These schools offer numerous performance spaces, intensive training, and frequent productions throughout the academic year. Their admission processes are competitive and many students do not make the cut. In West Michigan, the colleges offering fully-developed theater programs are Western, Aquinas College, Kalamazoo College, Hope College, and Grand Valley State University.
I cannot speak for the rigor of coursework and quality of productions at the three colleges, aside from a single performance in March at Aquinas. However, in the case of Western and Grand Valley, I can speak to the former through what I have heard from acquaintances and friends, and to the latter through personal experience.
Western offers, as mentioned, multiple productions in the same time frame (often performed simultaneously in different spaces), intensive training (BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) programs in Acting, Design and Technical Production, Stage Management and Musical Theater Performance), and the admission processes for all four specialties are incredibly competitive.
Western does not allow non-majors to perform in or work on all productions, unlike Grand Valley, where a student must rely on talent to successfully audition regardless of major/minor, and any student may work backstage.
Grand Valley does not currently offer a BFA in theater. Rather, a student may choose between a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science. Students are expected to complete coursework not just in performance, but in stagecraft, production, directing, theater history, and costume design. Students receive a wide-reaching education that in truth prepares them for working in theater more adequately than a BFA program.
The performing arts are constantly adapting to societal changes, and those looking to work in any capacity in that sphere must be well-rounded in order to succeed. I have attended a handful of performances at Western, and while there are more dynamic spaces for performance and the students are undoubtedly talented, Grand Valley offers a different experience.
Grand Valley, on average, performs four to six shows a year. The addition of a new black box theater will most likely increase this number in the next few years. And each performance I have attended as a student, based off what I can see as well as my interactions with various theater students, is truly a team effort. Students I personally know have gone from being on-stage to backstage between productions, have acted and then assisted in the costume shop, or may have never even been on-stage.
But the opportunities are there not just for theater students, but the entire Grand Valley student population. And that collaborative dynamic, with the wide range of students who participate in departmental activities, is the very reason Grand Valley’s production quality, from what I have witnessed, is above a school such as Western where you typically can expect a similar experience each time.
If a student wanted the easy route to a job in theater, they would go for a BFA. But if they truly wanted to work hard and expand their skill set beyond what they already possess, a more liberal education-based program would really be the best route. And from what people who have worked in the world of professional theater have said to me, it’s not the training or experience that are the final determining factors when looking for jobs, though these definitely help. It is what you do in that moment before the casting table.
-- Max Granitz