Stage craft

Rose Malague, Theatre Arts Program directorPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo (top)

A scene from Beth Henley’s play, "Crimes of the Heart," (bottom) directed by Rose Malague.

“My first big moment was—anyone in the theater has a story like this—as Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and that was sort of the beginning of the end,” says Rosemary Malague, recalling the grade-school performance that sparked a lifelong devotion to the theater. “The theater is where my talents seemed to lie. It is the thing about which I had the most passion.”

After graduating from Dickinson College, Malague moved to New York to try her hand at acting. She scored roles in summer theater, worked a number of what she calls “real-life jobs” in law firms, investment banks and even the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then landed at a production company, where she realized the considerable challenges in her chosen career path.

“I discovered for the first time how difficult it is to be an actor in New York,” says Malague, the director of the Theatre Arts Program in the School of Arts and Sciences. “I began to get a sense at that time that I may not have the temperament for that kind of career in the arts.”

So Malague instead turned her attention to grad school, first pursuing a master’s degree at Villanova in dramatic literature, theater theory and history, and then a doctorate at the City University of New York. When the opportunity came up to teach in Penn’s Theatre Arts Program, she leapt at the chance. “At Penn, I have an unusual opportunity to be a generalist. I teach dramatic literature and performance texts, acting, directing [and] women in theater, which is one of my areas of research. I direct plays on a regular basis and I participate in the creation of original pieces.”

It’s a far cry from where she thought she’d end up.

“Never in a million years when I was an undergraduate would I have imagined that I would be directing the Theatre Arts Program at Penn, much less teaching at a university,” says Malague, who has worked at the University since 1995. “It’s only because I doggedly pursued the thing that I loved the most and the area for which I seemed to have the greatest intellectual capacity and natural ability that I found this unexpected and very rewarding career in the theater. I’m always immersed in reading and writing and talking about the area that I love and that excites me the most.”

Q. What about the Theatre Arts Program drew you to Penn?
A.
I’m a strong believer in the liberal arts degree and even for students who do go on to pursue careers as actors—and we have several graduates who are very successful working as actors and in other aspects of theater and film—I think specialization should come after one’s undergraduate degree. I believe so strongly in the importance of a liberal arts education and I value my own.
For someone who always loved the theater, and wanted to make my life in the theater, I see it as a real blessing for me to have found a life in the theater, unexpectedly in academic theater.

Q. What kind of student enrolls as a Theatre Arts major?
A.
There’s been a major at Penn for more than 20 years and we wish more students knew about it. We are small. We tend to graduate approximately eight students each year. The minor is larger and we have a number of students whom we refer to as being ‘friends of the major,’ because they seem always to be around our courses and our productions and don’t have the time to major.
Over the years, we’ve had students who are enrolled in the School of Engineering who are theater majors—one with an interest in lighting design. We have had Wharton students who have also been theater majors and have gone on to successful careers working in arts management. We have even had a couple of students who were biology majors whose intention was to go on to medical school.

Q. What kinds of careers does your program train students for?
A.
One of the things we want students to be aware of is how a degree in theater can serve as preparation for many different kinds of careers. ... I certainly see acting as a skill that is not, as some people might say, about deception, but rather about personal presentation, confidence in one’s own skills and the ability to project that to other people.
We are not and have never claimed to be a training site for actors. What we have always done is offer a liberal arts degree in theater. Students may be drawn to us because of a passion for theater in the same ways that they’re drawn to art history because of a love of art, or English for a love of literature. Theater, because it is a synthetic art, offers students an opportunity to study vastly different historical periods, places across the world. It’s visual art, it’s written art, and of course, what we love most about it is it’s live art.

Q. The Program stages two productions a year. Talk about what it’s like to get those off the ground.
A.
Twice a year, faculty members direct productions in which students enroll [in the class, ‘Rehearsal and Performance’] as actors, dramaturges, designers, assistant directors and stage managers. Together, we work intensively on the rehearsal, research and performance of a full-length play. Typically, we do two of those faculty-directed projects a year and sometimes in addition to that we have students who have been chosen to do a senior honors thesis project in directing. This year, one of our students is directing a production of ‘Camelot’ as his thesis project.
This past year, my colleague David Fox directed Christopher Durang’s play, ‘The Marriage of Bette and Boo,’ and in February, I directed Beth Henley’s ‘Crimes of the Heart.’
In those productions, we attract a real mix of majors, minors, ‘friends of the major’ and students who may be visiting theater for one time in their careers at Penn as actors or working in other capacities.
Directing, I think, is one of the most rewarding things for all of us because it’s at the heart of what got us here to begin with. Almost all of us who teach at Penn either began as practitioners or became practitioners at some point in our careers—several of us as actors, one of us as a dramaturge. What we love the most is being in the rehearsal room with actors, making something happen.

Q. Are you honest with students about how difficult the acting profession can be?
A.
I never want to discourage students because I truly do believe that one must pursue one’s passion. You really can’t see down the road, and for many of us, when we look back, we’ve traveled circuitous journeys to arrive at our destinations.
I do tell students, and even their parents sometimes, not to worry too much about ‘making a career in the theater’ or ‘becoming an actor.’ But I’ve seen with so many of our students, who begin wanting to act or perhaps wanting to work in the theater, they wind up in careers that they may not have thought of while at Penn, but that all the work that they did in pursuing this thing that they loved qualified them for work in areas like law, or the business end of theater, or as educators themselves.

Q. Do you take advantage of Philadelphia theater with your students?
A.
I do, and one of the great things about teaching at Penn is, frankly, our location. For a theater scholar and practioner to be in a Northeastern urban setting with such a lively theater scene is an incredible opportunity, not only for me personally, but as a teaching tool for our students.
Last semester, I taught for the second time, a course called ‘Theatre in Philadelphia.’ I had the idea a number of years ago, that having taught the London theater experience, I would structure a similar course for students here at Penn.
One of the things we’re doing in the program is looking at the relationship between theater and the city. Where is this theater located in the city? Is this on the Avenue of the Arts or in a church basement? What kind of material are we seeing? What is the audience demographic? We also, in that course, had a number of guests visit us. Seth Rozin, who runs the InterAct Theatre Company, is a Penn alum and talked with us about the life of an artistic director of a local theater. In an altogether different vein, we had a visit from the director of major gifts at the Philadelphia Theatre Company.

Q. Talk a bit about the Edinburgh Project, where you actually take students to Scotland to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival.
A.
We currently take students to the Festival every other year. We’re slated to go again in 2010. Sometimes we do adaptations of canonical pieces and other times we create original, ensemble-based pieces. We’re producing a theater piece and performing it every day. Those who go will attest it’s really an incomparable experience for them as performers and as spectators.

Q. What are your goals for the program?
A.
One goal I have for the Theatre Arts Program is to raise its visibility because not enough people know we’re here. We’re in a place that has so much extracurricular theater going on that I would like to raise awareness among students of the rich course offerings that we have at Theatre Arts and I would like to see the major grow.
We feel that we have a tremendous amount of support from the School of Arts and Sciences. Many institutions experience an anti-theatrical bias. For example, as of this date, I still do not believe it’s possible to major in theater at Harvard or at Princeton, but this is a very old, outdated way of thinking about the theater—a view that regards it perhaps as a frivolous discipline. Theater is an ancient art.
I really believe in an age when increasingly so many of our experiences are virtual, what other place in the world demands the gathering of a group of people to witness and participate in a live event? That’s the ancient ritual that’s at the heart of what the theater is. It’s an experience that people still crave and the theater is the one place where it really still happens. We can rent a DVD and watch it in the privacy of our own homes, but the theater is, by definition, a place—the Greek root of the word means ‘the seeing place.’
The only things we really need to make theater are a place, a performer and a spectator. At its best, when theater is really good, there’s nothing as thrilling as watching a virtuosic actor or a stunning production of an important play.

Originally published on April 9, 2009