Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch…strum?
BFA musical theatre programs are jam-packed with credits and round-the-clock training to churn out triple threats. How about quadruple threats? As more and more new musicals require performers to play instruments, and as more musical theatre programs now offer B.A. degrees for musical theatre, Ohio University aims to build some wiggle room into its musical theatre BFA curriculum—including a programmatic focus on actor-musicianship.
“We’re specifically trying to be a very different kind of program, because there are so many out there,” says Alan Patrick Kenny, the incoming department head for the the new program. Starting this fall, Ohio University’s Bachelor of Fine Arts in Performance program will become a four-year degree with two different foci: The acting program will be joined by a musical theatre track. After seeing more than 1,000 auditions, 30 students will be making their way to Athens, Ohio, to join the inaugural musical theatre class at Ohio University this fall.
Kenny looked at more than 125 curricula of current BFA musical theatre programs across the country for inspiration in building the curriculum. He found that most accredited BFA programs do not have any room for students to pursue a double major, minor, or certificate program.
“We offer conservatory-style training within a full liberal arts university,” says Kenny. “Our gen-ed is incredibly flexible—there are different tiers of subjects and hundreds of classes that might satisfy those subjects.” This flexibility in scheduling classes allows for theatre students to explore the full breadth of the university’s offerings, from extra science classes to business courses on top of theatre training.
“A lot of this has been about trying to figure out, what does the university have to offer? Instead of saying that we as a theatre school have to do it all, we can just give the students access to the larger university.” Other theatre-focused specialization options for students include minors in public relations and customer service, advertising, social media, and digital storytelling, as well as certificates in performing arts health and wellness. The program is also looking to offer an one-year M.A. in arts administration, a stackable graduate certificate.
“Virtually everyone I know in the business who survives longer than several years has something else beyond singing, dancing, and acting that they do,” says Kenny. “They have something else that sustains them between gigs, between the impossible business of show business.”
The university, Kenny notes, is a research university. “That means that we are not supposed to be not only teaching people how to participate in the art form, but we have to move the art form forward,” he says.
Part of the plan in moving the art form forward is to offer something that no other musical theatre programs in the U.S. do: an actor-musicianship track. There are a handful of training programs in the U.K. that offer such training, including Rose Bruford College, the Guildford School of Acting, and the University of West London, among others. Ohio University’s actor-musicianship track will be a 24-credit program offering students two years of private music lessons, and full access to the University’s School of Music course curriculum.
Kenny is an actor-musician, and has performed in both The Last Five Years and Songs from an Unmade Bed from behind the piano. “I was trying to figure out a way that I could marry the passion that I have for storytelling as a singer and musician with the narrative structure of a theatre piece, mixed with the personalization that you’d find in a singer-songwriter concert,” he says.
As the genre of musical theatre expands to include more styles of music, it is no longer enough to simply dance, sing, and act. Shows requiring actors to also play instruments include Bandstand, The Band’s Visit, American Idiot, School of Rock, and Million Dollar Quartet, and Off-Broadway this season, the rock musical The Other Josh Cohen, as well as The Hello Girls!, which featured an ensemble of five women who impressively played the clarinet, the cello, and a marching tuba.
“Most students haven’t played instruments since high school, because that is when they had to choose between band, choir, and starring in their high school musical,” he says. “So I wanted to give them the space to do that.” Kenny points to a friend who had his mom FedEx his violin to New York City in hopes of re-learning how to play days before a callback for Cabaret on Broadway. “That’s not the answer,” says Kenny with a laugh.
The School of Theatre is subsidized by the Arts for Ohio organization, which allows for more adventurous season choices not dictated by box office sales. “Having that freedom to do actor-musicianship shows as I build an arsenal of students who can do it at a professional level is very exciting to me.”
Another perk of the BFA musical theatre program is the ability to study abroad in London through the University of Ohio’s School of Music, where students can take classes on the history of rock music and see 3-5 shows per week.
“I want to train artists, and to me that means you are a citizen of the world and you have a point of view and you have something to say,” says Kenny. “When you’re working on new work or you’re in a collaboration, you can add to the conversation. We don’t need robots; we need people who can interpret work.”