Article Written by Zachary Schunk. Photo by Zachary Schunk.

As the Spring 2024 semester comes to a close, so does SCSU’s theatre department. The department’s closure has left faculty members reflecting on its legacy and the broader implications for arts education at SCSU.

Professor Jeffery Bleam has been teaching at SCSU since 2005. Professor Bleam has taught a wide variety of subjects, such as: acting, directing, design, history, and analysis.

Professor Bleam was initially drawn to his position at SCSU by a fateful description on the job offering. The description specifically called for a professor specializing in costume design and directing.

“That’s a very unusual combination to see and, at the time, it seemed custom-written for my particular skill set. I felt this was where I was meant to be. I still believe that” says Professor Bleam.

Over the years, Professor Bleam has worked with his students to put on at least one production a year, personally directing and designing costumes, scenery and sound.

The closure of the theatre department has been a looming worry for its faculty for over a decade now. In 2008, the department lost funding for their annual summer programming in Alexandria. Soon after, their dance focused minor was eliminated. They lost several crucial faculty members in 2017 and more in 2020.

“At that point, I was the only full-time teaching faculty member left. It becomes harder and harder to attract students as you’re able to offer less and less” says Professor Bleam.

The news of the program’s closure came suddenly for its faculty and staff. Professor Bleam explained, “On April 19 of 2023, I received an urgent zoom meeting request from our college dean with an hour’s notice… I was told my position was being eliminated.”

News of the department’s closure was delivered to its students with heavy hearts, leaving many unsure about the future. Efforts to preserve the theater program, including a re-imagined interdisciplinary major focused on social change, ultimately fell short. This short-lived revision was launched in Fall of 2022, but was cut eight months later.

Department chair of theatre and film studies Professor Bradley Chrisholm remarked, “Students seemed interested, but the program never had a chance to take off.

The closure of the theater program at SCSU underscores broader discussions about the value of arts education and highlights the challenges faced by arts programs in today’s academic landscape. Professor Bleam believes in student involvement within arts programs, regardless of those students chosen major. The closure of the department negatively impacts the morale of both students and faculty involved in art and music. It’s those students who now have to wonder if their department will be reduced or cut next.

Professor Chrisholm states, “To this day I meet prospective students from high schools on campus for a visit and even though they plan on majoring in other fields, they all hoped to participate in college theatre. That’s gone. Film students used to count on acting students to be in their films. That’s gone too. And of course, the local community won’t be getting exposed to the wide variety of plays we used to put on.”

Morale is low amongst the art departments of SCSU. Professor Bleam says, “I’ve always loved hearing stories from my colleagues about its heyday in earlier decades when it was vibrant and packed with students. I wish I could have seen that. I hope and expect that there are still areas on campus that are vibrant with discourse and productivity, but I don’t see them on a day-to-day basis … Sadly, I don’t think most people at SCSU will miss theatre.”

Outside of campus, Professor Bleam is glad to see multiple theatre companies emerging within the St Cloud Area, many of which primarily produce musicals. Professor Bleam elaborates, “GREAT theatre is making nice headway into producing plays with social themes. The community benefit of having a college theatre venue is the exposure to works of classical or historic value and plays that push the envelope in terms of style or content.”

With theatre being removed from “The Department of Theatre and Film Studies,” some students may wish to know what will happen to the film department, alongside the resources of the theatre department. Professor Chrisholm envisions the theatre resources being used for filmmaking and tv production courses, but no plans have been finalized.

Starting in Fall 2024, the film program is merging with Mass Communications. Professor Chrisholm elaborates, “One possibility is that Mass Comm might be renamed too ‘The Department of Mass Communications and Film.’” The substantial resources of the theatre department will ideally assist film and mass comm students with visual storytelling projects of different varieties.

Saying goodbye to the theatre program hasn’t been easy for its staff & students. Leaving behind the department includes a several decade long legacy of creativity and wonderful performances. Shows ranging from comedies, dramas, musicals, and so much more technical theatre. Reflecting on the legacy of the program, Professor Bleam leaves us with a quote from the musical Camelot:

“don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment…”

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