HAVE YOU HEARD of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon? It’s the name for that odd experience when you encounter something for the first time, then see it again and again. Since it’s college application season, don’t be surprised if the curious fact you’re about to encounter catches your eye many times in the coming months.

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the music, lyrics, and book for Hamilton, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama and Tony Award for best new musical. You know what college he attended? Maybe you’ve never heard of it: Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts college in Middletown, Connecticut.

Lisa Kron, playwright and lyricist of Fun Home, which garnered the 2015 Tony Award for best musical, graduated from another institution you probably never heard of: Kalamazoo College, a small liberal arts college in Michigan. Just a coincidence, right?

Anaïs Mitchell, who wrote and composed last summer’s Off-Broadway hit musical based on her song cycle Hadestown, graduated from … yes, you’re catching on … a small liberal arts college: Middlebury College in Vermont.

Ballet class at Ball State.

 Ballet class at Ball State. Photo courtesy of Ball State.

Now that you’ve been introduced to the fact that major theatre artists have attended small liberal arts colleges, you’re going to run across that fact again and again. For instance, directors Anne Bogart and Julie Taymor attended Bard College (Maine) and Oberlin College (Ohio), respectively. Actors Danai Gurira and Ben Affleck graduated from Macalester College (Minnesota) and Occidental College (California). Playwrights Lee Blessing and Naomi Wallace graduated from Reed College (Oregon) and Hampshire College (Massachusetts). And Brooke Jennett, who won the 2016 Dramatists Guild of America Young Playwright Award, graduated from Transylvania University in Kentucky.

While there’s no doubt you can get an excellent theatre education at a state university, community college, or professional conservatory, clearly something special happens in theatre programs at small liberal arts colleges. But what?

Citing the achievement of alumnus Lin-Manual Miranda, Wesleyan University President Michael Roth explains, “Hamilton is an extraordinary artistic achievement at once traditional and experimental. That’s the kind of synthesis that those of us working in liberal arts colleges are always hoping for: making the past come alive in ways that expand possibilities in the present.”

But why is it so important — that magical synthesis that expands possibilities — and how does it happen? Before we delve into those questions, let’s review what small liberal arts colleges across the country have in common.

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 that originally included science, math, music, and more. While the fields of academic study have proliferated over time, the idea of a broad foundation of learning remains central to the liberal arts.

So, the first principle of liberal arts refers to multidiscipline content, while the second focuses on an interdisciplinary process — aka synthesis, which can lead to inspiration, invention, and originality. “At liberal arts colleges … the tension between the traditional and experimental continues to energize students,” says Roth, who also describes how Miranda’s musical exhibits that tension: “Hamilton’s source is a deep historical biography by Ron Chernow, which Miranda somehow transformed into a hip-hop opera that draws on Broadway traditions to make something profoundly original,” he says.

The goal of working with multiple disciplines in interdisciplinary ways is to give students the knowledge and tools to think for themselves: to inquire and experiment, explore and empathize, interpret and create. Or as Albert Einstein put it, “The value of an education in a liberal arts college is the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” In the 21st century, that’s called thinking outside the box.

That’s why “small” is an incredible advantage in a college setting. Professors can take a personal interest in student work; students can propose and sharpen their ideas via group discussion; and in theatre courses, students can explore the ways in which culture defines character.

The ability to analyze a character’s beliefs, motivations, and actions is an essential skill for theatre artists, because we’re all products of a time and place. We’re all shaped by family and friends, philosophy and politics, laws and customs, religion and superstition, the weather and daily news. Grappling with forces in our environment — both in society and the natural world — is how an individual’s ethos and personality evolve. The same holds true for characters in dramatic literature.

In acting terms, those external factors are called “given circumstances.” When an actor has to figure out how a character’s motivations and objectives are influenced by given circumstances, it helps to have studied some history and psychology and sociology and literature and philosophy and economics and science and music and art. To begin looking into those factors at the start of a rehearsal process is simply too late — that’s what four years of college are for.

That’s what small liberal arts colleges do well: help students make sense of the world by connecting the past and present to their lives. And that’s why learning from numerous disciplines is so crucial to theatre students. If you don’t understand how given circumstances contribute to character and action, then you can’t express the complexities of human conflict in your creative work.

A stage management student at Northeastern University
A stage management student at Northeastern University. Photo courtesy of Northeastern University.

For theatre students, another thing these colleges do well is encourage innovation through interdisciplinary methods. Hamilton is a great example. Here’s another. At Transy (as Transylvania University is called on campus), they’re creating an anthology play about college life that features monologues written by student playwrights from across the country. One of our own playwrights, Michael Huelsman, chose to write his dramatic monologue using the computer code Ruby. 

Why did he choose computer code as a vehicle for his ideas? “Besides my basic love of the language as a computer scientist, Ruby is considered one of the most expressive languages, as well as being often considered beautiful,” Huelsman explains. “The Ruby community cares about the normal things like brevity and efficiency, but also how beautiful and stylized the produced code is.”

Huelsman’s diverse interests resulted in an innovative new form, and when performing “Change,” actors should pronounce both the punctuation and the function symbols. Even more impressive, this dramatic monologue can actually run as a computer program, providing there are proper modules titled brain and heart.

Needless to say, Huelsman couldn’t have written “Change” if he wasn’t familiar with both computer science and dramatic literature, and he wouldn’t have combined those areas of knowledge in a novel poetic form if interdisciplinary thinking wasn’t encouraged at his college. As Roth suggested with Hamilton, mixing tradition with experimentation offers a viable way to create new, challenging, and relevant plays and productions.

Small liberal arts colleges offer theatre students other benefits as well. In practical terms, first- and second-year students have a good chance of landing leading roles simply because fewer students overall audition for those parts. And at some of these schools, playwriting students get to see their original works performed in public readings and full productions.

These programs don’t excel in every area though. Most liberal arts theatre programs aim to develop scholar-artist-citizens — that is, students with multiple interests who hope to use their talents and knowledge to affect the world — rather than career specialists. For example, Miranda, Kron, and Mitchell are all performers as well as writers and lyricists or composers. And last June, Mitchell told The New York Times that ever since childhood she believed “if you could just write a song good enough, you could change the world.” She still believes that, and Miranda and Kron are proving her right with their revolutionary, glass ceiling-smashing new musicals.

So, if you already know you want to focus primarily on acting, directing, design, or technical theatre, B.F.A. and professional programs well-suited to training your talents exist. On the other hand, if you want to create a life as a theatre artist without career boundaries, if you’re interested in following more than one passion or dream, and if affecting or — why not dream really big? — saving some part of the planet with art is your great ambition, then a small liberal arts college is a really good place to start.

This story appeared in the November 2016 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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