UMSL Theatre's Last Act?

Subject: UMSL Theatre's Last Act?
From: Christopher Owens
Date: 12 Apr 2018

To Whom it May Concern:
It has come to my attention recently that the Theatre and Cinema Arts Department at the University of Missouri - St. Louis (UMSL) has been recommended for “inactivation.” As a graduating senior in the department, this news came as great shock to me and led me to investigate why this was happening.
The official reason given in the March 22nd, 2018 “University of Missouri - St. Louis Program Prioritization Committee” report is that the program is losing too much money per credit hour; poor margin data. There are at least seven other departments with a greater reported loss of money and poor margin data, but the decision recommended for those programs is “Further Review.”
Interestingly, some of the programs being proposed for review are basic core programs like History, Psychology, Political Science, and Economics, which would seem like bedrock programs for a liberal arts institution. It seems the College of Business Administration’s programs were all considered “Fine as Is” with the exception of a “Further Review” for the Supply Chain and Analytics program. It gives recommendations to hire faculty and improve performance. So, overall the report indicates there is increasing pressure to scrutinize and cut programs from the College of Arts and Science, while maintaining and growing the College of Business Administration. The highest pressure comes down on the Arts programs. These days, there seems to be a focus in education to squelch creative and media programs. Arts and media are disciplines that often are the mouthpiece for students and artists to critique and reflect on systemic and institutional corruption. UMSL seems to bolster their business courses and focus only on the bottom line. The University of Missouri - St. Louis is a public educational institution that has the status of a non-profit. Yet, the administration is treating the university more like a private corporation. This is inappropriate. Yes, there should be fiscal responsibility and accountability when using public funds and running an educational institution. But, the actions being taken by UMSL go way beyond what is reasonable for a not-for-profit institution.
The decision of “inactivation” of the Theatre and Cinema Arts Department is very personal for me. I can list the merits of a theatre program at a major public university as a necessary outlet for student artists to hone their craft, find a voice and develop creative leadership skills. But I feel like these are obvious benefits of a theatre department for a student looking to study theatre. The department offers a huge opportunity for students from other majors as well. They can take classes to develop their own creative and communication skills that will make them better professionals in their respective fields. Cutting programs that offer these skills will not benefit anyone.
St. Louis is a hotbed of social issues and tensions playing out live everyday. That leads to opportunities for a performance department to create unique and timely work that correlates directly to what is happening in the city and beyond. This is part of what UMSL’ Theatre Department does well. I was reminded of this in the fall when I attended the production of Aristophanes’ The Birds. This show, which was written over 2,000 years ago, still rings true today. It mirrors what we are experiencing as a nation today. There is a populist leader who goes up to the kingdom of the birds in the sky to rouse them to action and pins them against the gods. In a narrative of us versus them, the play even goes so far as to propose building a wall to separate the kingdom of the Gods. In the kingdom of the humans only the birds can transverse this area and only to their own benefit. Wall building to keep people out, 2000 years ago! This production also incorporated beautiful puppetry and musical numbers that bring to life and modernize the already timely play from the history of theatre. The unique thing about theatre arts is a bringing together all other art forms; from music, to sculpting/drawing, to dance, to rhetoric itself.
The music department at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, although under “Further Review” will remain activated with the report citing “world class” musicians who are not being effectively utilized for recruitment. Also cited are marketing issues to be addressed and realigning curriculum to focus on UMSL-mission and strengths. Now, I am the first person to support keeping our music program, but why is theatre not being given this treatment and consideration?
The music department’s profit margin loss is far beyond that of the theatre department and they are given over five times the amount of scholarship funds to recruit students. To put this into context, the theatre department is given zero dollars for marketing, advertising or recruitment measures. They get much smaller scholarship funding pool to offer students. Yet, there is no recommendation by the committee to increase marketing efforts for theatre as there is with music.
As for the world class musicians and meeting UMSL’s mission of diversity and tolerance, take a look at the world class and incredibly diverse theatre faculty. Dr. Niyi Coker has extensive ties to the African film and theatre community worldwide. Professor Glen Anderson’s technical expertise in theatrical construction and design is world class. Dr. Csapo-Sweet has a vast knowledge of the cinema arts, and has produced documentaries that have been broadcast internationally. She has also worked with our local Bosnian communities. The Department Chair, professor Felia Davenport is an award winning costume designer. She has extensive experience and history in theatrical design all over the city of St. Louis and elsewhere. Finally, St. Louis Critic’s Circle award winning artist Jacqueline Thompson rounds out the faculty. Her experience in acting and directing contributes to excellent education opportunities for theatre students at UMSL.
Taking all of this information in stride, it is difficult to understand why a seemingly rich and experienced department and faculty such as the theatre program at the University of Missouri - St. Louis could ever be considered for “inactivation.” The last big elephant in the room to address in these considerations is the beautiful, state of the art Touhill Performing Arts Center located adjacent to the theatre department on the University’s North Campus. It seems there was a huge controversy in 1999 when the Touhill was being proposed as it was a pretty costly endeavor for the university and many of the faculty lodged grievances with the use of funds on the center especially when the University of Missouri-St. Louis lacked a theatre program to utilize it. Although arguments were made for the use of the center as a profitable venue for road shows and world class entertainment to be booked in, this wasn’t a very promising argument for many of the university’s staff. The administration came up with the idea that the University would re-launch their long shutdown theatre program and that this center would essentially serve as another academic building, although outside acts would also be used to supplement the space and produce some type of profit to help offset the building’s maintenance costs. So, the theatre department began anew at the University and had promise as their was excitement in connection with the new facility. The program would be a Theatre and Dance program. The Modern American Dance Company came to be a resident dance company at UMSL. The department joined Media Studies under the College of Fine Arts and Communication. Enrollment was steady but low, given the program was new. The department was given a modest annual production budget of $40,000 to produce 4 shows including two plays and two dance concerts. This is a tight budget for a small theatre company, but in this case the department is supposed to produce shows in the massive Touhill Performing Arts Center. After licensing a show, paying the technical staff, as well as costumes and scenic costs, that kind of budget does not stretch very far. Still, the department was creative with the budget given and strived to put on the highest quality shows possible.
As semester by semester and year by year tick by, no money is given to the theatre department for marketing, advertising, or recruitment for the program. Eventually, the Department of Theatre and Dance are moved out from the College of Fine Arts and Communication, for what reason, I couldn’t tell you. Media studies is shifted away to the communications department. The dance aspect of the program was pulled when the instructor that was hired had several Title IV infractions brought against him within the first year, leading to the administration to pressure the chair to make a decision on that instructor’s employment. They said if they terminated the instructor that the dance program would no longer exist. The department chair couldn’t consciously allow the instructor who was abusive toward students remain in his position, so he went along with the program. Now, why the firing of an inappropriate instructor led to a program folding rather than hiring someone else is another mystery in the amount of inaction the university has taken to support the department. To anyone on the outside looking for a theatre or dance program at UMSL, it might be difficult and confusing to trust a program that has been moved from one college to another and shifted and rebranded into almost non-existence within a few years time. I cannot be sure but with the lack of consistent program support, appropriate marketing and production budget, as well as recruiting support, it seems as though there was directive to shut the program down long before this recommendation was made on March 22nd. In fact, I am not convinced that the entire theatre department was not mocked up in 1999 to enable the building of the controversial Touhill Performing Arts Center, with the knowledge that the success of the theatre’s program was not necessarily of any real importance as long as the project was approved and accomplished. The sad fact of the matter, is that while the theatre department has suffered from lack of support and uses the Touhill so little of the time throughout the year, so too is the Touhill underperforming and under-utilized by outside events or other programs.
The University of Missouri - St. Louis was the only public university in St. Louis to offer an affordable theatre degree and if it weren’t for the program’s existence, I would not be looking forward to graduating on May 12th. While this recommendation to close the program will not effect me, it will effect many other students and future students, and even the community and university at large. Creative programs like this ought to be fostered not shunned and shut down, now more than ever with everything that is happening in the world. Ironically, the University of Missouri - St. Louis has recommended in their report that programs should look at ways to use the Touhill and its facilities for teaching activities or other uses since it is hardly occupied. This seems like a slap in the face to the theatre department that I have been extremely proud to be a part of, yet I think that this philosophy and lack of connection to what a public university ought to be is what has led this administration so blindly down this path.
Christopher Owens
Senior Student
Department of Theatre and Cinema Studies
University of Missouri - St. Louis
[email protected]