Act Two: Let the Good Times Roll

It’s just after 7:30 on a Saturday night, and at this moment, Angie McGuinness is no longer a sophomore majoring in cinema studies. Now, and for the next two hours, she’s Bonna Willis, a tough-talking kid trapped in 1960s suburbia. She’s been rehearsing the role for about 20 hours a week for the last month and a half, learning the nuances of the self-proclaimed “ass-beater” Bonna—one of the main characters in The Good Times Are Killing Me, cartoonist Lynda Barry’s coming-of-age tale about the interracial friendship between two girls in the era of “white flight.”

Good Times is the passion project of Marcia Ferguson, a core faculty member and senior lecturer in the theatre-arts program. She says it was love at first read for her and the play, and she spent several years thinking about how to stage it at Penn. This spring, when it was Ferguson’s turn to teach THAR-350: Rehearsal & Performance—a one-credit theatre-arts class that rotates instructors and productions every semester—she decided it was finally time to attempt a production of Good Times.

“It’s an interesting, different way of learning,” she says of the class, “but I think it’s some of the most concrete and valuable work you can do in a theatre arts class—to actually be out there staging a production.” In addition to rehearsing and producing Good Times, the class also has an academic side, including required reading assignments and critical essays—two hallmarks of a theatre education at Penn, Ferguson says. As the theatre arts program’s current director, Rose Malague, points out, “Performance is only a part of what we do.”

The program has been working to prove its academic prowess since the beginning. In a Gazette interview marking the 25th anniversary of the program’s first graduating major [“Arts,” Sept|Oct 2005], program founder Cary Mazer, associate professor of theatre arts and English, recalled that “the key thing to selling the idea was to convince the faculty of Arts and Sciences that theatre arts was an academic discipline.”

While performance is certainly a part of the program—just watch Ferguson’s Introduction to Acting students rehearse challenging scenes in preparation for an end-of-semester showcase—it has remained equally focused on theatre’s history, theory, criticism, and literature, Malague says. This is clear from only a quick glance at the major’s required classes: a trio of “theatre, history, culture” courses; “Play: Structure, Style, Meaning”; and more performance-oriented courses in acting, directing and scenic design.

Malague says that from the time she became program director in 2007, she’s been on a mission to “raise the profile of the program.” It’s still a tiny major—right now, there are just under 30 students who’ve declared—but it’s also in a moment of expansion. “We’ve tripled the size of the major in the last two years,” she says. “We’ve put more attention on publicizing our events and bringing in larger audiences. We’ve been trying to make more students aware that it’s possible to major in theatre at Penn or to study theatre at Penn.”

Still, the major remains among the University’s smallest—something many consider more of a strength than a liability. “We function almost like a small liberal arts college within a giant research institution,” Malague says. Adds Ferguson, “You probably wouldn’t believe it, but when we—the core faculty members—have our meetings, we talk about each individual student [major] and what would be best for them and who needs what class. We actually structure our seasons and our course offerings according to our student body.”

Theatre arts majors and students come from all over the University and, as with other liberal arts degrees, go on to a wide range of careers. Malague has taught future doctors and lawyers, nurses and engineers, businesspeople and journalists. “That’s something I always try to highlight,” she adds. “You’re just as prepared to do a wide range of things as anyone else graduating from Penn.”

Of course, some students do choose to stay in the theatrical world, performing in regional theatre companies, appearing on TV series, or even starring in Hollywood blockbusters. Malague distinctly remembers a senior from her first year teaching—a standout theatre major known then as Liz Mitchell C’96 but who found fame as Elizabeth Banks [“How to Succeed in Show Business By Really, Really Trying,” Jan|Feb 2010]. “I’ll never forget her in [longtime theatre-arts faculty member] Jim Schlatter’s beautiful production of On the Verge,” Malague says. “She did it as her senior thesis. Elizabeth Banks was luminous on stage, and now I’m watching her Thursday nights on 30 Rock.”


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FEATURE: Penn Theatre: A Work in Three Acts by Molly Petrilla
Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

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