Q&A: Curtain Rises on Theatre Arts Growth

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This year, the Department of Theatre Arts expanded its production effort and established the Maverick Theatre Company (MTC). Kim LaFontaine, professor and department chair, spearheaded the reorganization and serves as producer for MTC.

College of Liberal Arts Communication Coordinator James Dunning caught up with LaFontaine as the 2012-13 production season winds down and asked him about what’s in store for theatre arts at UT Arlington.

Q: The Maverick Theatre Company launched this past year and has helped raise your department’s profile in the Arlington community. How did that come about?

A: We started talking about Maverick Theatre Company three years ago. We talked long before that about how we could focus our department so that our students and the surrounding community would have a better sense of our identity. The question was, how do we get them to focus on us? We’re looked at as just another department in the College of Liberal Arts. So what makes us stand out? We do plays and musicals. But a lot of departments across the country do plays and musicals, so what’s so special about us? We needed to find something that could focus or brand us. We started to talk about the function of the department and community and the identity of who we needed to be. College Park Center was being built and the university had gone through a rebranding effort, so we wanted to jump on that bandwagon.

We landed on Maverick Theatre Company to focus us and give our students, faculty and staff a chance to be more visible in the community’s eyes. We’ve put in some energy and effort to announce it and include it graphically into everything we do. People have responded like it’s been here all the time. It’s another Mavericks thing. It’s worked really well for us.

Q: I’ve seen the new logo on signs and flyers and even T-shirts. What immediate impact did that make?

A: Getting the T-shirts made really surprised me; it raised the bar in terms of the students’ enthusiasm and pride in the work they do. We give a T-shirt to every incoming student and use it in recruiting. That name and structure of the Maverick Theatre Company really roots us well. It’s a great foundation. It gives us confidence when students are looking for a place to go for college. We’re able to say, “You’ll be a member of the Maverick Theatre Company.” They really relate to that. It’s a confident, solid identity they can immediately get on board with.

It’s also elevated a side of our department that used to get mixed up with common assumptions about Theatre Arts. The Department of Theatre Arts is really two things: the production side and the academic side. Maverick Theatre Company is a production arm; it’s a business. The other side, of course, is that we offer major courses and a curriculum in different areas. We have the BA and a BFA in theatre studies, design tech or performance. Now, we can use the production arm, the Maverick Theatre Company, when we work with donors. It’s a great focusing tool for us.

Q: There’s a lot of overlap with students, faculty and staff in the Department of Theatre Arts. Some folks have dual roles. How is MTC organized?

A: I act as producer of MTC. We’re working on the restructuring and looking at how we want to grow. We need an artistic director; we need a production manager. The next stage is we need what we’ll call a “board of councilors.” That board would be a group of faculty and professionals from the community. We want folks from the Dallas Theatre Center and the like so they can be in touch with our students and can see what we’re doing.

We send our students out to regional theatres for internships or they may get cast in a show around town before they graduate. To have the people who run those theatres know us before we send somebody out would be great. They would learn to trust what our program is all about.

Q: Is there an existing group that served as a model for MTC?

A: For our business in higher education and regional theatres, this is nothing new.  Sometimes though it doesn’t work with the dynamic you have in your department. You have to get faculty and staff on board. It’s a shift from being very insulated to putting yourself out there. You have to pay more attention to so many more things.

Q: I’ve heard that the MTC may eventually go beyond the normal season of shows on campus and produce shows in the community. What external opportunities are you exploring?

A: There are a lot of possibilities. Once we launched ourselves, it opened up the possibility of being a producing organization. There’s no reason why we couldn’t sponsor another theatre group to come in to our space. It legitimizes our work to folks who are not academically oriented.

We’re developing some niches in the Maverick Theatre Company. We have a group we sponsor, our own students, called Flight 12, which is an improvisational group. We’ll spend another year working with that group, figuring out what we want it to be, and then we’ll send those people out. They may do one night on campus, and then we’ll send them across the Metroplex for the entire season.

We used to do this thing called TheatreFest. It was an evening of one-act plays, mostly student-directed but also open to faculty. We’ve morphed that into a festival we’re calling MAVPLAYS. Part of the charge with that group is to workshop new plays that student or faculty or guest artists write. We’ll have an expanded festival, where the shows are scheduled over a two-week period. We would use a couple of our theatre spaces; do a large show, some smaller one-acts, maybe some noontime readings of new plays. It’s all presenting original work or older plays that nobody has ever heard of before. It’s mostly trying out new work and supporting new playwrights.

Q: As producer, how do you decide on the shows for the next season?

A: We’re very careful as to what we choose and why we’re doing them and how they relate to higher education. The last thing we want to be is an extension of the community theatre scene. That’s not our mission or goal. Now, will we do shows that a community theatre might do? Sometimes, sure. A year ago, we did Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap.” Well, everyone in the world has done that play. But our students had never been involved with that play. They never knew the play. So you have to pick some shows thinking about students who are striving for a career in regional theatre where they might someday do that play. Same thing with a Neil Simon comedy. Some people won’t go near one in higher education because they think it’s so overdone. And yet when students go out and get cast in a Neil Simon comedy, they don’t know how to “play” Neil Simon. So we really look at genres and styles. When was the last time we did a comedy? Where are the students in their careers on campus? Does this group of students really need a Shakespeare? We better do that next year.

The second layer is for the people who direct: What do they want to do as an artist? I challenge our faculty to challenge themselves. I’ll say, “You know what we need, but what’s going to challenge you?” I won’t assign someone a Neil Simon if they don’t want to do it. There’s nothing worse than going to the theatre to watch a show someone was assigned if they don’t really have their heart in it. The students know whether or not the director cares deeply about the play. We’re careful about that. Usually directing faculty gives me three shows to choose from. I can take those shows and put together a diverse season.  With our faculty, this system has always worked well for us and it’s a strong piece within our program.

Q: A newer feature in your department is the Sandbox Series. How does that fit within the overall program?

A: The Sandbox Series is for students who want to direct a play and discover what they’re made of. We don’t advertise those shows or put any money into them. If they need a door for a scene, they have to go find a door. They can use what we have in the basement. They don’t get credit for it. Only the space, lighting and sound system is available. It’s structured, though. They have to have a faculty mentor; they have to find their crew. They can’t just waltz in and do whatever.

We’ve been attracting these highly motivated students over the past few years. We’ve had so many students show up who are on fire; they are all about theatre. If they don’t do it in-house, they’ll do it in the University Center or find a space in the engineering building. I want our students to do those shows in-house, to use our facilities and give us the opportunity to be a part of that conversation and experience.

[The Sandbox Series] is very much a laboratory experience. And it’s a great recruiting tool for students who feel like they can come in and do what they need to do to get the full experience. They’re really the overachievers, frankly. They don’t have to do it; they get a great education in our department regardless. But they are highly motivated on their own to find their crew, find the actors, find the furniture they want to use and haul it in there and make it happen. It’s a great testament to what we’ve tried to accomplish in our department. There are very few universities that do this.

Q: Now that the MTC is up and running, what’s next for your department?

A: One of the things we’re building is a musical theatre component. We do a musical or opera every year now. Next year, we’ll do an opera with the music department. Then we’ll do another musical. We need a program that supports those shows. So we’re looking at our friends in music and kinesiology. We have a course in our department, “Dance for the Actor,” but to develop a BFA for this area we need more than that. We need a joint effort with the music department to have voice lessons and come up with those classes that will meet the program needs.

It’s kind of a no-brainer. If you look at what’s happening in the U.S. with theatre, the focus is on musicals. I don’t think that’s going to go away any time soon; that’s where the funding and the action is. Look on Broadway: there’s 45 musicals and four plays. In Texas, it’s football and musicals. Every high school does them. They love them. We need to adjust some things for where the market is.  Having said that

about musicals, we would never abandon our focus in producing comedies or dramatic works.

Q: A common need among departments across the country is additional scholarship funds. As MTC raises the profile of UT Arlington students and faculty, how does funding impact the department?

A: I think it’s important to have scholarship money to bring in the better and brighter students. We can bring them through our system, from the Sandbox Series to the MAVPLAYS level to the Mainstage productions. There are levels where our students can work from one to the next. I think the next step is to find funding specifically for students in transition, from the University to the next phase of their career.

In their last semester, a student may have an opportunity to audition for national theatres. The University Resident Theatre Association holds auditions for graduate programs. There’s a point in their college career where they are competitive, they are talented, but they have no money. On occasion, I’ve been able to scrape up some money to get somebody on an airplane. When we’ve done that, those students have received graduate assistantships. But we just need to get them into that room to show their stuff. We need something formally established for that purpose.

We have some good talent representing us in Los Angeles and New York. If we were able to support them earlier on as they were exiting, they would have the edge. To have that transition money, to be able to launch them to the next level… if we can accomplish that we’ll have a very dynamic department that people around the country will want to be a part of.

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