New academic year, new theatre & dance administration

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The Center for the Arts; Photo by Shira Holtz '23

The Muhlenberg College campus continues to grow and evolve as the world and global health situation changes, but the College is also affected by an array of changes to faculty and staff as well. The theatre & dance administration at Muhlenberg has recently gone through a number of modifications to welcome new staff and to offer a new structure. These changes also occurred because of the recent retirement of three influential staff members: Charles Richter, Curtis Drestch, and Shelly Oliver. Richter and Drestch served as the previous director of theatre and director of technical theatre & design, respectively, and Oliver was a tap instructor. In addition to the retirements of these artists, Beth Schachter, Ph.D., is currently on medical leave and Jeffrey Peterson has resigned from the College. 

This shakeup in staff has created new opportunities for talented professionals who hope to not only shape the lives of the students at Muhlenberg, but the artistic world as a whole. James Peck, Ph.D., the chair of the theatre department, stated, “With all of that transition, it has been a challenging time, but also one filled with opportunities for new perspectives and fresh energy. Hiring was a big focus in the spring and well into the summer.” 

The change in the department extends beyond the faculty and staff hired over the last few months. The entire program has gone through a structural transition to allow for a handful of new positions and for a stronger foundation. The reconfiguration of the department occurred over the past year and divided up the chair position of the administration so that one person was not in charge of the entire department. Peck claimed, “It became clear that the department had grown too large for one person to serve as chair of the entire department, with responsibilities for the theatre curriculum, the faculty and staff of both the theatre and dance programs, and the co-curricular production program. 

“We considered several different models, including the possibility of splitting into two separate departments.” However, the theatre & dance faculty and staff agreed they should still remain as one administration. The new department now allows two chairs to oversee each art form, similar to how the department was run before the change. The chair of theatre is currently held by Peck, and Karen Dearborn is serving as the chair of dance. The role of the chairs is to oversee the curriculum for their respected division and to assist the faculty of said division, and to supervise advising to make sure new majors have the help they need and an advisor to support them. 

The changes have also allowed for members of the theatre & dance department to have expanded roles in the curriculum. Jess Bien now holds the position of director of operations and productions and Gianna Neal is now the office manager. Maya Costanzo is new to the department as the audience services and company manager. Rebecca Lustig, an assistant professor of costume design, is serving as the faculty director of the co-curriculum which allows for Lustig to institute conversation about guests artists and the departmental seasons. Lustig and Bien both planned the ongoing departmental productions for the fall and spring semesters for the 2021-2022 academic year. 

The new season is filled with important work and a world premiere of “Call Me By Any Other Name… Just as Sweet, a queer deconstruction of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Nigel Semaj, a new faculty member. Semaj is a visiting assistant professor for theatre with a focus in directing and is amongst the other new and exciting faculty members, such as You-Shin Chen, Robyn Watson, Jamie McKittrick and others. Chen is the new assistant professor of scenic design and is shaping her role here at Muhlenberg by teaching courses and designing for the department productions. Chen described how she hopes for more representation in the design world and to “start cultivating more people of color in terms of theatre design.” The designer is also focused on preparing students to do research on projects to be respectful of the cultures and beauty of these stories when designing them for the stage. Watson is currently a visiting lecturer in dance and chose Muhlenberg because it’s an intimate liberal arts institution and is also closer to her home of Philadelphia. For Watson, the world of dance is much more than just movement as it also allows for a “community” when in the classroom. 

Watson declared, “My goal is for every student to be comfortable with how they move and how they sound. That is success for me.” 

The new hires for the faculty called for student contribution to make sure the community felt comfortable with these new faculty members. Watson mentioned when describing her hiring process, It made me realize how well the school cares for their students in reference of bringing in new faculty to make sure that they were the right fit.” 

The department cares deeply about the student and faculty relationship. That is just as important for these new professors. Peck acknowledged, “I can say, too, that student input was a major factor in every decision. The best news is that we were able to hire six fantastic folks who are already having a positive impact on the department.” 

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