Theatre Department Offers Online MFA

By and

“O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” lilts Juliet from Colorado as she rehearses a scene with her class of directing graduate students.

In romantic tones, Romeo answers his classmate, not from below her balcony, but from across the country. In Utah the professor critiques the scene and, in real time from their computers, Romeo and Juliet run their famous balcony scene once again. The rest of the students watch and learn from different places across the country.

Distance learning and education is nothing new, but the University of Utah theatre department has made a remarkable program. Through a three-year program, theatre educators can receive a Master of Fine Arts degree in directing and education.

The theatre department designed the online program to cater to people who otherwise would have a hard time getting an advanced degree.

“We had this idea to see what could be done to help high school and middle school theatre teachers,” said David Dynak, chairman of the theatre department. “The problem is, for this population, there is no way for them to get an advanced degree. They are teaching all day and directing all night.”

The program is currently taking a year off to look for a new leader. The department is looking for someone with directing experience, interest in distance learning and technology skills. According to Dynak, however, the pool of applicants is smaller this year.

“My feeling is that people are more reluctant to think about big career changes now, there is a need to stay closer to family and friends,” he said. “I’ve talked with a few other colleagues that have done searches that say the pool seems to be smaller this year. Nonetheless we are optimistic that we can find an ideal candidate.”

Because they require practical experience in production, theatre degrees are more intensive than other degrees, so educators seeking an advanced degree find many obstacles. Theatre departments are not active in the summers, during which time the faculty does professional work.

“Many high school teachers do wonderful work, but they tend to work in isolation unless they’re in a very big school,” Dynak said. “We decided a lot of these assignments will be done in groups.”

The students in the program posted their papers on the Web site, and all students in the program had to read each paper. The comments from the professor and other students were open for all to read.

Students in the program also submitted videotapes of the productions and rehearsals they directed for other students and professors to review.

“It really created an incredible community,” Dynak said. “Everyone was responding to everyone else all the time. The level of discourse became much better than an on campus seminar.”

At least twice, professors in the program travelled to each student’s school to view his or her work and to teach. Students in the program also travelled to the U.

At the end of the three-year program, 10 students graduated.

“It was a pretty amazing experiment, probably the only program of its kind in the country,” Dynak said.

When the theatre department began to spread information about the program they were putting together, they got “a whole slew of inquiries,” according to Dynak. The program got 75 applications, and admitted 18 students.

The program hopes to admit 25 students next year and graduate 20. According to Dynak, the program receives five inquiries a week about the program, which adds up to more than 500 interested students.

“It was a huge success,” said David Zemmels, assistant dean for technology in the College of Fine Arts. “Every one of [the students] said it changed their lives, they felt like they were artists, they really grew as individuals and artists and theatre professionals.”

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