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Theatre Management Module and the Path to Leadership

The cohort of 2018 Theatre Management module graduates with members of its alumni advisory board.

School of Communication students taking part in its immersive, accelerated Theatre Management module are poised to begin their careers as innovative leaders. With a focus on real-world experience and tangible skill-building, the graduates are seeing theatre as just one part of the vast creative management landscape.

“We’re a bridge to the professional world,” says Barbara Butts, a lecturer in the Department of the Theatre and the module’s co-coordinator. “We can open the door, but we always tell the students that you have to walk through and close the deal.”

This 2018 graduating cohort of Theatre Management students is indeed closing the deal. The nine seniors who completed all the module’s requirements represent an exciting mix of trailblazers, creators, researchers, and advocates, both in the performing arts and beyond. Butts says her graduates and current module students are heading off to highly respected professional theatre companies, large-scale event coordination outfits, non-profits, political campaigns, and research and fellowship opportunities.

“They’re very kind, confident innovators,” says Butts, who co-coordinates the module with Diane Claussen, managing director for the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts. “I think this group is the future leaders of the industry yet to be.”

This is the express purpose of the School’s modular curriculum, to marry in- and out-of-class learning in a focused, in-depth way that prepares students for careers in creative and research-based industries. Theatre Management is one of 18 “modules” available to undergraduates; others include Acting for the Screen, Children and Communication, Digital Media, Comedy Arts, Health Communication, Directing for the Screen, Devising and Adaptation, and more. Each module is composed of four to six classes centered around the featured topic, plus internships, cocurricular activities, close advisement from alumni and faculty, and a capstone portfolio project.

Yet Butts puts the module’s stock in her gifted students.

Theatre Management includes classes and experiences in stage management, company management, new works development, production, community engagement, law and creative processes, marketing, and fundraising. Courses are offered by the theatre department, but also the communication studies department and the Harvey Kapick Center for Business Institutions in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Students graduate with an area of expertise and an arsenal of skillsets and resources that provide an edge in competitive fields—and an effective way to showcase their passions.

“I’m always inspired by the desire of Theatre Management module students to create a world that is inclusive and welcoming to everyone, and I think it’s important that they carry these values forward into their careers,” says Jon Faris (C03), the managing director of Writers Theatre in Glencoe and a member of the module’s alumni advisory board. “Barbara and Diane bring this sense of wonder to the table and are unfailingly supportive of the students and their ambitions, no matter how far afield they may be from ‘theatre management.’”

“That’s the No. 1 thing,” says Butts. “Our alumni are engaged and we are really professionally focused but, more than that, we try to get to the heart of who the artist-leader is and how they’re going to impact the future.”

Maddie Rostami (C18), a graduating senior who double-majored in theatre and cognitive science, entered Northwestern thinking she wanted to be a stage manager. It was after taking Butts’ Introduction to Stage Management course that she started to see the larger implications of this skillset—leadership, innovation, and inclusion. Rostami wound up completing a whopping three modules: Theatre Management, Theatre for Young Audiences, and Playwriting. Each experience informed her professional goal of leading and creating artistic programming for the disability community. She has accepted a dramaturgy fellowship with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre after interning in its new play development lab.

“Stage management is really exciting, but on a micro level: you’re in the rehearsal room working on this one particular process,” Rostami says. “We’re excited about the leadership qualities of stage management but in a macro world.”

“The Theatre Management module provides students with tangible resources,” she adds.

Butts contends these “tangibles” are essential to her students’ success: how to fill out the requisite stage manager’s paperwork, being able to decipher job postings, and knowing how to best answer the ultimate interview question: “tell me about yourself.”

“It doesn’t matter where they go,” she says. “The skills they pick up are transferable.”

Theatre major Bryanna Barry (C18) directed much of her module work toward inclusion and diversity, in the front office, onstage, and in the audience. As a student, she was a company management intern with the Chicago production of Hamilton and will soon start a fulltime job as a company management associate at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“The module has helped me secure every professional opportunity I’ve had,” Barry says. “My mother likes to say, ‘Northwestern was a finishing school—you and your peers so much more refined than you were when you started,’ and I attribute a lot of my professional and career-minded refinement to the module, which was beautifully complimented by the well-rounded BA I got.”

This experience gas given her a bigger-picture perspective.

“If get to continue to work on shows and at theatres that make a difference on their audiences that would be great,” Barry adds. “However, what the module taught me is that I care more about the impact I personally can make on a company or organization. As long as I can continue doing that, I’m accomplishing something.”

By Kerry Trotter