Letter: Theatre Faculty Responds to Graham Bishop

To the editor:

Graham Bishop’s article “Pomona Theater Department Fails to Wow Potential Majors” (The Student Life, 21 September) found attentive readers at the Seaver Theatre. Members of the department enjoyed Graham’s admirable prose style and agree with many of his perceptive comments. Our current curriculum is over-long and too proscriptive: we are already at work on a thoughtful streamlining of our graduation requirements for implementation in AY 2013-2014. The seeming lack of synergy between the department and its student producing organization, Bottom Line Theatre, troubles us too. We have already seen improvements this year because of an abundance of good will on both sides.

We respectfully acknowledge but refute Mr. Bishop’s concerns about the Department’s lack of gravitas as he inquires, “Where are the guest speakers?” Last year the department helped to host visitors including the acclaimed performance artist Anna Deavere Smith and the noted professional director Jack Rueler. This year, the iconoclastic Peter Sellers will be the keynote speaker at our international conference on the English designer and director Edward Gordon Craig. Members of our faculty organized both the Oguri/Chart of Landing performance and the Native American Ceremony on Convocation Day. Each of these events was aligned with the College’s Elemental Arts Initiative, a prestigious $600,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation. The seminal ideas for this wide-reaching initiative originated in Theatre and Dance. 

Mr. Bishop also asked: “Where is the cutting edge scholarship?” It is here, if you care to look. Leonard Pronko is one of the world’s experts on the traditional theatre and dance of Asia. Thomas Leabhart, a preeminent figure in the corporeal mime work of Etienne Decroux, teaches internationally. Betty Bernhard, a scholar of Indian Theatre, documents performance created by LBGT sex workers in that country. Sherry Linnell is an award-winning costume designer whose work has graced stages throughout Southern California for over 30 years. Art Horowitz is a sought-after dramaturge and a well-recognized scholar of Shakespeare in performance. Alma Martinez, a professional working actor with extensive stage, film and television credits, is one of the leading Latina actresses of her generation and an influential figure in the Chicano Theatre Movement. James Taylor is a student of the historically important design work of Edward Gordon Craig and is a resident lighting designer at A Noise Within Theatre in Pasadena. Our newest faculty member Joyce Lu does fascinating work at the nexus of Asian and Asian-American Theatre, numerous bodywork disciplines, and theatre for social change. Our Dance faculty and our professional staff are similarly well-credentialed. 

In response to Mr. Bishop’s claim that the department struggles to make itself relevant to the Claremont Colleges community we point to the fact that theatre everywhere, on every college campus and in every city in the world, faces the challenge of how to make itself relevant in an increasingly fast-paced, globalized, and digital world. This challenge for relevance is as old as the theatre itself. Equally old is the theatre renewing and reinvigorating itself, arising phoenix-like from its own ashes. As a department we have faith in our discipline, faith in ourselves, and most of all, faith in our students to renew and reinvigorate. To this end we are continuing our tradition of Town Hall Meetings, where students and faculty can discuss these issues of relevancy.

But the Elephant in the Room, the really big issue that all sensitive students, staff, and faculty alike should address, is:  Why has a liberal arts college that has given refuge to the likes of John Cage, Twyla Tharp, Karl Benjamin, and David Foster Wallace turned its back on the arts by no longer requiring a creative arts experience of all its graduates? Why does the admissions office discriminate against creative artists of all sorts, admitting mostly pre-med and pre-law students? Why did last year’s senior class poll discover that more students hoped to make a significant contribution to science and technology than any other personal or professional goal? Now there’s a more significant set of challenges to be grappled with—one that points to an essential failure of the College to accomplish its own stated goals. 

Respectfully submitted, 

The Faculty of the Department of Theatre and Dance 

P.S. Every member of our department shares Mr. Bishop’s disappointment at not being cast in an ideal role. Each of us has felt the sting of artistic rejection more times than we care to remember. We suggest two bits of wisdom for easing this pain: A. Be realistic about your expectations. The Music Department (whose gravitas Graham admires, as do we) never gives a beginning violinist a solo part. These parts are earned, carefully prepared for, and performed only by those for whom it will be a successful learning experience. B. Become philosophical about rejection. As the old adage goes, “There is never failure, just feedback.”

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