”

Dempsey hopes to attend graduate school for creative writing or political science after graduation. He said his confidence to perform on stage and his learned ability to work with different people will transfer into his future endeavors.

“I like to think of theatre as a small microcosm of the world, in a sense that what happens on stage … is usually pretty indicative of how you have to act around other people outside of the theatre,” he said.

Employer Perceptions

Tiffany Waddell, a career counselor within the Office of Personal and Career Development, specializes in advising arts students in finding a career which marries their passion with work.

As a “double Deacon,” who received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Wake Forest, Waddell has a deeper understanding of the students she counsels. In her time at the university, she was a double major in theatre and psychology, and had aspirations to attend graduate school for performance studies.

In relating a passion for theatre to the job market today, Waddell says it’s possible; even from a small liberal arts college. She’s views theatre students just as capable as those of any other major.

“I think employers see these students as very adaptable to different situations, very creative and innovative, which sometimes may seem like a buzz word but is very important in any work setting,” she said.

“Beyond the basics of what an employee would have to have, which is the business acumen, there are a lot of intangibles that you can’t really teach in the classroom but that are cultivated from different experiences which I would say arts students have.”

Waddell affirmed that it is not a foreign idea for a theatre student to work with a group of random people and trust them to do their part.

From her own experience studying theatre at Wake Forest, Waddell said that she gained event planning skills from her years of directing, as well as a flair for performance, which aids the office’s many workshops.

Even though Waddell is not currently in the field which she had once predicted, she said she is content.

“I think theatre has prepared me for working with all different types of people, different types of skills sets. And just rolling with the punches,” Waddell said.