Marquette has a theatre. Marquette has a theatre department. Marquette has a theatre major. Really.
“I have gotten on the L.I.M.O. and told them to go to the Helfaer Theatre, and they have pulled up in front of the Varsity. That happened twice,” said Jessica Orr, a junior double major in Theatre Arts and Communication Studies.
The Helfaer Theatre is actually located next to Lalumiere Language Hall and is right behind the Haggerty Art Museum. It houses the program, students and faculty for Marquette’s only art degree, a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Arts. Theatre Arts is a major in the Diederich College of Communication.
Both faculty and students in the Performing Arts Department recognize that the theatre is not well-known at Marquette.
“When I meet other professors and faculty, they are often surprised to learn that there is a theatre department on campus,” said
Debra Krajec, an adjunct associate professor of Performing Arts. And not only the professors and faculty are unaware of the program, the students remain oblivious as well.
“They just don’t know [we’re here],” said PJ Berns, a senior Theatre Arts major.
There seem to be a variety of reasons for this university-wide lack of knowledge.
“I don’t think the arts are very prominent on campus,” said Jenni Shine, also a senior Theatre Arts major. “We don’t have a music department or a visual arts department or anything else to tie into [the theatre]. I think we’re more focused on sports and academics.”
Records held by the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries (UNIV C-11.1 Series 1, Box 1 “Carousel”) show that Marquette once had the awareness and focus on theatre it lacks today. In 1954, Rev. John J. Walsh, S.J., the chair of the theatre department at the time, traveled to New York to personally ask Oscar Hammerstein II for the rights to perform “Carousel.” Marquette became the first amateur company allowed to perform the musical.
According the Thomas Jablonsky’s book, “Milwaukee’s Jesuit University: Marquette 1881-1981,” the theatre tradition continued in 1963, when “Oliver Twist” was in such high demand on campus that extra performances had to be scheduled, totaling 78 performances in all. Theatre’s reign on Marquette’s campus continued into the 1970s with the construction of the Helfaer Theatre in 1974.
After the theatre was built, the prominent Marquette interest in the theatre began to dwindle.
Provost John J. Pauly believes that the advent of multiple other types of entertainment has been another source of the decreasing appeal of theatre to the University as well as to the public in general. However, as an ardent advocate of the theatre program, he believes that Marquette should “reclaim that part of our history.”
The current program offers quality that deserves just as much appreciation as the theatre offered earlier in Marquette’s history.
“Marquette theatre is as good if not better than many professional shows that I’ve seen,” said Bonnie Auguston, a senior French and Theatre Arts double major.
And behind these performances is the intensive education in all aspects of theatre that Marquette theatre students receive.
“What we offer that is totally different from any other school is a BA program in a liberal arts school with a Jesuit mission and a top-notch theatre program,” said Stephen Hudson-Mairet, the Performing Arts Department Chair. “A Marquette education is so strong. Here they become the whole artist. We educate them beyond how you move on stage. That theology class ties in to that performance you are working on. Drama’s about being human and if you don’t know anything outside of these four walls you don’t know what it means to be human. So we encourage our students to go out and experience life, which they can do here at Marquette.”
Marquette’s Performing Arts Department is constantly working on improving this education. The department is currently applying for accreditation through the National Association of Schools of Theatre. According to Hudson-Mairet, the department needs to make some improvements to achieve the full accreditation, such as increasing the number of faculty, as it currently only employs five full-time faculty members. However, he hopes that Marquette will receive an associate membership or a deferred membership in NAST this spring.
This accreditation could mean extra money for the department, which already has a strained budget, only another aspect of why many Marquette students do not know the theatre exists: there is no money for advertising.
“I am given an allotted amount of money each year, and out of that has to come the money for the staging, the costumes, the lights, the guest directors and everything we do here in the theatre,” said Hudson-Mairet. “And out of that same budget I have to find the money for advertising, so it doesn’t end up being a lot of money that we can spend on advertising.”
According to Krajec, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel no longer covers academic theatre, which means it is harder to reach the Milwaukee and Marquette community. So, the department had a public relations class work on ideas to promote the theatre on campus and even instated a committee of public relations students to provide additional help.
One of the promotions to come out of the class was the institution of “Date Night” on the second Thursday performance of every mainstage show. According to Hudson-Mairet, this has really increased ticket sales on that night. Another promotional idea was “Philanthropy Friday,” where the theatre offers the opportunity to student groups with a philanthropic outlet to sponsor a Friday mainstage performance. The theatre would then give $1 from each ticket sold for that performance to the student group’s charity. This particular promotion has not been successful for the department yet, but Hudson-Mairet remains positive and hopes to continue working on it.
Another idea to increase ticket sales is the ability to sell tickets online. Hudson-Mairet hopes to have this service running by next year.
The Performing Arts Department also has one advocate at the administrative level: Provost John Pauly, former Dean of the College of Communication.
“I tried to bring the special needs of the theater program into the normal budgeting and planning processes of the Diederich College, and of the university as a whole,” Pauly said.
If and when the Performing Arts Department is able to reach the majority of the student body, it will only enrich the Marquette student’s college experience.
“[Theatre] is different than reading a book. It’s different than going to see a movie. It’s your peers up there, going through that… watching them walk in the shoes of this person; it makes it a personal experience for you too,” Krajec said.