Shakespeare and Performance Turns 20

December 10, 2021

Students in the S&P graduate program performing in the Blackfriars Playhouse.

Mary Baldwin University made national waves when it partnered with the renowned American Shakespeare Center to launch one of the nation’s most innovative graduate degree tracks in the performing arts in 2001. The new Shakespeare and Performance Program (S&P) offered an unprecedented combination of academic scholarship and theatrical stagecraft, immersing students in the early modern world of the Bard, his contemporaries, and the present-day staging of their plays.

Students in the S&P graduate program performing in the Blackfriars Playhouse.

“THE APPROACH was, and remains, incredibly unique,” said Dean of MBU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts Dr. Paul Menzer. It inspired the acclaimed Shakespeare scholar and performance expert to leave his post as an assistant professor of English at the University of North Texas to direct S&P in 2007. 

Most graduate programs “focus on either theatrical production or scholarship,” said Menzer. The latter is typically relegated to the English department — and divorced from artistic theatre studies. Meanwhile, theatre-pros-in-training don’t get much in the way of literary theory. 

Menzer says that leaves both camps missing out. 

On one hand, Shakespeare’s plays were written for an audience: The texts were meant to be interpreted by actors and experienced in a live setting. Studying them in an academic vacuum overlooks something vital. Meanwhile, trying to interpret some of humanity’s finest literary works — which happen to be around 400 years old — with minimal information about historical background, context, and critical analysis brings poor stage productions.  

MBU’s S&P program bridges the gap by pairing students with world-class scholars, actors, directors, and theatre professionals, both in the classroom and in the Blackfriars Playhouse (the only authentic recreation of Shakespeare’s historic theatre). That means students have the option of earning terminal master’s degrees in both letters and fine arts simultaneously. 

The juxtaposition helps them graduate with “a holistic understanding that positions you to be a better educator and theatre professional,” said Kate Norris MFA ’20. The dual emphasis is especially valuable to career actor-directors like her, as it “gives you the credentials to teach at the collegiate level while also [working on] productions.”

From left: Students take a bow after a performance; current S&P director Dr. Paul Menzer attends a panel discussion with program co-founder Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen.

ENDORSEMENTS LIKE NORRIS’ have helped get the word out and brought significant growth.

Though S&P launched with just seven students, it now boasts an annual enrollment of about 70. 

“This is one of the best programs in the country for [repertory actor-scholars], particularly those focusing on the early modern period,” said Norris, 51. 

And she should know: The former McDermott Visiting Artist at MBU has toured the country with numerous acting troupes, taught comedy classes at Georgetown University, won multiple awards, acted in more than a dozen productions at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and more. 

Like her, most S&P alumni go on to hold positions at academic institutions or within the repertory theatre industry. Here, we celebrate the program’s 20th anniversary by talking with two of its best and brightest graduates.

*Interviews have been edited for clarity and conciseness.

S&P Program students practicing and performing.

MATTHIEU CHAPMAN MLITT, MFA ’10 

After graduating from MBU Chapman went on to earn a PhD in theatre history, theory, and criticism from the University of California San Diego, where he was a Humanities Research Institute Fellow. He has since written two critically acclaimed scholarly books. He serves as an assistant professor of theatre studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and as a literary director for the New York Classical Theatre.   

You went to high school in California. What brought you to Mary Baldwin and S&P? 

I actually came to the theatre later in life. My focus during high school was on football. In the ninth grade I read about two pages of Romeo and Juliet, and was like, “Nah, that’s not for me.”

Fast forward to my second year at San Diego State University. I was studying kinesiology with the intent of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. I was also working in a sandwich shop on campus, where my boss happened to be a theatre major. 

One day she tells me their director is looking for a big guy to fill a role — I was 6-foot-5-inches tall and 300 pounds. I said, “Not interested.” But she insisted, so I agreed to at least read the script. It turned out to be an adaptation of a play called Skin by Dennis Foon. It was about [racism in all its insidious forms, and how it affects the self-image of a group of teenagers]. I was struck by the narrative and decided to do the audition. When I showed up, the director put me right in the show. 

To my surprise, the process was a lot of fun. I found it to be so much more interesting and rewarding than the medical stuff I’d been doing. Like, memorizing a textbook was easy, but working closely with a group of peers to explore and engage with self vulnerability? That was a challenge. And I loved it. I switched my major to theatre soon thereafter. 

After graduating, I started auditioning and applying to grad schools. I was talking to mentors and telling them how I wanted to act and eventually teach, and they said, “You need Shakespeare.” Someone mentioned Mary Baldwin had an excellent program [that was connected to] the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) and Blackfriars Playhouse. I did some research and it looked fantastic. I knew nothing about Shakespeare, and felt like [the S&P] would be an ideal environment to learn and hone my acting chops. 

From left: Dr. Matthieu Chapman performing while attending S&P; Chapman posing with his wife after earning his doctoral degree.

How was your time at MBU: What was your biggest challenge and best takeaway?

When I entered the S&P in 2007, I think the program was undergoing [a big transition] — and for that matter, so was the school. 

Today, when I return to Mary Baldwin to give guest lectures, lead workshops, [or whatever,] I’m astounded by both the growth and the diversity. On one hand, the campus went fully coed in 2017, and now you have things like a men’s basketball and soccer team. On the other, [Black and brown people now] make up more than half the student population. 

Back in 2007, that shift was just getting underway. In my case, I was the only non-white person in the S&P, and there were, I think, just two non-white actors in ASC. Meanwhile, [my classmates] lived and breathed Shakespeare; they were passionate about it. And here I was, not disinterested exactly, but definitely coming from a position of critical skepticism. That put me at odds with [traditionalist ideas that these texts were sacred], that there was a right and a wrong way to perform them. 

Luckily, Dr. Menzer had just come onboard as the program’s new director. He could see I wasn’t approaching [the program] the way everyone else was. He realized [that disjunct] brought an added sociological component to my experience. I was studying my classmates and professors, asking: ‘Why is everyone so dedicated to this white guy who died 400 years ago? Why do we have to perform these plays in [x, y, or z] manner?’

And Paul was incredibly supportive. He helped me [customize my educational experience] and pushed me to really explore those questions. He encouraged me to approach the [traditionalist] ‘rules’ from the perspective of a jazz musician — learning to break and reinterpret them in a way that would further my creative vision and expression.

S&P alumni Dr. Matthieu Chapman has written extensively about race in early modern theatre and is working to bring the stories of traditionally excluded voices to the stage.

How has that experience informed and furthered your career?

It was foundational. [On a macro level,] the most important thing I learned at MBU was that, while I loved the process of rehearsal and the community developed in the rehearsal space, I wasn’t a fan of performing the same show day in and day out for weeks on end. The good news was that I simultaneously discovered I had a talent for theatre scholarship and dramaturgy.

In fact, the idea for my first book, Anti-Black Racism in Early Modern English Drama, actually came out of my MBU thesis — which I used as a writing sample when applying to the PhD program at the University of California San Diego. [Without getting too far into the scholarly weeds,] the book analyzes constructions of Blackness as distinct from constructions of race in the Early Modern World. In it I use contemporary critical race theory to look at ways in which anti-Black racism existed in the English psyche prior to encounters with Black bodies.

Research from that book led to another, Shattered: The Lived Experience of Black Social Death, which will be out in 2022.

In terms of my pedagogy, what Dr. Menzer showed me — how to work with individual students, meet them where they’re at, guide them, and feed their intellectual curiosity according to their own interests — that strategy lies at the heart of my approach.

What’s next?

I started working with the New York Classical Theatre as a literary director in Oct. 2020. In that role, I’m leading a new play development program called New Visions, which is a three-year initiative aimed at making classical theatre more accessible for everyone. 

The idea is that, when you look at the canon, it’s just incredibly exclusionary — it excludes women, people of color, people from [non-dominant cultures], non-cisgendered people, the list goes on. So what we’re doing is looking for new plays that engage with the classics, but from the vantage of groups that have been historically excluded or erased.  

When we put out our first call for submissions, we got more than 300. The overwhelming response has brought additional funding, so it looks like we may be able to produce more than 20 of these over the next three years.

KATE EASTWOOD NORRIS, MFA ’20 

Norris is an Actors’ Equity Association member with more than 25 years of equity regional theatre credits. She’s won two Helen Hayes Awards and has been nominated for many others. She has toured the country numerous times with various acting troupes, is a former member of ASC, and a frequent performer at the prestigious Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. She has taught collegiate theatre classes at Georgetown University, and the Pacifica Graduate Institute, and was a McDermott Visiting Artist at MBU

When you enrolled in S&P you already had an impressive acting resume. How did you end up at MBU? 

It’s kind of a funny story. I started out at Virginia Tech studying theatre arts in 1986. But things kept coming up — I moved to New York, then came back; moved to Seattle, then came back. So it took me a while to finish. 

When I did, I decided to move to Wilmington, North Carolina. I’d gotten my car packed and was ready to go, but my mom made me wait so she could pack sandwiches for the trip. We lived in Northern Virginia. I was restless and started looking at The Washington Post auditions section, where I saw an ad for a spot with the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express (which soon became ASC). I called and was miraculously able to audition that day on my way to North Carolina. 

A few weeks later, I got a call [from Dr. Ralph Cohen] offering me the job. I immediately dropped what I was doing in Wilmington and commenced to tour the country with the company for the next two years. And it was a wonderful experience. I learned so, so much; it laid the foundation for my career. 

Of course, Dr. Cohen went on to become a theatre professor at MBU, and to co-found both the Blackfriars Playhouse and S&P. So that was my first contact with Mary Baldwin. 

Skip ahead nearly 20 years to 2017. I’d established myself in Washington, D.C., and had had a lot of success acting and directing with many different troupes. I’d toured the country numerous times. I was working with the Folger Library, and had been a member of the Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company since 2005. 

I’d also been doing more teaching. I’d developed practical and theory-based curriculum around comedy, the creative drive, [and more]. I’d stayed in touch with Dr. Cohen and had taught some summer guest courses at MBU. But I didn’t have an MFA, and that made it hard to do much [at the university level] beyond leading workshops or serving as an artist-in-residence.  

Over the years I’d become increasingly impressed with the direction of S&P. It’s very personalized, very hands-on. It’s set up to let participants explore their individual interests within a community of engaged and supportive professionals. I decided to make the leap. I reached out to Dr. Menzer and asked if I could do all the Shakespeare stuff, but also focus my thesis around depth psychology and comedy theory. He said yes. And that was all she wrote.

S&P alum Kate Eastwood Norris is a veteran repertory theatre actor-director and has performed in critically acclaimed productions throughout the U.S.

You had such a wealth of career experience and theatre knowledge coming into the program. Were you able to build on that and learn more, or was this just a matter of dotting i’s and crossing t’s so that you could teach?

That’s a great question. I can’t say enough good things about my time in S&P. It was simply amazing. 

You have to understand: I was coming at this less as an actor, more as a teacher and scholar. Getting to dive deeply into the history of early modern England and the texts, as well as dramaturgy in general, was incredibly enriching. I learned so much more than I could’ve imagined. And it’s improved my teaching — and for that matter, my acting — tremendously. 

Equally valuable was getting to observe and experience the pedagogical approaches of great professors like Dr. Cohen, Dr. Menzer, and Dr. Mary Hill Cole, to name a few. 

For instance, I’m always awed by Dr. Cohen’s passion, by how much he cares. He’s always so excited in the classroom; you can tell he loves being there. That, combined with the depth of his knowledge, creates a learning atmosphere that’s as infectious as it is inspiring.   

Dr. Menzer is great in so many regards, but one of the things he did that really stuck with me is how he wrote out all of his lectures in advance. He knows the material inside-out, so he really doesn’t have to do that. And he often encourages students to take the dialogue in directions that aren’t preplanned. But I realized that outline sort of grounds everything — it gives you direction for guiding discussions, and a base to come back to after an inspired intellectual tangent. 

Nobody directs a classroom conversation like Dr. Cole. She’s masterful at it. She has this superpower of convincing her students to get excited about doing copious amounts of reading, just so they can come to class and talk about it. The way she uses her knowledge to expand on that reading and cultivate student minds is incredible. 

What’s next? 

I started doing some adjunct teaching at Georgetown University in 2020. They have a performance program [that launched in 2009 and is modeled after Mary Baldwin’s S&P], so my degree makes me something of an asset. I’m hoping to continue to build that relationship.  

More recently, MBU professor Doreen Bechtol connected me to the University of Virginia drama department. And I’m very excited to announce I’m going to be working with students to direct a mainstage production at UVA this spring.  

Students performing in the S&P program.

TO LEARN MORE about MBU’s Shakespeare and Performance program, or find information about upcoming lectures, performances, and special events, visit its Facebook Page