Theater recruitment efforts robust, could be taken further

Danny Reinan, Staff Writer

When auditions for the play “Pluma and the Tempest” opened in late January, I thought the production sounded like an incredibly compelling prospect. The piece’s dreamlike nature sets it apart from many other plays while using its fantastical imagery to comment on real-world issues of trauma, abuse and youth homelessness.

The production’s focus on free-form exploration allows actors to have a high level of creative input, and this is the first production of the play in English, making all of the crew involved trailblazers. Yet a scant five people were cast, far from sufficient to fill every role. A week-long extension to auditions, two casting calls and multiple newsletter postings later, only four more actors joined the production. Despite many efforts made to drum up interest, our cast of actors ended up being so small that it necessitated that the stage manager and assistant stage manager each take up roles of their own. Our director joked that if things continued as they were, she might have to act in the play! Why is it that such a groundbreaking production struggled so much with recruitment? And is this a problem throughout the theater department?

I decided to investigate the levels of theater engagement within the department both in terms of the amount of turnout for on-campus productions and the amount of prospective students interested in pursuing a theater major. I aimed to answer the question of whether these numbers within the program were on the decline based on my experiences viewing the audition process for “Pluma.”

In the end, I found that, although numbers are on the decline this semester, it doesn’t seem to be anything to worry about. When speaking about the unusually low turnout for on-campus productions this semester, Darcey Engen, professor from the theater department, believes this to be an anomaly. “I think it was just a bit of a perfect storm in terms of this semester,” she said. Indeed, several unusual elements came together to form this perfect storm. An unusually high number of theater students happen to be studying abroad this semester, and many of the first-year theater students who turned out in high numbers to audition for “The Arsonists” decided to focus on their studies this semester, feeling burnt out from the previous semester’s intensive theater production.

These unusual factors are not likely to come into play in future semesters, especially given the theater department’s robust recruitment systems, both on- and off-campus. While the theater department has more traditional, rigorous theater productions every semester, they also work to produce them alongside shorter-term productions that are less of a time commitment for students with crowded schedules, such as this semester’s “Ghost Sonata.”

The theater department works to bring in talented guest artists to run shorter-term workshops in their areas of expertise such as last semester’s series of improv workshops hosted by Joy Dolo. Theater faculty even go in-person to high schools or invite high school students to Augsburg to create the image of a clear pathway into the theater department. Given all of these factors, it is clear that, despite the anomalies that came up during this semester, Augsburg’s Theater department is set to have many prosperous semesters going forward. Yet, it is worthwhile to make improvements even when things are proceeding smoothly, and that is why I believe that there are even greater strides that could be made in theater recruitment.

The athletics department is incredibly successful in creating a bridge for high school athletes to continue their pursuit of their passions into college. A major element of athletics recruitment is the simple yet critical act of attending high school games and speaking to the players afterwards. This creates a natural starting point for community engagement and tells athletes that their talents are noticed and valued even outside of the admissions process. Gestures like these are important for athletes, but I think they could potentially be groundbreaking for fledgling theater kids. This is because, at many large, traditional public high schools, athletes are at the top of the “pecking order,” earning extensive recognition in their communities from peers and teachers alike. This rings particularly true in suburban and rural communities, where schools are a major social gathering place, and sports connect many of these community members together.

It is rare for high school theater students to get nearly the same degree of acknowledgement for their hard work, which is why having faculty members view productions could be impactful. It is not as though this never happens; in the middle of my conversation with Darcey Engen, she received a phone call from a senior at Blaine High School and made plans to attend his production. But the time that faculty members spend doing this comes out of their busy schedules and is not compensated. In the current educational landscape, where funding for the arts is on the decline and students are increasingly steered towards paths that are more “profitable,” designating outreach people to send the message to young actors, directors, writers, designers and technicians that their creative endeavors are valued and can be taken even further in college could make all the difference.

This article was originally published in the March 8, 2019 issue.