Penn State School of Theatre takes role as national leader

August 05, 2009

Penn State's School of Theatre is gaining national prominence for its top-tier programs that train students who obtain and maintain employment in one of the most competitive arenas. Employment rates for alumni of several of the school's undergraduate degree programs, such as stage management and design/technology, are virtually 100 percent, and musical theatre program alumni are similarly successful, according to Dan Carter, director of the School of Theatre since 1995.

"Penn State has been the home and launching pad of theatre leaders for decades, and the current generation of faculty and students is more active and visible than ever," said Carter.

Penn State administrators will have an opportunity to share the successes of Penn State's theatre program during the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) Leadership Institute, Aug. 6-8 in New York City. Penn State President Graham Spanier will be the keynote speaker at the institute, in which more than 250 faculty and administrators nationwide have participated since its establishment in 2000. Barbara O. Korner, dean of the University's College of Arts and Architecture, is co-director of the Leadership Institute. William Doan, the college's associate dean for administration, research and graduate studies, is ATHE president-elect. The Leadership Institute takes place immediately before ATHE's annual conference.

"Leadership is a journey, not a destination," said Korner, "and that applies to academic programs as well as individuals. The Penn State School of Theatre has been working on identifying and honing its strengths, and in doing so has become a leader in theatre education in the United States. Undergraduate and graduate students from across the country come to Penn State to train with theatre faculty who are dedicated to teaching and to preparing young people for the realities of an incredibly competitive field."

The school's faculty, with credentials in both academia and professional theatre, hold leadership positions in the Society of Directors and Choreographers, U.S. Institute of Theatre Technology (USITT), National Association of Schools of Theatre and the National Theatre Conference, among others.

Among the degrees offered are a bachelor of fine arts (B.F.A.) in musical theatre and bachelor of fine arts in theatre with a focus on design and technology or stage management. The school also offers a more general bachelor of arts degree in theatre. Established just 15 years ago, the musical theatre program is now in the top tier of musical theatre training programs nationwide. In January 2009, 13 alumni of the program were simultaneously performing on Broadway. (A related story about the musical theatre program's success can be found here.)

The program's undergraduate design and technology areas have grown the most in recent years, in both size and prestige. Several students recently won national honors, including Patricia Cardona ('09 B.F.A.), who won a National Sound Design Award, and Justin Stasiw ('09 B.F.A.) and Justin Couchara ('08 B.F.A.), who shared the American College Theatre Festival's national scene design award for "PUSH," a play premiered at Penn State that was written specifically for the M.F.A. acting class of 2008.

At the graduate level, the school has master of fine arts (M.F.A.) programs in acting and directing. The M.F.A. directing program is the only one in the country to focus on musical theatre and is led by award-winning Broadway director Susan Schulman. Graduates of the M.F.A. acting program perform with some of the most noted regional theatres and festivals in North America. Andrea Runge, a 2007 graduate, recently joined the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one of the most prominent arts festivals in North America, as Cecily in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," and Alano Miller, a 2008 graduate, will star in Broadway's "Broke-ology" at Lincoln Center this fall. Other alumni have appeared in films and television shows such as "The Incredible Hulk" (2008), "MAD TV," "Back to You" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

As the definition of "entertainment industry" expands, so have the types of projects that School of Theatre alumni pursue. A group of graduates from the school's B.A. program have become leaders in the field of online production with programs such as "the Burg" (, "The All for Nots" ( and "All's Faire" ( In 2008-09, current students in the School of Theatre, in collaboration with film students from the College of Communications, created an online series, "Sitcom 304," described as a college-level "Friends." It is student written, produced and performed. The series debuted online and aired on Penn State Network Television (PSN-TV) during the spring 2009 semester. The pilot can be viewed at

Collaborations are also occurring beyond Penn State. Carter is leading the effort to have a single play produced by all Big Ten schools during the 2009-10 academic year. "Palmer Park," by Tony Award-nominated playwright Joanna McClelland Glass, is on the production schedule of most universities in the conference. The Penn State production will take place in April 2010. Carter's goal is to create a resource repository for common use so that other theatres can easily produce this complex work.

"The fact that all these schools have embraced the challenge of working together, sharing actual resources as well as 'best practices,' to pull off this complex, unprecedented initiative is an indicator of how leadership is becoming more enlightened through the arts," said Carter.

  • William Doan, College of Arts and Architecture's associate dean for administration, research and graduate studies, and Barbara Korner, dean of the college, are active leaders in the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, which will hold its annual Leadership Institute in New York City Aug. 6-8.

    IMAGE: Amy Milgrub Marshall

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Last Updated November 18, 2010