University theater programs train future stars


COLUMBIA — Columbia’s two academic theater programs have entertained thousands of people in the past 100 years. Often, the audience has watched students who have gone on to successful stage and film careers.

Both programs have national visibility.

Academic Analytics ranked MU’s department fourth in the country in 2006-2007. The Princeton Review ranks the Stephens College program eighth best, and it is the fourth year that Stephens has ranked in the top 10. The theater program was established 1899.

For the last two years, Beth Leonard has guided the school at Stephens.

Leonard is dean of the School of Performing Arts and chair of theatre. She has been at Stephens for 16 years, both as an actress and faculty member, and has a great respect for what the program has to offer.

Leonard says the structure makes Stephens’ program unique. Students can earn a bachelor's of fine arts in three years and two summers.

The first summer is spent on the campus, Leonard says. In the second summer, students study at the Okoboji Theatre near Spirit Lake, Iowa.

Stephens leased the Okoboji Theatre in 1961. Today, Stephens theater students perform a different play each week alongside a professional staff. The program sells 98 percent of its seats.

Stephens students also perform often in Columbia. Students put on six main-stage pieces and four shows for the community in the Warehouse Theater. These shows are often produced with guest directors who have outside connections and are nationally recognized.

“We bring them in to help students network in the field of theater,” said Leonard.

“Our program’s goal is to prepare young women for the world of professional theater,” said Leonard, adding that men are also involved through an important apprentice program.

The results can be seen on the country’s biggest stages. Elizabeth Mitchell, who plays Juliet on the TV show “Lost,” is a Stephens graduate. There are currently three Stephens students on Broadway as well, Leonard says.

MU’s theater department puts on seven shows annually for the community. The bachelor of arts program is available for students looking for a major in theater. Larry Clark, who served as chair of the theater department before he became dean of the School of Arts and Science in 1988, says the program’s strength is its extensive curriculum.

“Students study everything,” said Clark, who retired in 1999. “Acting, directing, costume, set design, everything. Then they choose a focus.”

MU also offers a wide array of extra programs to help expand student experiences outside of the classroom.

One such program is the Missouri Playwrights Workshop. Founded in 1998 by David Crespy, the program allows students to see their original works read, performed and critiqued. Although the workshop is mandatory for some courses, it is also open to the public and non-theater students.

“Most students end up coming more than the required amount,” said Crespy of the Tuesday night meetings. “We’ve gone through about 1,000 scripts in 10 years.”

Anyone can submit a script to the program, and the performances are free to the community. Many of the scripts developed in the workshop have also gone on to win awards in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

The Visiting Playwrights Program is an opportunity for students to learn from accomplished playwrights. For the past 10 years, famous playwrights such as Lanford Wilson have taught here.

“The most famous playwrights from all over the country come here to work with our students,” said Crespy. “Students here have the same opportunities as students at NYU or Columbia.”

Mizzou on Broadway is perhaps the most varied program MU has to offer. Although it is on a hiatus right now, the program has been around for five years and offers an experience unlike any other in the country.

“We send an original play to New York to be performed, and all but one script so far has come from the Playwrights Workshop,” said Crespy. “We are the only theater department in the country to do so.”

Not without famous alumni of its own, MU has graduated Academy Award-winner Chris Cooper as well as Golden Globe winner John Hamm, among many others.

MU also has an established graduate program. Students can get master's and doctorate degrees. It is the only Ph.D. program for theater in Missouri and one of only 35 in the country.

“We have a very egg-headed approach,” said Crespy with a laugh. “But it has yielded enormous success.”

Also in Theater

Stephens Schedule

Feb 27 to March 1, 7:30 p.m.
Warehouse Theatre

Bach’s Lunch”
“Feb 28th, March 20, April 24 12:30 p.m.
Historic Senior Recital Hall

“6 Women with brain Damage or Expiring Minds Want to Know”
March 14-15, 7:30 p.m.; March 16, 2 p.m.; March 19-21, 7:30 p.m.
Warehouse Theatre

One-Act Play Festival
April 9-12, 7:30 p.m.
Warehouse Theatre

“The Man Who Came to Dinner”
May 2-3, 7:30 p.m.; May 4, 2 p.m.; May 7-9, 7:30 p.m.
Macklanburg Playhouse

For ticket information, contact the box office at 876-7199

MU Schedule

“Romeo and Juliet”
Feb 29, March 1, March 6-9
Rhysnburger Theatre

March 18-20, April 3-6
Corner Playhouse

Mizzou New Play Series
April 10-13
Corner Playhouse

“Romulus Linney Residency”
April 14-17
Corner Playhouse

“The Irish Rogue” April 25-27, May 1-4
Rhysnburger Theatre

For ticket information, contact the box office at 882-PLAY
All weekday and Saturday shows are at 8 p.m.
All Sunday shows are at 2 p.m.