In the past three years, the Heidelberg Theatre program has gone from eight majors to 36 and from zero season subscribers to 120. Shows routinely sell out, and the quality of the productions has increased simultaneously. Most importantly, though, the student experience has been enhanced exponentially. We sat down with Theatre Director and Professor Stephen Svoboda to find out what’s driving the successful re-emergence of the theatre, how students are growing personally and professionally, and what we can expect going forward.
Q: What do you see as the role of theatre in a liberal arts education?
Stephen: Wow, that’s a big, loaded question. I think theatre and the arts allow our students to learn to think creatively and collaboratively. We talk about those as being really important skills for getting into the workforce, but we don’t always focus on those things in the classroom. We don’t have a class in Creativity 101 or Collaboration 101. But working in the theatre gives you those skills by the very nature of what we do. I also think that theatre majors and non-majors learn to synthesize ideas. We tend to look at ideas from many different points of view and we have to figure out how we’re going to bring those together. In the framework of the liberal arts, I think theatre provides the sense that you can do anything, that you can reinvent anything and you can work collaboratively as a team to solve a problem.
Q: How do you balance teaching theatre majors and non-majors simultaneously?
Stephen: My philosophy is that everyone is an artist. They just might not know it yet. Theatre majors are generally already invested in the material. With non-majors, I need to show them how the arts apply to them. I try to pick material they’re going to relate to and find interesting, and then I really just try to give them concrete tools to put it all together. I have them do YouTube reviews of plays, bring in tech in the ways they like and I tend to use film in my classes a lot because that’s a medium they’re familiar with.
Q: What are the skills a student develops while practicing theatre?
Stephen: In addition to creativity and collaboration, one of the skills that is impossible to articulate is grit and perseverance. In the theatre, we teach through failure. Every day, we get up, we try something new and we know it won’t be perfect. We get notes and feedback, and we try again. I think that’s something that our contemporary students need to explore and learn … that life is a process and it’s not all perfect every day. We need to acknowledge that you have to work hard to get somewhere, that you have to have a growth mindset, and that’s different from other areas.
Q: What are the benefits the theatre programs brings to Heidelberg?
Stephen: There’s a perception that the two ways to bring disenfranchised students or populations together are through sports and the arts.
We really fully embrace the sports component here on campus but we’re just starting to break the surface of the arts component. To me, in the course of one year, 4,000 people will come to see our shows and have a community experience, whether it’s a comedy and they’re all laughing together or it’s Diary of Anne Frank and they’re all crying together. I try to pick shows that matter, that I think will resonate for our entire student population, our faculty and staff and the community. I want us to have conversations about things that we need to talk about. So I think the arts provide a place for discourse, a place for community bonding, a place for emotional release and catharsis, a place that is very, very important to our times right now.
Q: What changes or new ideas have you implemented since your arrival at Heidelberg?
Stephen: So many. I was really excited when I was offered this job because there was a challenge brought into it, which was to reinvent a theatre program for the 21st century. I am a builder. I love to build things. I love to think creatively, so I came into this with the approach that I would emphasize what works and de-emphasize what doesn’t work in a traditional college curriculum. A lot of college theatre programs have become so intensive in learning theatre that they don’t take into account the general liberal arts component and that makes our theatre artists less human. So I reconfigured the major to give the students opportunities to learn all the professional skills they’ll need but I also wanted to give them the flexibility to be a true liberal arts student, to double major, to study abroad, to play a sport, whatever it might be that fulfills them as a human. I wanted to combine the best of the two worlds: the professional training of a BFA program and the liberal arts component of a BA program and make this new unique hybrid. I hope I’ve brought the production level up to that of a professional performance. And we’ve worked very hard to collaborate across campus to serve other programs like the Lichtman-Behm Genocide Lecture Series and the Education Summit. It’s our job to make theatre accessible to everyone and to use our creativity to help other areas.
Q: To what do you attribute the theatre’s tremendous growth and success over the past few years?
Stephen: We started with eight majors, and right now we have 36. Coming into the fall, I’m expecting 50-55. The excitement of our productions and the support from the School of Music & Theatre have been really exciting. The philosophy of the theatre staff (myself, David Cotter and Karina Brown) is very much one of mentorship. We make personal relationships with our students and provide them a place here on campus. I think we’ve created a cultural identity where people want to be here and be a part of it. I think in general we’ve made the coursework rigorous but rewarding, so the students see growth. Our faculty members and the people who come to the shows see this transformation, so there’s this evidence of learning that is so strong and very compelling to students. It’s very much a personal, 1-1 approach with students, who know that I will be invested in them from the moment they walk on campus to the moment they leave, and then after that. So our students really feel welcomed into a family and into our program, and that’s very important to me. We really, truly do get the opportunity to know our students beyond an academic setting, and become mentors and family members to them. That’s the key to our success.
Q: How does being involved with theatre impact students?
Stephen: The self-assuredness that develops in our theatre majors, the ability to communicate about any topic … they’re all on an arc to adulthood. And what I enjoy most about being their professor is pushing them along that path – to figuring out who they are, what they believe in and as artists, finding out what they want to say to the world. That’s really what my mission is for every student I meet.
Q: What should we expect going forward?
Stephen: My goal, my dream for the future is that we have 100 theatre majors, that we have a partnership with a summer stock theatre we are sending our students to every summer, that we could create a summer stock for Tiffin that would be amazing to drive tourism to our community. I hope that through the Theatre Department and the music program that the arts become as strong a pillar on our campus as sports, that we bring in a whole new set of students to our campus, and hopefully, that the Theatre Department can provide some sustainability for the university as a whole, which has been my mission since I got here. I would like to see us start to do some more social activism through theatre. I’m very interested in doing a show with the adults with disabilities from the Seneca County Opportunity Center and our students. I’d love to see how theatre can connect out and play a vital role in the whole Tiffin community in terms of economic development and social and cultural awareness. I’m ready to go.