What Monika Browne calls a bubble of magic floated to a burst at Valley City State University.
Readying for a dent in state funds, whacked by diminished oil revenues and commodity prices last summer, the university resolved to gradually shed its theater minor as part of a budget reduction of 10 percent.
For Browne, who, for years, juggled her theater studies with her duties as a mother of two and office manager at a law firm, the news came crashing.
“I was heartbroken,” said Browne, whose hanker for theater sprouted at an early age, in her native Poland. “I think it is a great loss for the students in the area. It takes away an opportunity to experience art.”
Over a 100 students have drifted toward theatre since 2006, when the minor commenced at the 127-year old VCSU, where performances have occurred for a century. The tally might represent a morsel of the university’s general enrollment for the past decade, but it seems to carry sizable relevance.
With balanced rates of registration and graduation, the minor averaged eight students per academic year, said Jenni Lou Rossi, who headed theatre within the Communication Arts department. “The average over the last ten years was the second highest of minor programs,” she said.
The introductory course to theatre served as an additional gauge of the program’s popularity. The class was regularly packed. An online section needed to open to accommodate the interest, Rossi said.
From Rossi’s depiction, a healthy program emerged. Yet the decision to shutter theatre was “the most strategic move,” said Greg Vanney, director of marketing and communications at VCSU. “We spent considerable time trying to figure out where we could find some savings, while impacting the fewest number of students possible,” he said. “It was not like we wanted to cut theatre.”
The university accommodated students like Browne whose theatre studies hung unfinished when the cut came. They would be able to complete their minors on campus, said Vanney.
The past academic year saw Russi teach the last theatre classes and head the final faculty-led productions. In September she is to renounce her role of theatre director and the sole theatre professor at VCSU and assume a vacant position in communications. This will save $147,000, Vanney said, in Russi’s salary and benefits and theatre operating costs over the next biennium, when VCSU is to run on a slimmed-down budget with a total of nearly $5 million.
“I was devastated because it changed my work,” said Russi, a stand-up comedian who moved to VCSU in the mid-aughts. “More importantly, it changed the entire reason I was here.”
Three hours away from the nearest comedy club, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Russi centered her artistic pursuits in the classroom and on the stage of VCSU’s historic Theatre 320.
Russi watched students come to theatre and discover their forte, making friends, brushing off insecurities and rising to speak for themselves. “The personal transformation of students is what is so exciting for me,” she said.
In the 1970s, long before the theatre minor morphed into its latest form, VCSU alum Brad Stephenson realized the potency of theatre in molding character. It nudged Stephenson, who today owns a cluttered bookstore in Fargo, North Dakota, to overcome what he believes to be a primary fear for many – addressing an audience, of any size and kind.
But there is more to theatre than breaking through one’s shell, he said. Equally significant are the technical and artistic skills, like set and costume design, marketing, makeup and hairdressing, carpentry, light and sound control that theatre hones.
“I feel it is unfortunate,” Stephenson said of cutting the theatre minor. He penned a letter to VCSU administration, urging it to reconsider. “I understand when money is tight things have to go. Unfortunately, all the arts are often seen as extra, something I do not believe. People do not always see the influence of arts if they are not directly involved. They do not see that it goes beyond entertainment.”
While VCSU’s catalog of classes dropped theatre, students can still pick up the craft on their own. Funds for independent performances remain available through Student Senate, whose coffers attract no state money but rather fill up with a portion of student fees.
“The hope is that students will continue to do productions,” even if they lack formal education in the field, Rossi said. But now that her professorial duties in theatre have been shelved, she is hesitant about partaking on her own discretion. “If I volunteer as a director in an academic setting, what am I teaching my students about the value of their education in theatre?”
Even if discontinued, the theatre minor at VCSU has an uncertain future. The university has committed to weigh the reinstitution of the program in three years – by that time, the next legislative session will have assembled and, according to projections, the state’s revenue streams would have revived.
Until then, Stephenson hopes theatre at VCSU does not slip to the backstage of community support.
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