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Directing leading ladies

A backstage tour of Stephens’ accredited theatre program

Courtesy of Stephens College

Molly Denninghoff and Katie Karel perform in the production 6 Women with Brain Death or Expiring Minds Want to Know put on by Stephens’ Warehouse Theatre Company in March 2008. The musical takes a playful perspective on contemporary society and pop culture.

January 29, 2009 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Los Angeles might be geographically distant from Columbia, but some of the women making noise in the entertainment industry learned a few things in mid-Missouri. Oscar-nominated actress Jennifer Tilly (Bullets Over Broadway), Judy Taylor (director of casting for the Walt Disney Company) and actress Elizabeth Mitchell (LOST) have one thing in common. They, along with hundreds of others, are all distinguished alumnae of Stephens College, according to Beth Leonard, dean of the School of Performing Arts. For five consecutive years, Stephens’ theatre department has graced the rankings of the top-10 best college theater programs in the nation, according to The Princeton Review.

The Stephens theatre program, founded in 1899, provides students with the ability to work with professional actors, says Sara Fernández Cendón, media relations manager for Stephens. In fact, faculty in the Stephens theatre department must be considered working professionals in order to work there, Leonard says. Due in large part to this distinction, the students value their time spent at Stephens and continue to keep their program in the top 10.

PROOF OF EXCELLENCE

• Returning alumna Annie Potts (Pretty in Pink) performed in Stephens’ rendition of the Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music.

• During the 2001-2002 academic year, Stephens performed the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit. The play follows the last days of a professor dying of ovarian cancer.

• Stephens alumna Dawn Wells, most notably known for her role as Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island, has returned to Stephens and Okoboji on multiple occasions to partake in shows as a guest artist.

“The students feel very strongly about that program,” says Rebecca Lessem, senior editor of The Princeton Review’s Best 368 Colleges. Lessem says that the publication sends out thousands of surveys and compiles the feedback from students to create the rankings list.

With rankings in hand, members of The Princeton Review visit many of the schools and look into different facets of the university to determine if the school makes the final cut. “Whether they’re academically excellent or not gets them into the book,” Lessem says.

Stephens separates itself from other performing arts schools through its speedy degree requirements. “We have a unique program in that we have a three-year, two-summer B.F.A. [Bachelor of Fine Art],” Leonard says. The unusual program structure might be responsible for increased enrollment at Stephens. “We have about 124 theatre majors right now,” Leonard says. “I’ve not witnessed that many majors in our program since I’ve been there.”

One distinctive aspects of the theatre program is the second summer session when students travel to the Okoboji Summer Theater in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Okoboji Company, along with Boji Bantam Children’s Theatre, completes 13 productions in 10 weeks. “The summer theater gives students a chance to apply all the skills they’ve learned in a practical setting,” says working actor Matt Weiss. “It gives you a much stronger foundation.” Weiss, who graduated from Stephens win 2007 with a B.F.A. in theatre, lives in Kansas City. Weiss will participate in an upcoming world premiere show, The Velvet Rut, at the Unicorn Theater.

Throughout the academic year, students have the option of performing in one of the six main stage productions or four productions at the Warehouse Theatre. “They really run the school like it’s an actual theater company,” says Keri Wuestenberg, a second-year student pursuing her B.F.A. in theatre and a minor in music.

Stephens offers B.F.A.s in theatre arts, theatre management, theatrical costume design and a plus-one master’s program. Students can also focus on different emphasis areas, which allow them to pick from a range of classes. With a variety of classes at their fingertips, class sizes usually remain small. Acting classes, for example, usually have 12 to 15 students, Leonard says.

Whatever their chosen field, students have the opportunity to acquire as many skills as possible to prepare them for their future. “It’s not just an academic degree,” says Patti Doyle, a professor of costume design at Stephens. “We’re really preparing them to go out and have a career.” As the program grows, the distance from L.A. to Columbia might seem even smaller.

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