Staging success: UVU's 'young' theater department earns honors, awards despite challenges

Published: Saturday, June 28 2014 2:00 p.m. MDT

Chris Clark, theater department chair at Utah Valley University, poses for a portrait. Behind him from left to right are UVU students Aubrey Wilde, Devin Neff, Josh Valdez and Jason Barker.

August Miller, Utah Valley University Marketing

Chris Clark recognizes that the Utah Valley University Theatre Department is still in its early stages of development, and he’s amazed at the success the program has already seen.

“Our theater department is young — fresh from the womb; we’re less than 10 years old in having a four-year theater degree and less than and well under 20 years for even having a theater major,” said Clark, theater department chairman at UVU. “We are just in the beginning stages of creating what this department is. That’s exciting because we are not rooted in anything yet, so we can play around a bit more.”

An indication of the department’s remarkable success is the national recognition it received for its production of the contemporary musical “Next to Normal.” At the 46th annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in March, UVU was honored with Outstanding Production of a Musical from among the 600 collegiate theater departments vying for the honor. And previously, at last year’s Kennedy Center event, UVU won the same distinction in the drama category for its “Vincent in Brixton.”

“When we first won, all of us in the back of our heads were saying, ‘This is a fluke,’ ” Clark said. “But when it happened again, it felt like a confirmation for what we are doing here. It was really, really exciting to be rewarded like that, two times back-to-back, first for a drama and then the following year for a musical.”

“I’ve got to confess that I walked into the theater where UVU’s production (of 'Next to Normal') was staged, and I thought, ‘Let’s see what this undergraduate program can do with this show,’ ” said Gregg Henry, KCACTF artistic director, in an interview soon after this year’s festival. “And then bam! From the moment (the actors) opened their mouths, they just floored me.”

Along with the Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Drama honors, several students earned individual top-of-the-list national honors at the two events.

Clark said the department could not have achieved its prominence without the assistance of UVU administration.

“We have an incredible (school of the arts) dean, K. Newell Dayley,” Clark said. “On top of that, we’re really fortunate to have a university president who has given the arts such a strong emphasis. Developing the programs here has been a major focus of his. He’s been fantastic.”

Matthew S. Holland, president of UVU, said among the major contributors to the department’s advances are the theater faculty members, who “are bright, well-trained and well-connected with their disciplines,” he said. “They are, at heart, all artists; they are born actors, born directors, born performers. This filters down to the students. When these artists are coaching, teaching and directing, our students get extraordinary training.”

Clark agrees. “We have a really astonishing array of faculty. They are incredibly creative, talented and well-trained,” he said.

Recognizing the importance of the arts is a characteristic of “the new UVU.”

“A firm embrace of the arts is absolutely the mark of a serious university,” Holland said. “(The arts) are what rounds out what we mean by ‘higher education.’ Yes, at UVU we’re about job training and academics, but we’re also about the higher, more creative things that make such a difference in our professional life as well as our personal and civic life. I’m extremely proud of how well our arts programs are doing. It’s a powerful reflection on the new UVU — who we are and what we do.”

The department has achieved its success despite facing some challenges, including less-than-ideal facilities.

“We are trying to build a facility that is worthy of the arts programs we have,” Holland said. “The spaces we have now were not designed for the arts, and these facilities are suboptimal; they diminish our chances to achieve even greater excellence.”

According to a UVU spokeman, the university is in the initial design stages of a 100,000-square-foot performing arts building. Early estimates suggest the building will cost approximately $30 million. Holland is spearheading a campaign to raise a considerable portion of the costs from private sources and is planning to ask the Legislature to help complete the funding of construction and its ongoing maintenance.

“We are not the most well-funded program,” Holland said. “But in spite of those situations, the theater department has risen to the top, and it’s extraordinarily impressive.”

A drastically revised bachelor of arts theater program will begin with UVU’s upcoming fall semester. The program will include concentrations with more specialized training in dramatic and musical theater performance, directing, playwriting, theater design and dramaturgy. There’s also talk of a bachelor of fine arts degree — in acting, musical theater and technical design — that may be offered as early as this year if it receives approval from state education officials.

Clark said he is particularly looking forward to two productions in the new school year: “The Romeo and Juliet Project,” a film and performance staging; and the world premiere of “The Milk Dragon,” written by award-winning children’s playwright Susan Zeder, who has decided the show will be developed through workshops with UVU students.

“There is energy here for what we are doing, both onstage and offstage, that is innovative,” Clark said. “Innovation is a real focus for us. We try to think outside the box with everything we do, including the way we teach our classes and the way we present our productions.”

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