University acting programs are widely judged by what big-name Hollywood stars have graduated from the department. While the undergraduate acting program at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts has yet to turn out its own Meryl Streep (Yale Drama School) or Al Pacino (the Actors Studio in New York) – the school’s biggest alumnus so far is Calista Flockhart, formerly of the "Ally McBeal Show" – things are definitely looking up.
"The truth is that our BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) program is hot, and it is becoming one of the top three programs in the country," says Barbara Marchant, head of the undergraduate acting program at Mason Gross. "The proof is that in the class that graduated last year, five are doing major films and three are doing plays. Our people are out there working."
When Marchant took over as head of the department in 1998, the Rutgers BFA acting program was an also-ran among the big-time acting programs – Yale University, New York University, and Columbia University. "When I took over this program I knew I had to work arduously to create something stellar," Marchant says. "We work hard to graduate working artists who not only know that business is business, but that you still have to know how to make art."
Rutgers has the only BFA acting program in the country that requires its students to spend an entire year studying at a conservatory abroad. The 2005-’06 academic year will be the third time that the entire third-year acting class – about 18 students – will study at the Globe Theater in London, England, a recreation of the famous 16th century open-air Shakespearean theater, "right down to the pillars," says Marchant. "It is all good training that we offer our students. Students come into the program knowing that their third year will be spent at Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s mandatory."
Students are given intensive conservatory training, in the heart of London’s theater distract. "It is not some study abroad program where you ship your people off somewhere," says Marchant. "I work very carefully with the faculty at the Globe. It is the seat of great scholarly and innovative work, so not only are they getting the best conservatory training, but also our students are sitting in on lectures by phenomenal Shakespearean scholars. They are the very top people in the U.K. because what I really wanted our students to get is the best classical training possible."
During their first semester at the Globe, students undergo rigorous, intensive classical acting training and take courses in voice, speech, movement, stage combat, and historical dance. During the second semester students train with the Globe masters and focus on one Shakespearean play, which is ultimately performed on the Globe stage for an invited audience of about 200. "It’s always a little chilly for that performance," says Marchant. "It is usually on March 31 or April 1 but it is a very exciting experience. Performing on the Globe stage gives the students a connection with history." (The students also perform the play one night in a more intimate space indoors.)
In the 2003-’04 school year, the first year of the program, students worked on Shakespeare’s romantic "Twelfth Night." This year’s acting students now heading to London will take on the comedy "Much Ado about Nothing." But last year’s students, now back in New Jersey for their final undergraduate year, focused on Shakespeare’s dark, anti-war comedy, "Troilus and Cressida." "It is one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays because the writing is so dense," says Marchant. "It can break the backs of professional actors. But there is no happy
The seniors will offer the public an opportunity to see their work when they perform "Troilus and Cressida" – virtually the same production from the Globe – for a limited run at the New Theater at Rutgers University`s Douglass campus in New Brunswick. Performances will run this Wednesday through Saturday, September 7 through 10, at 8 p.m., and on Sunday, September 11, at 2 p.m.
"Troilus and Cressida" features a morally ambiguous world in which lechery, laziness, folly, and vice all have an impact on waging the Trojan War. "The play is about a nasty war, and it is very fitting for these times," says Marchant. "Our students relate to it because they are a particularly politicized company, and the play is about going to war over nothing, the loss of spirit, and the ramification and rippling effect of corruption."
The students, who haven’t performed the play for five months, will have just one week of rehearsal before the production opens. It will be nearly identical to the London production, slightly restaged for the New Theater by Marchant and fellow faculty member Kevin Kittle. "We’ll see what we have," says Marchant. "It will be in a proscenium theater, unlike in London, where people were leaning on the stage and the actors were talking right to the audience."
In order to make certain that all the students had challenging parts in the play, Marchant says that innovative casting was employed. "In casting, what we do is split the parts so that there are two Troiluses and two Cressidas," she says. "You have people switching the parts continually. You may think it is hard to track, but after you watch awhile, your eye gets used to it. It’s really fascinating. Also, because the play, like many Shakespearean plays, has three women and 25 men, we’ve gender-bended and have quite a few women playing men. We are able to start to let women investigate these wonderful roles that they have traditionally been kept away from. We also do color-blind casting."
The production features minimal stage accoutrements, with no scenery, simple black costumes, and just one or two props onstage at a time. "It’s about the play," says Marchant. "Once you take away all the super sets and the expensive lighting, what you have left is the play. That is what we are doing. It is as faithful to the original as possible without making it a period piece. They do play around doing some do-wop and be-bop, but it’s not about stage effects."
Marchant describes the seven-month program at the Globe as extremely demanding but adds that the students are up to the challenge. "They are not just in a program for three hours a week," she says. "These kids get close to 40 contact hours a week. The students are not out partying because they have homework to do. They know that they are in a professional program, and they need to face the business. This is a year for them to immerse themselves fully into process and London is still a theater town."
She admits that there is a dwindling opportunity for working American actors to perform classical theater in an entertainment industry that is dominated by television and movies. But Marchant says that criticism misses the point. "My feeling is that if you can handle classical text, you can handle anything. So the students are pushed to the max in this third year, they are treated as professionals, they are members of the Globe, everyone knows them, and they have a key and can go in and out of the building. They sit in the green room. They work with the professional company there and go into schools and do workshops."
The chance for students to live and work in a city as theatrically diverse as London is an opportunity of a lifetime for many students. "In London, theater is different from what it is in the United States," says Marchant. "Children go to the theater from the time that they can walk. Also, wit is something that is prized in London while I think that most people would agree that true wit is something that is in short supply here."
Marchant travels to London about six times during the school year to make sure that all her students are where they should be. While in London students live in co-ed flats, although the rooms are single sex. "It’s in a great part of town. They have apartments in London for seven months. At Christmas most of them didn’t go home; they traveled."
Marchant has an extensive list of theatrical credits. She has taught at Rutgers since 1997 and was trained as an actress by fellow Rutgers professor William Esper. She has worked on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in regional theater, and on daytime television. She performed throughout Europe with the Obie-nominated Medicine Show and has appeared in feature films and prime time television. Her book, "A Young Actors Scene Book: A Training Tool," was published by Rowan and Littlefield and she was awarded the Rutgers University Teacher of the Year Award. Marchant has also taught at the William Esper Studio in New York since 1984.
While a college education in the arts has always been a dicey proposition, with many would-be thespians settling for a life as a cab driver or a waiter instead of theatrical glory, Marchant says that there is no shortage of young people willing to make the attempt for a life in the theater. The acting program at Rutgers now has more out-of-state students than in-state and auditions are held in New York, Miami, Chicago, and San Francisco for students hoping to get into the program. The department only accepts a small fraction of those who apply.
While there are no guarantees that a graduate will be able to build a career in the theater, Marchant says that a thorough education can increase one’s chances for success. "The students who graduate from our program have the confidence and ease that enables them to have a career as actors. Professional casting directors are thrilled with our graduates because they know that our actors who are truly disciplined."