WITHIN THE BUBBLE of college life, a time of intense personal and academic growth, the theatre major is both a vibrant element of campus culture and a rigorous academic pursuit. Particularly in a liberal arts setting, students often pair their interest in theatre with business, medicine, or another discipline, enriching their educations while adding texture and depth to their college experience.

In the past few years, Bellarmine University and Xavier University — two small, Catholic, Midwestern liberal arts universities with strong academic heritages — have invested in theatre majors. They have designed curricula, added faculty positions, produced seasons, and graduated students — relishing how their new theatre degrees are shaping the lives of their students and their campus communities.

Tom Merrill, a professor of music and the director of Xavier’s Center for Innovation, was instrumental in launching his university’s theatre program. He describes the theatre major as a natural extension of a long Jesuit tradition of valuing the arts. “The Jesuits knew the power of art and music and drama,” Merrill said. “They were one of the first to form choir schools and one of the first to hold plays outside the doors of the church. The Jesuits actually had a long history of theatre, since like the 1600s.”

Research shows that studying theatre can not only inspire, delight, and motivate students, but it can also impart 21st century skills, such as communication, creativity, and critical thinking, which are essential to career success.

Though founded more than a century apart, Bellarmine and Xavier have a great deal in common. Cincinnati’s Xavier University, founded in 1831, is one of the oldest Catholic universities in the country. Bellarmine, founded by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville, opened in 1950 as one of the first schools in the Kentucky commonwealth open to all races. Both are private schools charging tuition in the neighborhood of $33,000 to 36,000, and both opened as men’s institutions but became coeducational in the ’60s.

Though nestled inside busy Midwestern cities, they each have beautiful, small campuses with tree-lined green spaces and architecture reminiscent of the schools’ shared Catholic heritage. They even have similar mascots: the Bellarmine Knights and the Xavier Musketeers. Although Xavier is slightly bigger (about 6,500 students compared to Bellarmine’s 4,000), both schools have a low faculty to student ratio (Bellarmine, 12:1 and Xavier, 11:1) and high freshmen retention rates above 80 percent, according to US News.

In short, these schools share vibrant student cultures — buzzing with activities, athletics, and student organizations — as well as a commitment to providing their students with a liberal arts education.

Many theatre professionals hold a B.A. from a small, liberal arts college much like Bellarmine and Xavier, instead of a B.F.A. or conservatory-style training. Some would even argue that, while the B.F.A. prepares theatre artists to be outstanding technicians and craftspeople, the B.A. prepares theatre artists to be great thinkers, creative professionals, and entrepreneurs. In the 2016 Dramatics college issue, Michael Dixon (himself a theatre educator at a small liberal arts university) shared a list of prominent theatre professionals who went the liberal arts route in college: playwright Lee Blessing; director and designer Julie Taymor; director Anne Bogart; writer and lyricist Lisa Kron; and even Lin-Manuel Miranda. Among them, they have almost 50 awards for their work in theatre.

Dixon wonders what it is about these tight-knit liberal arts learning environments that forges such high-caliber theatre artists. “First, these colleges base their philosophy on the classical belief that, to be a productive citizen, one needs to acquire knowledge in a number of disciplines. … So, the first principle of liberal arts refers to multidisciplinary content, while the second focuses on interdisciplinary process — a.k.a., synthesis, which can lead to inspiration, invention, and originality.”

Zackary Ross, one of the three professors developing Bellarmine’s new major, feels that the liberal arts approach to theatre creates entire communities as it creates artists. “The nice thing about theatre is it really does bring people together, puts them in the same room,” Ross says. “Despite the fact that they may be engineers and psychologists and physical education majors, we can play together and we can explore together and we can find a way of connecting across those myriad interests. Theatre seems to be a really fun and great way of making those connections and building that community.”

Allison Anderson and Isabel Sleczkowski in Bellarmine's 44 Plays for 44 Presidents. Photo by Zackary Ross.

Stephen Skiles, director of Xavier’s theatre program, agrees. He describes theatre as an intersection in liberal arts education, making it a quintessential liberal arts area of study. “Theatre programs at a university level sit at the crossroads of all the curricula, if you will,” Skiles says. “A theatre program can give a human perspective on any discipline. The math department could come to me and say, ‘Could you produce a show that deals with people struggling with mathematical issues, or math problems, or responsibilities of having a gift towards the sciences?’ And we could do a production of Proof and not look at it in a theoretical way, but actually put real people onstage that are going through and wrestling with those issues. And we can do that for any discipline.”

Skiles and Ross seek to provide a liberal arts education that focuses on theatre but that supports interdisciplinary critical thinking, communication, and creativity. “When I came in and started talking to people,” Skiles said of creating Xavier’s theatre major, “I said we should start a program that really doesn’t isolate our students but opens them up. I said, ‘Let’s write a different program that has no borders.’ Can we write a program that opens up students to study more than just theatre? Because one of the greatest lures of coming to Xavier is the liberal arts education.”

Rachael Petranek, a sophomore at Xavier and a double major in theatre and middle childhood education, has her sights set on teaching math one day. This year, however, she was cast in her first Shakespearean role: the Player King in Hamlet, whose monologue about a treacherous brother upsets King Claudius. “I chose Xavier initially because of the academics,” Petranek said. “I knew I wanted to do education since I was 14, but then I’d always done theatre while I was in high school. I didn’t know if it would be possible to pursue theatre in college. And then I came here and I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I talked to Stephen, and he said, ‘Yes! You can totally do theatre!’ I obviously did. I’m double majoring, and I seriously couldn’t be happier.”

Ed Stern coaches cast and crew members of Xavier's The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). Photo by Harper Lee.

Beyond the joy she gets from working on shows, Petranek sees her theatre education paying off in her teacher training. “The kids in my class that were also doing middle childhood education would be really nervous to talk in front of the class,” she said. “It’s hard for them to think of things on the spot — for ideas, for a lesson plan, or creative thinking. Theatre has helped me home in to that creative side and really make things exciting for kids. … Theatre has helped me take that extra mile, especially with my math concentration, to really tap into what kids like and use creative expression and storytelling to help understand math problems.”

Since Xavier founded its theatre program, it has become the fastest growing undergraduate program on campus. Skiles says that his department has 47 majors and 35 of those double in something else. XU also created a B.S. in theatre education — one of the only programs of its kind in Ohio — and is hoping to soon create a musical theatre major as well. “We’ve grown fast. We’ve grown furiously,” Skiles said. In its third year, Xavier’s theatre major was only expected to have 20 majors, but instead it has about doubled that benchmark. In its first year, Xavier produced two shows; this year’s program produced seven. “We expected some growth,” Skiles continued. “We didn’t expect the amount of growth this early.”

Bellarmine has been graduating students with degrees in theatre since 2012. Since then, the program has grown steadily, as the university has continued to invest in the degree. In summer 2014, the program had 12 majors. As of January 2017, the program had 18 majors and 5 minors. In the past year and a half, Bellarmine has tripled the size of their theatre faculty, adding two full-time positions, making it possible to accommodate even more students going forward. Bellarmine also now offers scholarships to theatre majors. “We’re definitely growing in terms of the offerings we have for students,” Ross said. “My goal would be to have us at probably 40 majors and minors within the next four years.”

Like Xavier, Bellarmine’s curriculum is designed to be flexible, so that students can double major and explore other fields of interest while in college. Ross and Bellarmine theatre program coordinator Megan Burnett understood that their students wanted more opportunities to produce their own work while in school. Rather than a long list of main stage productions, Ross and Burnett have focused on making space for students to be entrepreneurial in creating work. The program is committed to supporting an entirely student-produced show every year through Bellarmine’s chapter of Alpha Psi Omega, the college theatre fraternity. The program also created a 24-hour play festival in which students created and shared short scenes based on a theme.

“That was one of the commitments that [we] decided on, was just to say if that’s what you want here, we want to have faith in you,” Ross said. “We want to show you that that work is valued, so let’s construct something that will make that happen.”

Bellarmine’s small size also has been an asset to the program’s goals around encouraging student work. Melanie Metcalf, a theatre and communications double major, described having little access to performance opportunities growing up in rural Kentucky. It wasn’t until high school that she really got to explore theatre, and since then, she’s been hooked. She looked at bigger colleges, but Bellarmine — with its pretty campus and close community — felt like a natural fit.

Metcalf laughs about leaving her backpack, purse, and keys just laying out in the open – she feels safe at Bellarmine and connected to a shared experience. “Honestly, as soon as I got on campus, I was just like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this campus is so beautiful,’” she recalled. “And the people we encountered were so friendly and so nice. The hospitality is what brought me to this school. … I like the idea of a smaller school, of a smaller campus.”

Like Metcalf, Molly Kist is double majoring at Bellarmine: theatre and English. The breathing room in the curriculum, paired with the department’s intimate size, made Bellarmine a great fit for her. She could explore a variety of interests while learning about every aspect of theatre she wanted to. “I shied away from Bellarmine at first, because I knew that the program was really small and I wanted something with a lot of opportunity,” Kist said. “When I came here, I realized that that is exactly what a small program does for you. It gives you a chance to work in every single branch of theatre that you want to and you really get all of the hands-on experience. You have to help out with everything. I think that gives you a really good, well-rounded idea of what it takes to put on a production.”

For Bill Fenton, a math professor and dean of Bellarmine’s college of arts and sciences, in which theatre is housed, a theatre major from a small liberal arts institution prepares students not just for one career but many. “There’s a lot of press about preparing for a career and very job-focused education, but I think that’s too narrow,” Fenton said. “Having a lot of technical skills prepares you for one job, but jobs are changing. I’ve read articles that say the average college graduate now is going to have eight different jobs over their lifetime. If you’re prepared for one, what do you do with the other seven? It’s more important to get the ability to read and analyze, to think critically, to work well with other people, to put yourself forward in a professional setting.”

As she reflects on her education at Bellarmine and looks ahead at her future, Metcalf feels that studying theatre has become a key to a wider, endlessly fascinating world and to a future rich in opportunity. Her theatre education has certainly taught her about acting, she said, but more importantly, it has molded her into a lifelong learner. “The biggest thing I’ve learned in theatre is you can never know too much,” Metcalf said. “You never stop learning.”

This story appeared in the May 2017 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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