Pomona Theater Department Fails To Wow Potential Majors

Just over one year ago, my first-year self sat in Little Bridges, listening to the typical onslaught of collegiate platitudes. There, one of the speakers offered this lapidary treat: “Do something that scares you every day.” Throughout my first year, I heeded this advice in the best way I possibly could. I bonded with people whom I might have avoided in high school; I took a film class on a whim and ended up adoring it; I even dared to fulfill my lab requirement during my first semester. 

As I enter my sophomore year, however, still entirely undecided on my major, I must admit to myself that I am not one inch closer to an identity-illuminating, destiny-demystifying epiphany than I was that day in Little Bridges. I force myself now to reassess the meaning of that evidently not-so-superficial piece of advice: doing something that scares you in the context of a liberal arts education entails not only a fearless alacrity to experiment with new academic avenues but also the willingness to veer away from old, comfortable ones. This week, I declined a non-speaking role in this semester’s production of Kindertransport in order to devote more time to my other interests. In doing so, I took the first step toward embracing this revised maxim. 

Before I elaborate, let me offer some pertinent background. Last April, Matt Helm PO ’12 wrote a scathing review of Pomona College’s production of Othello. Having been part of that production, I can say that the review’s impact among Helm’s classmates, and within the department as a whole, was earthshaking. There was indeed anger at Helm for allegedly betraying the confidence of his peers, but more important was the cast’s subtle but universal acknowledgement that the review shed jarring light on problems which had beleaguered the theater department for far too long. I found Helm unnecessarily belligerent towards the production itself; I believe many of his quibbles were due in large part to his attendance of the preview performance, which occurred before many kinks were ironed out through rehearsal in front of a live audience. His complaints as to the department’s general trajectory during his time at Pomona, however, were valid, if unsettling. 

I want to rationalize my own disappointment with the theater department by looking at more general problems than the flaws of one particular production. Firstly, the major requirements for theater are both punitive and arbitrary. To emphasize in performance, for example, a major must participate in fifteen courses, four crew assignments, and write a thesis—never does he or she need to perform. Secondly, there is a pernicious division between student theater and departmental productions. Of the many participants in Bottom Line Theatre, the main student performance group in Claremont, I can count the number of theater majors on one hand. The third and most worrisome problem is the department’s total failure to find relevance at the 5Cs. The music and art departments exude a certain gravitas which completely escapes the theater program. Where are the guest speakers? Where is the focus on cutting-edge scholarship? Courses on the Stanislavski method and the Alexander technique, despite their importance, come across as antediluvian when they lack contemporary appeal. 

All three of these trends are symptomatic of the department’s central infection: theater at the Claremont Colleges is neither welcoming nor accessible to the vast majority of potential majors. There are a few students who matriculate at the 5Cs and are certain at the outset that their futures lie in theater. These confident first-years will persevere despite the department’s flaws. Far more numerous, however, are the students who have background in theater, who are considering a life on the stage, but are skeptical that a degree in the field is practical or worth their time. Although they may still take theater classes or aid student productions, my classmates who fall under this latter category have long since abandoned any prospects of a major or even a minor. I, in all likelihood, have joined this contingent. I desperately wanted a reason to study theater, but the department has failed to offer one. 

I was unhappy with the part I received in Kindertransport—I was ready to play a larger role after bit-parts in my first two department productions. I confess that I took the news more personally than I should have. I know how theater works; rejection is an integral part of the territory, and not every production is the right fit. This is not a permanent goodbye to Seaver Theatre. Nevertheless, I am now aware of just how unwelcome and out of place I have felt during my time with the department. When you’re as hopelessly confused about your direction in life as I am, you take a hint when it’s given to you, and you try your hand at what you pray will be grander things. Perhaps these depressing, door-closing moments are the epiphanies I’ve sought after all.

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