Performers Speak Out About Dramatic Art on Campus

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Ask any non-Californian to name the first things that come to mind when they hear the word ‘Berkeley,' and they might answer: hippies and hard sciences. But what about drama and dance?

While the UC Berkeley theater arts community may not be one of the campus' crown jewels, sophomore Jonathan Whittle-Utter says the dramatic art department is going no place but up - and deserves recognition accordingly.

"From what I've heard we are in an upward swing right now," Whittle-Utter says. "There's a great deal of talent and a great deal of tenacity (in the department)."

Whittle-Utter is an undeclared sophomore who may not end up as a dramatic art major, but still is highly involved in the campus theater community and is currently exclusively taking dramatic art courses.

An accomplished actor and director, Whittle-Utter says he expects to end up directing, performing in or producing five or more student productions this semester alone. That, he says, is all due to the dramatic art department's tight-knit environment and endless opportunities.

"It's so non-conservatory,"Whittle-Utter says, adding that the curriculum at prestigious drama conservatories is virtually planned out for students. "The structure at this department really fosters an independent drive for self-improvement, it becomes very much a thing of student choice. The fact that there's a lot of student theater going on is indicative of that."

Saying that there is "a lot" of student theater does not begin to describe the proliferation of student theater that is permeating the campus, he adds. Currently, there are approximately 10 student-led productions simultaneously in performance or rehearsal, Whittle-Utter says.

"I'll be directing my third show (this semester), and it's only my second year," he says. "That's an opportunity that I know I wouldn't have gotten anywhere else."

It is not an easy job, he adds. Producing or directing a show involves countless hours of working through all the odd tasks associated with putting a show together - rental of theater space, costume design, set and lighting and casting, he says.

Yet Whittle-Utter is not wary of pointing out the dramatic art department's weak spots. He says that even though the department has a "couple of really fabulous teachers," the small community that it fosters tends to be isolationist.

These weaknesses aside, Whittle-Utter says the community and top-notch instructors attracted him to the department first. Still, he had not planned on intensely pursuing drama before arriving in Berkeley.

A fellow drama student, senior Scott Rabe, agrees, saying the department attracts some of UC Berkeley's top students. He adds that the stereotype of dramatic art as an easy major should not be believed.

"Where (pre-med students or engineering students) stay up all night doing labs, we stay up all night to do rehearsals," Rabe says, a senior dramatic art major. "It's still an academic major - it's not all acting. That's one of the good things about Berkeley. It's still an academic department and you can't get away from that."

In addition to the UC Berkeley Center for Theater Arts dramatic art major, a dance major is also offered and there is a strong technical theater component to the curriculum, Rabe says.

With all these theater arts disciplines, he adds, the time commitment required remains as demanding as any other course of study. Typically, students rehearse three to four hours a week outside of acting or directing classes, which are another five to six hours a week. And since most students also perform in the student productions, four to five hours of rehearsal are added to their full weekdays.

"Most people (in the major) are busy throughout the semester," Rabe says. "If you go through all the steps and take all the classes, you should be able to perform. Being part of a production is part of your education."

But the question remains: What do dramatic art majors do after they graduate? Rabe has a clear answer for that.

"A lot of them pursue acting; a lot want to go to graduate school programs," he says, adding that in the past two years alone UC Berkeley has sent three students to the graduate program at Juilliard School in New York.

Rabe adds that a lot of dramatic art majors also pursue law school or business-related work because of the marketable public speaking skills the program helps students develop.

"It's a social major," he says. "You have to discuss and work out the problems (related to producing a show)."

So, all things considered, is Berkeley a good place to start?

"It is for me," Whittle-Utter says. "It is for people who like to be forced to figure things out on their own. It's not the best place to learn how to schmooze and make connections, but it does teach you how to foster the sense of what good art is."


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