Goodbye Theatre Major

Photo by Abby Whisler.

Photo by Abby Whisler.

Yesterday morning, an email sent by Jeff Hall, Vice President of Academic Affairs, shocked many  by announcing the elimination of Covenant’s theatre major and a subsequent change in the configuration of the program. Hall wrote, “Effective immediately, the department is no longer accepting any new declarations of [theater] majors. Students currently enrolled in the program will be able to complete all of the requirements and will graduate with a theatre major if they so choose. The faculty and administration hope to have a recommendation ready by the fall board meeting in October.”

Yesterday, prior to the campus-wide announcement, a private meeting was held for students involved in the department. In this meeting the administration explained the decision and answered questions from those directly affected by the decision.

In regards to the future of theatre at Covenant College, Hall believes that the program will most likely revert to its status prior to being a major: a concentration under the English department. Hall argued that with this form of the program “you’re still able to get a pretty decent theatre education.” While this may be true, current theatre students are asking if a “pretty decent” education is going to be enough to meet their needs and satisfy their educational expectations.. As rising senior Emma Shope notes, “It’s frustrating for me mostly because there are several of us trying to do our SIPs next year and that’s going to look a lot different than we were planning on...because we won’t have the resources that we would have had. We will not have the budget to do the musical, which is what I wanted to do for my SIP.”

Hall explained there will be a cut in some of the more technical training courses under the major, but defended the decision by explaining, “There will be specific communications or theatre courses about the production side of things. There are courses about the literature of theatre…that would blend more into the new concentration. We’ll lose some [training], some of the theatre courses won’t be there in order to have a concentration, but we’ll try to leave the heart of the program there.”

For the department itself, the cut came as a surprise.  “I have to be honest and say that I was disappointed, confused, and saddened when I found out the college had decided to cut the theatre major as an option for study,” said Professor Deborah Kirby, head of the theatre department. “I choose to respect and support the decision of the administration. I rest in the certainty that the God that we serve is sovereign over everything.”

The decision making process did not involve open dialogue between administration and the department. The reason for this was an administrative one. Hall explained, “Challenges and involvement have been discussed for years, however the decision to put it under administrative review is an administrative decision, but both Hallstrom and Kirby were informed of the decision.”

However, theatre professors Hallstrom and Kirby report being left out of the discussion to place the department on review. Kirby stated, “I only heard about the possibility of [the dropping of the major] happening for the first time two weeks ago.” Hallstrom adds, “I was completely surprised. They may have been thinking about it for a while…but I went into one meeting expecting one thing and came out having learned another…I just found out about this last week.”

A great deal of the theatre department’s frustration seems to lie in the stated reasoning for eliminating the theatre major. While the department is indeed the smallest at Covenant, their growth the past two and a half years has been visible.

Hallstrom said, “In some ways it’s not wise to compare us to a low overhead academic department, like Biblical Studies. It would make more sense to compare us to the sports programs. Because [administration] is looking at how many majors do we have and does it justify the cost of running a program. Well, as far as I know there are no baseball majors on campus...There are many students outside of the major involved, it is a recruitment tool, it’s just that no one is writing the numbers. We have dozens and dozens and dozens of students who work here even if they aren’t declared majors or minors.”

Building on Hallstrom’s sentiment Kirby observed, “I think that the possibility of only offering a theatre minor, or theatre as a concentration within another department, counters the forward momentum the department has had over the past three years. I am worried this could be interpreted by the students as a lack of support from the college for this art form.”

While the situation is not ideal, the theatre department certainly isn’t calling it quits. The department’s Technical Director Amy Sue Upton said, “I do not know if our shows will be scaled back due to budget, so that might change what our sets can look like, and what our costumes can look like. But in some ways I’m not really worried about it, because I think we can still make great shows, even under the budget pressure we might have.” Hallstrom adds, “Though I am mourning, I am trying to remember that grumbling, in the midst of that, is not a Christian option. But that doesn’t mean that in the meantime we can’t be asking some questions and giving appropriate pushback.”