DePaul's Theatre School reimagines its MFA acting program | Ghost Light | Chicago Reader

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DePaul's Theatre School reimagines its MFA acting program

One less year (but more relevant classwork) is the aim, says Dexter Bullard.

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Twenty years ago, actor Cherry Jones gave an interview to the industry trade Backstage, where she called out one of the problems facing those hoping to make acting their profession.

"I'll tell you the thing that frustrates me the most right now for young actors: Graduate programs now in this country seem to be the best way for a young actor to get a calling card into this profession. That's where the agents go to find their talent, and we all know that you have to have an agent in this profession. So these kids are paying $30,000 a year for grad school, which means they come out with debt, unless they're landed gentry, in excess of $100,000. And there is no way you are ever going to be able to retire that loan in the theatre. So these are people going to theatre programs in schools that then force them to run to Hollywood and pray they get a sitcom. There's something very wrong about that. And I don't know what has to happen in restructuring this."

DePaul University's Theatre School has decided to address that problem by cutting their MFA program in acting from three years to two. But Dexter Bullard, head of the school's MFA acting program, says it's about more than saving students money. It's about giving them a training that's more relevant both for the acting profession, and for the larger society. And in his view, bringing down the cost of a prestigious-but-pricey MFA is also part of acknowledging institutional inequity. (According to the last numbers available from DePaul, annual tuition for the MFA is $36,534. Bullard notes that DePaul offers approximately 47 percent scholarship assistance for any MFA actor accepted for both years of training. "There are no 'favored nations'— each student gets the same," says Bullard.)

"I make no apologies about that," says Bullard of the cost-saving impetus. "What we're able to do is cut the price of a degree by a third. When you're talking about someone entering the world of acting or live theater or whatever they're going to do, it becomes really critical. I'm not going to wait for legislation or fundraising or endowments to somehow do that if it's not been what's happened historically, right? This is a way to create efficiency. Human efficiency." The program is also expanding the number of MFA candidates from ten to 14.

Bullard notes that, due to COVID, this past year was the first time that the Theatre School didn't have an incoming class of MFA candidates in the acting program. "The reason was not many people would choose a year of remote training for their first year," he says. That meant that there was a window of opportunity to reconfigure what classes should be included in the new two-year program. "We only had to remove nine courses," he points out.

Among the changes, Bullard notes, are that voice and speech classes will start earlier, in recognition of the fact that most of the MFA students are coming in with a better grounding in those skills than in years past. There will now be four classes in on-camera acting, rather than two. Bullard also notes that they've added "more on-camera and on-mic classes for film, animation, streaming, motion capture, and new media," as well as courses on social media presence and digital theater. The school's emphasis on Meisner technique will be reduced, though individual professors may still emphasize it in their classrooms. 

The bigger change is that the program will now focus even more, as Bullard says, on "Applied theater, antiracism, community theater. These things are going to be huge in the program compared to where they used to be before. As much as we're doing professional prep, we're also doing human prep. [We're looking at] artists as change agents, and really looking at escaping the dominance of a single story in the theater and letting multiple stories come out from the unique people we bring into the program. More and more, that's what we want agents to be doing too. We've always been a program that's heavily invested in self-use, in the organic act of themselves, not trying to fit into some mold of another actor who's successful, but your own success. And we want to encourage the casting world to understand that's a terrific priority. Yes, skilled people, but bring in people from all different perspectives to just make the work richer, whether it's onstage or on film."

There is also an increased emphasis on the MFA candidates as creators of their own work, or collaborators in devised pieces, as well. Says Bullard, "We know the only way we're going to be able to break through the sort of limited production resources that have been put forward for nonwriters of color, for young people, is that they have to be able to start telling stories not just as an actor in a play, or a movie—that's still important—but they will become stronger when they themselves understand what the writing process is and become a writer of their own content."

Changes at Collaboraction

At the end of this month, Dr. Marcus Robinson, the current executive director of Collaboraction, will step away from that role to become the new codirector of Enrich Chicago (alongside Nina D. Sánchez), the nonprofit dedicated to antiracism work in Chicago's cultural sector. Robinson's time at Collaboraction dovetailed with the company's transition into a theater expressly dedicated to social change and justice, and he helped foster new programs, such as the Peacebook Festival, which packed houses at Collaboraction's home at Kennedy-King College—one they chose after moving out of Wicker Park's Flatiron Building. A search is underway for his replacement. Meantime, the company hosts a party with live performances, food, and drinks celebrating its 25th anniversary, Moonset Sunrise, on Thursday, June 24, 6-10 PM at Rockwell on the River. Tickets are $150, but less if you sign up as a "CollaborActivist" member at $25 per month. (COVID-19 protocols are in place.) You can also stream for practically free by signing up as a member at just $1 per month at collaboraction.org.

Millennial musings

Playmakers Laboratory, formed in 1997, mostly focuses on bringing stories by Chicago Public School students to the stage via the long-running That's Weird, Grandma!, which has continued in virtual form during the shutdown. But big kids can get in on the action by submitting stories online by June 16. The selected tales with a "je ne sais quoi" will be performed by the troupe on Saturday, June 26, as part of That's Weird, Millennials!, a streaming benefit performance for the company.  v

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