Low theater enrollment leads to lack of funds

By Lana Groves, Asst. News Editor

With low student enrollment numbers and a drop in private donations, the U theater department is scrapping to get enough money to put on student productions and hire new faculty members.

The department will have to make changes and increase funding this year if they want to build new theaters and open a graduate program.

Projections for the 2008-2009 school year estimate an increase in theater enrollment, but because the department’s budget has been dropping in the past few years, faculty members are looking for alternative ways to save money.

“We’re going to be pulling costumes (from past productions) instead of making new ones,” said Bob Nelson, who chairs the department. “We also have plans to bring costs up for ticket prices.”

Prices for the Babcock Theater and Studio 115 will increase by $1 next year.

“It adds a few thousand dollars, and we need every dollar we can get,” Nelson said.

Many academic departments at the U have been financially affected by
the drop in student enrollment, but the theater department hit the bottom a few years ago and hasn’t managed to climb back up.

“For a theater department with such a long history at the U, (they) get overlooked all the time for funding,” said U theater alumnus Nick Bayne.
Brent Schneider, associate dean for the College of Fine Arts, said the department isn’t as bad off as other departments on campus, but still plans to raise money for the fall.

The extra funding could help the department hire more faculty and bring the theater graduate program back.

The department is reworking curriculum to organize a master’s program, but it will still take some time to open it up, said Schneider

“It means hiring new tenure line professors. You can have auxiliary or adjunct faculty who sign a contract from year to year, but for a strong graduate program, we need to select the right people to fill that tenure line,” he said.

Besides fundraising, the department needs to find other ways to increase their annual budget.

The department’s budget is directly tied to student credit hours. In a 1000 level class, a department receives $60 for every credit hour per student.

“If you have 300 students in a class, that’s really good, but if you’re an advanced Russian class with six students, it’s not so good,” Schneider said.

The theater department typically has 20 to 30 students per class, Nelson said.

Although there are fewer students, the department still needs more instructors. Nelson said there were teachers who left the U a few years ago, but haven’t been replaced yet.

“To have a strong undergraduate and graduate program, we need more national high-quality faculty to help us strengthen the program further,” he said.

Nelson said he believes the graduate program will bring more students to the department, but more theater space will be needed to accommodate increases.

Bayne said theater students attend class in a building that is too small and outdated.

“The (Performing Arts) Building they’re in is an old, aging space that was built in the 1930s,” he said. “It’s entirely inadequate.”

There are discussions to move the theater department to the old Utah Museum of Natural History building after it is relocated.

“The university said we’re on the list as the new tenant,” Nelson said. “(We would) share with the fine arts dean and film studies department.”

However, the museum is at least two years away from moving to the Rio Tinto building near Red Butte Garden in Research Park. Construction on the museum’s new building began this summer.

The George Thomas Building, where the museum resides, needs seismic upgrading before any department can move into it.

“We’ll also need to build more theaters,” Nelson said.

The department has two theaters it can use for production, both of which have between 100 and 125 seats.

Nelson said they want a proscenium theater, or traditional theater with an arch, curtain and fly loft.

“Theater students in all areas need experience in a range of theaters, not just black box theaters,” he said.

The department will have to wait for new theaters and faculty until it has the budget to afford it.

Jara Wimmer, accountant for the department, said they are looking at next year’s budget and deciding how to get by. The situation is worse because faculty members aren’t applying for as many grants, of which the department receives 10 percent, she said.

“We’ve managed to squeak by in the past, but now we can’t,” Wimmer said. “We’re looking at the basic needs, and we’ll have to cut some corners.”

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Ben Kuhns

Barbara Smith leads small class of acting students. A drop in private donations and student enrolment has encouraged the professors to come up with creative ways to cut costs in their department.