COLUMBIA — Eric Peters sometimes jokingly calls himself a “Stephens woman.”
The 19-year-old from Lee’s Summit is one of 17 men pursuing a three-year, two-summers bachelor's degree in fine arts at the all-women Stephens College. These men, labeled “male apprentices,” are specifically selected to attend Stephens with scholarships in the dance or theater departments.
“I would get this stuff in the mail and it would say ‘To your daughter’ and ‘Future Stephens woman,’ and all this stuff they would send me to come to school here was already addressed to a girl,” said Clay Schrenger, a dance major from Louisville, Ky. “It was hysterical. My parents would crack up at it."
For decades, Stephens has included a handful of undergraduate men; that's unusual for women's colleges, which more often admit men in their graduate or continuing studies programs, said Amy Gipson, vice president for public relations and marketing at Stephens. The thinking, particularly on the part of faculty in the theater and dance departments, which are central to the college, is that the inclusion of men provides a more realistic performance environment for the women.
The men feel both the privilege and the responsibility that come with being a "Stephens man." They also feel the oddity of it.
"I don’t feel like I’m at an all-girls' school because I’m always with the other theater people, and we have the most guys,” Peters said. “My friends (back home) got a kick out of it. Whenever I tell people I go to Stephens, I get a ‘Really?’"
Finding their own place
Stephens didn’t offer degrees for men until 1969, but the performing arts programs recruited males throughout the '60s. Men entering their junior year of college were invited to apply and, if selected, attended Stephens for only one year, finishing their education at another university.
In November 1968*, Stephens board of directors decided to grant a limited number of degrees to men.
“It’s healthy to have the young men in classes to act in scenes opposite the women,” said Rob Doyen, a professor in the theater department who holds the distinction of being the first male graduate of the school. “You’ve got to have both sexes in the program to be able to give the right kind of training. So they are very happy we have the young men, again because our bill is not limited.”
Some aspects of the program have changed since Doyen’s graduation. For instance, the number of apprentices in the theater department increased as the number of male faculty members, who also act alongside the women onstage, decreased. Right now, 34 men and 93 women teach at Stephens.
Additionally, while the men used to live on campus in a dorm, for the past three years, they have been living off campus. The reasoning behind the decision was that the school did not want to waste space or utilities by housing 16 men in a residence hall designed for dozens more.
“We never had a specific residence hall that was designed for our male apprentices,” said Deb Duren, vice president for student services. “It became not an advantageous thing at Stephens to put them in any other space and have them take up a building for 40 students. ... We made a conscious decision to have them live off campus to free up housing for our female students.”
One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is that the men are some of the most recognizable faces on the Stephens grounds. Occasionally, a male student from MU or another college in the Mid-Missouri Associated Colleges and Universities Consortium agreement will be given approval by his home institution and Stephens to enroll in one class at Stephens. However, this is rare. In addition, Stephens does enroll a few men in its graduate and continuing studies programs.
When the Stephens women have men in their courses, however, they are generally male apprentices. The dance department has the smallest number of male apprentices — five — with the rest specializing as either actors or technicians in the nationally ranked theater department. Although the apprentice number mightvary depending on how many talented men are discovered during recruitment, in recent years, there have tended to be 16 or 17 men.
“Everyone knows you,” said Jeremy Stanfield, a freshman dance major. “People will come up and say hi to me, and I won’t even know who they are. ... Everyone knows my name because I stick out in the crowd whether I want to or not.”
Schrenger said the recognition easily leads to new friends. The men are encouraged to live in studio apartments in Dearing Hall at College Avenue and Walnut Street because of its proximity to campus and its rehearsal buildings.
“We would have parties, and people would always be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to the boys’ place,'” Schrenger said. “That’s what we are referred to as — ‘the boys.’”
Sometimes, though, being the familiar face has its downfalls.
“Everyone knows your business, like if I hang out with one girl too much, they think I’m going out with her,” Stanfield said.
Setting the record straight, Stanfield is not dating any female student at Stephens as he has a girlfriend in his hometown.
Because he is gay, Peters has to branch out of Stephens to find potential dates.
“The people I have met have mainly been from Mizzou,” Peters said. “My schedule is really busy, though, and I feel bad if I am in a relationship because I have rehearsal and shop and other stuff that other college students don’t have to do. What I don’t get in romantic relationships, though, I make up for with friendships with other people in the same situation.”
Stages of education
The men are enrolled in the same classes as the female students. Upon acceptance at Stephens, however, the apprentices sign a contract stating they will uphold what the theater and dance departments expect from them in exchange for their scholarship. If they do not comply, they can no longer attend Stephens.
The requirements vary between the departments, but one thing they have in common is that acting and dance male apprentices must audition for all shows and accept any placement.
The theater program, ranked No. 7 in the nation in the 2009 Princeton Review's "Best 368 Colleges," generally has nine or 10 shows during a nine-month academic year, with an additional nine shows during the 10-week summer theater program.
“I think the men have such an opportunity to act here, and, of course, what actors want to do is act,” said Beth Leonard, dean of the School of Performing Arts and theater chairwoman. “If they go to another program, they might get in a show a semester. Here, they’re going to be in several shows a semester, and they are going to be acting all the time.”
If not selected for a play, the actors will work in the shop every day alongside the technical apprentices constructing the sets. Technical apprentices are also given other responsibilities, such as being in charge of lighting and sound, or designing the sets.
The dance department has a senior dance concert consisting of performances choreographed by the senior students, a faculty concert, a “new works” concert for any student choreographer and a summer program concert. Occasionally, guest artists will have additional shows requiring auditions. Stephens also has its own dance company, Dimensions.
All dance majors are required to audition for faculty and guest artist pieces, though not for student-choreographed shows.
Schrenger said he does not mind the audition requirement.
“It doesn’t bother me at all to do it," Schrenger said. "It’s not a hassle because everyone is going to be there anyways, and I probably would audition anyways.”
The male apprentices are called upon for other tasks as well, such as moving a dance floor. These tasks tend to be minimal, Schrenger said, as the apprentices’ primary focus is perfecting their dance skill and preventing injury.
Carol Estey, chairwoman of the dance department, said it is important to have male apprentices in the program so that women become comfortable dancing with men, which they no doubt will be required to do when entering a professional dance company. Estey, who came to Stephens this year, feels there are benefits for the men beyond just dancing.
“I think they flourish,” Estey said. “There’s something nice about being one of the few. They get to see what it’s like to be around women all the time in a women’s culture. ... It’s kind of a privilege to be an outsider inside, I think.”
Audition for admissions
To become one of the few men at Stephens, though, does not involve merely filling out an application. On the Stephens College Web site, there isn’t an option giving male students the opportunity to apply for admission. The school does not market to men; instead, potential apprentices hear about the school via word of mouth and from Stephens performing arts faculty during recruitment trips.
“The admissions people don’t get involved in it as much as we do,” Estey said. “Until we are at the point where we actually want to make an offer to somebody, it’s much more just between the dance program and the people who are interested in it. It’s a little more difficult to find people and for people to know about us.”
Schrenger and Stanfield heard about Stephens via a professor at their performing arts high school and met with recruiters. Peters knew one of the acting apprentices and met a Stephens representative at the Missouri Thespian Conference.
“I was pretty much applying to anywhere that had any sort of decent theater program,” Peters said. “Overall, I liked the three-year, two-summer package, and that year they were ranked No. 6, so that had an influence on my decision.”
Peters said the fact that the school is a women’s college did not affect his decision. Schrenger agreed, saying the quality of the faculty sold him. For Stanfield, who has three younger siblings who will all attend college in the next three years, Stephens gave him the largest scholarship package.
Yet before deciding whether they wanted to attend the women’s college, they had to be accepted. Both dance and theater departments consider factors traditionally associated with the college application process, such as letters of recommendation and a high school transcript. Members of the theater department travel to 10 to 12 thespian conferences around the country annually to find female actors and also take the opportunity to talk to prospective male actors and technical apprentices. For men, however, there is an additional audition requirement.
Unlike women, to be considered for a position, male actors must send in an audition tape of two monologues and, if musically talented, two songs. The audition tapes and portfolios are reviewed by theater faculty. If the man is considered to have potential, he is invited to apply.
Technical apprentices submit a portfolio, which can include their resume, a list of shows they have worked on and photos.
“We all want to see the men,” Doyen said. “When you only have nine, you want to make sure you’re getting who you want.”
Some years, the theater department receives more than 50 audition tapes. Usually, there are only two or three spots to fill, depending on how many apprentices are graduating.
“Nothing happens until we get that audition tape,” Leonard said. “We don’t encourage them to come see Stephens, to come to the campus because these are such coveted positions; we would be inundated with would-be actors. So, they must take the step to send that tape in, and once they do that, the process will begin.”
The dance department also requires an audition, but it is an in-person audition either at a recruitment site or on campus. A video audition is typically a last resort.
Estey said the dance department looks for serious dancers with the skill and potential necessary to succeed in the intensive program.
“We also really interview and see if they feel like the right kind of person for the program,” Estey said. “To be one of few men in a women’s college is a real responsibility. I think we have to have a good feeling about that before we’re ready to take them on. We must feel they are up to that responsibility and that challenge.”
'Unchangeable' but flexible
The prospect of becoming coeducational has been discussed in the past at Stephens. In the 2007 North Central Association Accreditation Report, it was declared that Stephens would remain a women’s college for a variety of reasons, including that being a women’s college is a “distinctive marketing niche” and because “the advantages of a women’s college education are numerous.”
The report also states that Stephens desires to have a student body of fewer than 1,500, and that men are typically drawn to larger schools. Furthermore, some of Stephens’ strongest programs, including early childhood and elementary education and event planning, are majors that mainly women express interest in, and the college lacks majors that typically are more appealing to men — for example, biology and computer science.
"Stephens remains committed to women's education first and foremost," saidGipson, the vice president of marketing and public relations who has been at Stephens since 1995. "Early in our strategic planning process in 2003-2004, we weighed the issue of going coed. It suddenly occurred to us that we ought to at least ask that question of ourselves while we were asking so many other questions. But we quickly reaffirmed our status as a women's college as 'unchangeable.'"
Although the school has no plans to become coeducational, the men that graduate with their bachelor's degree in fine arts will no doubt have an interesting conversation starter for years to come. This is something that Dan Schultz, a faculty member who graduated from Stephens in 2000, learned while working in New York as an audition reader for “Spamalot,” directed by Mike Nichols.
“He said, ‘So, Dan, tell me about yourself,’ and I said, ‘Well, I went to Stephens College for women,’” Schultz said. “And he was like, ‘What?’ I got to explain to Mike Nichols that I went to a women’s college. I saw him two weeks later when I was working with the same casting director, and Mike Nichols remembered me because I went to a women’s college. Now, did he ever hire me? No. But you never know, down the line. …”
While in New York, Schultz worked in regional theater and television. He started assisting casting directors and producers and eventually co-started a theater company called taxdeductible theatre. Schultz credits his Stephens education and male apprenticeship experience with giving him the skills to develop the company.
“I learned a professional work ethic that I don’t think I would have gotten at another college,” Schultz said. “Because so much we do is based on product — we present a show every month — we have to develop a really rigorous code of conduct. That involves being on time, and if someone gives you a note, you say thank you. You keep your nose clean. A lot of people think when they get here the rules are kind of strict and, ‘Oh, it’s hard work,’ but that’s what it’s like in the real world.”
Seeing where their Stephens education will take them is closer for some of the apprentices than for others. In May, Schrenger will graduate and is interested in pursuing physical therapy for dancers. Peters is in his second year and would ideally like to focus on stage management, painting, makeup and scene design. Stanfield is just beginning his college-level dance education. Regardless of where they end up, each will have had a unique experience.
“It’s really cool to be hand-selected from everyone to go to a school with such a great reputation, but that also means we’re under the magnifying glass,” Peters said. “I walk into the class and within the first two days, the teacher knows my name as opposed to the other 20 girls, so it’s a lot of pressure. But it’s also a big reward at the end.”