NIU Voices: School of Theatre and Dance drawing more students

Alex Gelman
Alex Gelman

A performer loves a full house.

So, naturally, I was delighted to survey the “audience” at the Northern Illinois University School of Theatre and Dance and see a lot of new faces at this fall’s student convocation. About 25 percent more, to be precise. And they didn’t come only from Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and other parts of the heartland. There also were students from Florida, California and even Alaska!

That’s not bad for a program that spent the past five years eagerly awaiting completion of new facilities in the Stevens Building. We improvised classrooms and performance spaces, but it was challenging to fulfill our mission of preparing students for a highly competitive profession.

So how did we draw so many acting, dance, and theater design and technology students to DeKalb this fall? Well, no offense to the architects, but it wasn’t their blueprints that attracted them. It was an extraordinarily dedicated group of faculty and students who traveled the country relentlessly recruiting. At theater festivals across the Midwest and at unified auditions in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere, they competed for talent against other top theater and dance programs from across the nation.

At those events, they talked up our incredible faculty, including people like Tracy Nunnally, who leads our design and technology program and is internationally respected for his expertise in flying actors on stage. They told stories about Paula Frasz leading our dancers to a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Our unique collaboration with the legendary Moscow Art Theatre, where all acting students in our bachelor of fine arts program spend a semester, also made its way into the conversations.

And certainly, they told those future performers and designers how you can find graduates of NIU programs in front of and behind the camera of big screen and television productions; on stage and back stage at theaters in New York, Chicago and San Francisco; and dancing in dozens of ballet companies across the country, with Alvin Ailey and even in Cirque Du Soleil.

And now our facilities have caught up to our programs.

Our new home includes four distinct performance spaces. The crown jewel is our new 200-seat Black Box Theatre where the limits for staging and lighting are constrained only by the imagination. We also have The Corner Theatre and the Sally Stevens Players Theatre, each seating about 100 patrons for more intimate and avant-garde shows. We also will be reopening our 400-seat O’Connell Theatre for dance and large-scale theatrical productions.

Our new facilities also include a vast scene shop for the creation of sets, a costume shop, and state-of-the-art control rooms. In short, our students now can work in a wide variety of venues, experiment with the latest tools of their trade and perform in spaces where their creativity can soar, whether they are pursuing a career as an actor, dancer, technologist or designer.

It also will make for a far superior experience for our audiences, so I hope you will check out one of this season’s 12 performances (see and watch some of those new students take a bow.

• Alex Gelman is the director of NIU’s School of Theatre and Dance and he is celebrating the long-awaited return of the Stevens Building.

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