For students who dream of seeing their names in lights someday, the University of Rhode Island’s theatre program is likely the best training available. In fact, URI is the only school in Rhode Island that offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) in theatre.
In contrast with the more general Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) offered by other theatre programs in the state, a B.F.A. in theatre is more specialized, offering greater preparation for a professional career in the performing arts. According to associate professor David Howard, other degree tracks in the state offer some specificity, but require students to develop their career preparation by themselves.
“For us, we’ve sort of created four different tracks that are specifically the tools and the skills that one would need for that profession, as opposed to leaving it to the student to determine what would be good for them,” Howard said.
URI’s program offers four concentrations: acting, design and theatre technology, directing and stage/theatre management. Howard said each track offers highly specialized classes that focus on the specific aspects of each field that the instructors feel are most important. In addition, the core classes at the start of the program immerse students in multiple aspects of the major, allowing them to discover useful skills they were unaware of.
“By the time it grows to the specificity of those tracks, they often can do two different things,” Howard said. “So they could be an actor/stage manager or a directing design major. There are just enough classes that cross over that we can get those students to have other skills that they can market within the theatre environment.”
On top of five full-time faculty members, the theatre department also features 25 to 30 guest artists who are professionals in the industry. URI alumnus Anthony Estrella, an actor with credits in “The Departed” and “Law & Order”, teaches a two-semester acting class for seniors.
“Students work side-by-side with professionals, whether as director or as professor,” Howard said. “We have projects that we do outside to make sure that what they’re doing out in that world comes back to [URI].”
Another unique aspect of URI’s program is how students are encouraged to be active in all aspects of the theatrical process. Students receive credit for appearing in the theatre program’s stage productions or for working in the costume and scene shops. Howard said the department sees these activities as being just as integral as acting classes.
“Any time a student grabs a tool, sits at a sewing machine or starts to speak a line, they’re getting credit for that in one way or another,” he said. “That’s part of their education.”
URI junior and acting major Anya Fox said she had planned to go to school for theatre in Pennsylvania, but changed her mind upon meeting URI’s faculty.
“They generally care about you,” she said. “They care for your well-being and I think that’s super important, especially in this career. You need people who are going to build you up.”
URI also stands apart from other theatre programs in that it does not require students to audition, which Howard said is both a great challenge and a great benefit because many students grow into better actors after one or two years in the program.
“They may not show any extreme talent,” Howard said. “They’re fine, but then in their sophomore or junior year, something clicks and then all of a sudden they’re magical. They’ve sort of grown into their talent.”
Howard commented that the program usually brings potential students to the school multiple times before making their decision.
“We’re comparable size-wise with most of the other universities and colleges within Rhode Island, but it’s our program that sets the tone as being different and being unique,” he said. “I think within our small state, but also into New England in general, people know to some degree that we offer something a little bit different. It’s much better to work in the field than it is to dream about working in the field.”