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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
The first year of the BEAT initiative (Bridging Education and Theatre), a new collaboration between Theatre Development Fund and City University of New York, has been rooted in the performing arts, but perhaps just as notably, it's been grounded in basic ideas of community building.
Launched in January, BEAT is designed to introduce the CUNY community to New York's performing arts through a range of programs. This semester, students at four pilot campuses---Baruch College, LaGuardia Community College, Lehman College, and Brooklyn College---participated in a wide variety of events.
All four campuses, for instance, had groups in TDF's New Audiences for New York program, which took students to multiple Broadway productions and hosted workshops with teaching artists both before and after performances. Each campus also hosted a "production process" roundtable, in which theatre professionals gathered to discuss their work.
The Baruch Performing Arts Center hosted a roundtable called The Business of Theatre, featuring the producer, general manager, and accountant from the Broadway musical Memphis. The event attracted both college students and general theatre fans, and John Malatesta, the center's managing director, says it generated a high level of interest, even weeks before it took place.
"I think people were interested because performing arts management is a little mysterious to people," he explains. "If you're a producer, they wonder, 'How did you find these shows? How did you wind up with this Tony for Best Play?'"
Malatesta notes that events like this are a crucial part of the Baruch curriculum, saying that even though many of the college's students are business majors, they're required to round out their education with the humanities.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Brooklyn College offers master's degree programs in many aspects of the theatre, but Mary Beth Easley, a theatre department professor, says the BEAT programs were just as valuable to her students. She took MFA actors to Lehman so they could hear playwright Adam Bock speak in a production process roundtable, and since the students had recently performed in a Bock play, it was an especially relevant opportunity.
Just as importantly, that roundtable gave Brooklyn College students (and professors) exposure to other parts of the CUNY system. "Our worlds can become small and insular," says Easley. "Because of this project, I felt like there was a smaller distance between the CUNY campuses. We rarely have contact with anybody, so it was a wonderful experience to collaborate with people who are teaching the same thing but are 27 miles away."
Playwright and Lehman theatre professor William Hoffman echoes that sentiment. This semester, he taught a course called Working in the Theatre that enrolled students from all four BEAT campuses. Meeting both online and in person, the class did everything from research the responsibilities of various theatre professions to write essays on plays. They also attended several productions and discussed them afterward with some of the professionals involved. (After seeing Manhattan Theatre Club's production of the play Good People, for instance, they met with the theatre's general manager and artistic producer to discuss the play and its journey to Broadway.)
Hoffman says his students formed a cohesive group and ultimately wished they'd had more chances to see shows together. "That should be an important part of their education in a city like New York," he says.
He adds that it was rewarding to have participants from so many colleges in his class: "Our students wanted to meet other City University students and compare notes on what kind of an education they were getting. We were fascinated with each other."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
(photo of BEAT roundtable discussion, "The Business of Theatre" at Baruch Performing Arts Center )