All Our World Is Definitely Not a Stage

I came to college to study theater. Yes—theater. It is a discipline, a subject, a merit-worthy department like any other. But unfortunately, it seems Columbia doesn’t agree.

Columbia College doesn’t have a theater department. The School of the Arts does, and Barnard does, but I go to Columbia College—and we don’t have one. Both of those other schools offer wonderful classes, but that does not make up for the lack of a central community of theater students and professors who are invested in and educated by my school.

When I bring up my disappointment about this in conversation, the reaction is almost always: “Well, you’re in New York! Go take advantage of the city!”. The city is an amazing resource. But the thing is, I’m in college. I want to learn about what I want to learn about here at school, on my campus—just like everyone else gets to. New York is also home to the best law firms and banks in the country, but can you imagine getting rid of our political science and economics departments because of that? Because students could go “get an education” (as I’m often told to do) from one of those companies? That would totally defeat the purpose of college—of a safe place to learn, experience, try, and fail before you have to step out into the real world. The city is here to enrich our education, not to stand in place of it.

Columbia is a rigorous academic institution—students and faculty take their studies incredibly seriously and put them before everything else. And it is that mind-set which leads to people looking down on theater as a less-than-academic subject, and to an Ivy League college without a theater department. Because that’s what’s at the heart of our lack of a theater department—a fundamental unwillingness to recognize theater as a subject and pursuit equally as academic and important as all others.

It’s understandable where this comes from. Theater majors aren’t going to graduate and immediately mark their success with entrance to grad schools, prestigious jobs, or lots of money. A successful career in the theater takes time and patience, and often even the most successful and happy theater professionals are a far cry from rich or famous. Because that’s a hard mind-set for people outside of theater to understand, many simply believe that theater careers aren’t lucrative—and why would a university put funds and effort into a department which isn’t going to be produce successful alumni? It’s a continuous cycle—we don’t understand the subtleties of theater success, so we don’t build the program, so we don’t create potential successes.

Understandable. But here are some hard, cold, facts:

Yale has eight full professors in its undergraduate theater department, Brown has six, Stanford has five. Columbia College has zero. Even Barnard has only one—and he’s on leave. And grads from these other schools—they’re really successful! They’re starting theater companies (Yale boasts the award-winning Page 73 Productions and many more), starring in Broadway shows (Jersey Boys Tony winner John Lloyd Young found his fame with his Brown B.A. in tow), and writing huge moneymaking shows (the writers of both Avenue Q and In the Heights were once Yale undergraduates). Somewhere along the line, those schools broke the cycle—and it’s showing. The success of these alumni isn’t just good for the alumni themselves. They’re doing everything a school hopes its alumni will—getting the name of the school out there to thousands of audience members, creating an exciting post-grad community for current undergrads to look up to, and generating nothing but positive publicity for the school. But without a theater department to foster a large and perennial group of students, Columbia won’t reap those benefits to the extent it certainly could.

It takes faith, Columbia, but put the time and money and effort in now, and who knows where our graduates could be 10 years from now. Just look at the few notable theater alumni we have—Tony Kushner and Rodgers and Hammerstein are among Columbia’s most cited alumni. Just imagine how that group could grow.

Yes, you can have a lot of fun with theater at Columbia just the way it is right now. And fun should always be a component of an undergraduate theater scene. But I want something more. I know that Columbia is capable of something more. I want a respect for theater that starts with the administration and trickles down through the faculty and to the students. A respect that starts at Columbia and ends up in a Broadway theater 10 years from now when people who studied together use the resources they gained to get their show to the Great White Way. Or their theater company to the pages of the Times. Or themselves nominated for Tony Awards. We deserve that.

Ariel Hudes is a Columbia College first-year. Undeclared runs alternate Fridays.


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