Going the Distance
The Department of Theatre & Dance’s distance MFA program for working professionals in the design/technology area brings a new class of student to CCFA
By Casey Hilder
An evolving distance learning MFA program for graduate students with the Department of Theatre & Dance aims to rethink and reinvigorate traditional approaches to online instruction.
“The MFA in theatre is a terminal degree, but in many instances people have been working in the professional discipline for a fairly long time before they seek an MFA,” says Jacob Allen, chair of the Department of Theatre & Dance. “Those that have been out of school for 10 or, in some cases even, 20 years and have spent that time working in the industry have learned a lot of practical skills that an MFA can help provide, so a lot of the hands-on learning is something they have already achieved. In the case of our distance learning program, it is focused more on honing the theoretical and philosophical side of the discipline.”
The Department of Theatre & Dance’s distance learning MFA provides a unique opportunity to individuals with industry experience to earn a terminal degree without necessarily having to upend their professional lives. While this program existed before the COVID-19 pandemic put a temporary halt to in-person learning at the UofM, the infrastructure the University has put in place to facilitate remote instruction has primed the pump to ramp up this method of delivery moving forward. As a result, enrollment in the distance MFA offered by Theatre & Dance has grown by 50 percent in the past year.
“It’s something that we started well before COVID-19 came around,” Allen says. “Which, by coincidence, meant that all of our graduate programs were already thinking in terms of remote content delivery when the time came for everyone to do it.”
Six faculty members in the area of directing and design are the most connected to distance learners enrolled in the program. However, all 14 members of the department’s faculty are involved in some fashion, whether through instructing a course, working with students on a production or serving on a graduate committee.
The University of Memphis is among a handful of universities across the country that offers a distance learning MFA in theatre. Just like in-person students, distance learners are expected to contribute to department productions as part of a degree requirement.
“In many cases, our distance learners tend to have either a full time teaching job or a job such as technical director or staff designer at a theater somewhere around the country,” Allen says. “So it’s really pairing that need with the opportunity to provide the missing pieces with the MFA that has proven both popular and effective.”
Jen Gillette, assistant professor of costume design and head of design technology with the Department of Theatre & Dance, is among the faculty members with significant experience teaching her craft from a distance.
“It’s always something that we’ve wanted to do for our students, but it has to be the right learner at the right time,” Gillette says, noting that the program has grown steadily since she arrived at the University four years ago. “You can go to school anywhere if you’re studying history remotely, but it takes something special to learn some of these more hands-on skillsets in a digital environment. This program is kind of a national rarity in that aspect.”
In an effort to connect instructional methodologies with the populations for whom it is most effective, the distance learning program is geared toward a very specific kind of student. A sophomore undergraduate with no formal theatre background, for example, might find great difficulty in completing a remote course on a very hands-on subject such as millinery, or hat making.
“Those who have been out in the world tend to have developed that tactical, kinesthetic awareness that provides an opportunity where this kind of instruction can be very effective,” Gillette says. “We don’t make this program available to those who aren’t already experienced in the field to some degree. As an accelerated track program, it is specifically geared toward those working professionals in the field who hope to further their education in new ways.”
Gillette’s archetypal distance learning student came in the form of Donna Seage, distance learning MFA design and technology student with a focus on costume design. Seage currently teaches theatre at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville. In addition, she frequently works in professional theatre and as an adjunct professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
“I had been wanting for a while to do an MFA in theatre, but the rigors and requirements of physically getting there kept getting in the way,” Seage says. “It seems like every MFA I looked into required basically putting my life on hold for up to three years. But Memphis found a way to make it work, and it seems to be really unique among MFA theatre programs.”
Seage’s professional experience benefits her continued education in several ways, mainly through a preexisting vocabulary of theatre practices, work ethic and jargon.
“So much learning in a classroom environment can be incidental, and there is a loss of that kind of learning,” Seage says. “On the other hand, I always submit lots of pictures and hold onto very specific written feedback from my instructors, which can help people retain knowledge. In many ways, it’s a balancing act.”
Seage’s practical, hands-on learning from UofM has led to benefits in her day job, encouraging students to step outside of traditional box. In some cases, she has been known to apply learned techniques the very next day after picking them up from her UofM classes.
“I have learned so much from four hours away that I haven’t learned in 40 years of practicing theatre,” says Seage. “I am fortunate enough this year to have a really small sixth period class, so I’ve been trying out some new things in draping and hat making, both of which require lots of individual attention.”
This past year, Seage won a major award from Southeastern Theatre Conference in the form of the William E. Wilson Scholarship. For this award, SETC takes applications from secondary educators pursuing graduate degrees in theatre. The recipient wins a $5,000 scholarship, a one-year SETC membership, waived admission to the following year’s SETC conference, and recognition on the SETC website.
“Donna is a passionate high school theater teacher who is always looking to advance her formidable skill set and I’m so happy for her to receive the financial support and recognition attached to this award,” Allen says.
In addition, the Department of Theatre & Dance is currently crafting a program with the college of education to develop an MAT degree with a dance concentration that will provide even more opportunities to prospective students and lead to teaching certification.
“Dance is more difficult to deliver in an online format, so we do things like summer intensives, which consist of two to four weeks of training sessions that allow a large amount of content to be taught in a short amount of time,” says Allen.
This new, accelerated program will allow current undergrads to complete their BFA in dance and continue on in an expedient fashion into the MAT certification in dance, and also provides an opportunity for working professionals to come back and pursue a master of arts degree in teaching with a focus in dance.
“We are not sacrificing the quality of our training in any way,” Allen says. “Our MFA students through the accelerated distance program have proven equally as sophisticated as those who come through the three-year program in person.”