I don’t think I’ve ever thought more intensely about “fit” than I did when I was 17 years old. I was a junior in high school, and I needed to find the perfect college so I could unlock my unique place in the world. It’s a lot of pressure. At the time I figured that I’d go into politics or maybe film or theatre. Something creative. Something that allowed me to express myself as an individual and as a functional member of society. To fit.
So I enrolled at Calvin after being rejected from my first-choice school. Calvin pays strong lip service to the value of the liberal arts, and it’s not a coincidence that the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the country (think Oberlin, Williams, Vassar) are also some of the most dedicated to the fine arts. A strong liberal arts education gives students the tools to observe, analyze and synthesize data, of course, but it also puts equal emphasis on the fine arts and humanities. The idea is that the well-rounded student will be best equipped to go out in the world and blossom into a fully-grown, multifaceted human being.
But if there’s one feeling that I recall most clearly from my time at Calvin, it’s regret. From the beginning of orientation, I had this terrible feeling that I couldn’t shake—a profound sense that Calvin is not a place that encourages students to independently think and develop identities outside of the small, cloistered world of the college and its direct connections.
Want an internship at Amway or Zondervan? Great, we can do that. Want to pursue a serious career in the arts? Good luck.
And so it came as little surprise to me when I heard that Calvin is finally giving the axe to its theatre program.
Well, not officially. It’s more like death by a thousand cuts. According to a statement from the provost sent out to students enrolled in the department on Friday night, those currently enrolled in the major will still have the opportunity to complete it, and CAS will “retain the Theater Minor and the Calvin Theater Company.” It’s a matter of “better align[ing] college-wide resources with demand.” In a town hall meeting on Tuesday night, President Le Roy explained and doubled down on the plan.
In other words, theatre isn’t a good fit for Calvin. And you know what? They might be correct.
During my time at Calvin College, promoting the arts clearly wasn’t a priority for the administration. Instead we were told that focusing on broad-based capital projects, such as the renovation of the Fine Arts Center and the construction of the new Fieldhouse, would put us on a better long-term footing.
Then, after I graduated, we learned that under President Byker, Calvin made the inexplicable decision to exclusively sink capital contributions into investments while taking out loans to finance new construction. The investments underperformed while the construction projects came in over budget, and the college ended up $115 million in debt, almost none of which was accounted for in the operating budget.
Since Chimes brought that information to light in 2012 and 2013, progress has been made on relieving some of the debt by soliciting donations from alumni. It’s a testament to the loyalty of Calvin graduates that they’d be willing to throw so much money in after the previous administration so completely betrayed the fiduciary trust placed in them. And it’s a credit to the new administration that they’re apparently doing the kind of hard-nosed, numbers-based decision-making that we never got from the previous administration.
That decision-making involves evaluating every program as it stands now. And due to administrational neglect, the theatre program sits in an uncomfortable place—it lacks the resources to provide adequate training for those who desire to make a career in the field of professional theatre, but it’s too important to be eliminated outright.
Toward the end of my time at Calvin (I graduated in 2012), the major was already on life support. The few technically oriented acting, directing and production electives offered to theatre majors were regularly being cancelled for lack of enrollment, and the theatre company was suffering a truly outrageous rate of attrition from the beginning to end of each school year.
I heard a lot of platitudes about “community,” but for those of us who actually desired to start a career in the professional theatre, the program offered little in the way of logistical help. There was never any sort of showcase for those who dreamed of exposure beyond the East Beltline; the best one could hope for was starring in a summer production at Civic or Actors’ Theatre. I had a few opportunities to direct and assist, but I never learned how to write a grant application or a directing proposal.
Instead, perhaps due to the traditional overlap between the communication and education departments, entertaining and educating young audiences comprised most of my Calvin theatre experience. I directed a play written by and starring middle schoolers as part of an educational program presented at the Gezon Auditorium. I designed and ran sound for an adaptation of the young adult fiction novel The Shakespeare Stealer. I helped coach dramatic, duo and prose interpretation for the forensics team at Grand Rapids Christian High School.
And I loved it. Theatre for young audiences remains a passion of mine to this day. It’s thrilling to watch kids fall in love with theatre and performance, just like I did as a 12-year-old sitting in the Gezon watching As It Is In Heaven.
But in college, putting up shows for and with kids should be part of a broader experience rather than the main takeaway. Mark Muyskens exploding hydrogen balloons in front of seventh graders doesn’t constitute the core of Calvin’s chemistry program. Similarly, the college shouldn’t consider middle schoolers its theatrical patron base.
Then again, during my time at Calvin, maybe they were. While student matinees were regularly packed regardless of the quality of the show being produced, even the most artistically successful shows only managed to draw modest numbers of students and faculty. And of course, that turnout was dwarfed by the numbers that more popular groups like improv and dance guild invariably drew.
So all told, it’s not a surprise that the administration came to this decision. It affirms the vision of Calvin Theatre Company as a small extracurricular activity that primarily focuses on young audiences and doubles as a pretty decent recruitment tool, rather than a serious artistic outlet.
From a purely practical perspective, it makes sense; these cuts will save the college money, and Calvin can still claim to have a theatre program for the brochures and mailers it sends out to impressionable high schoolers in the Chicago suburbs.
But the decision lacks educational and artistic vision.
On one level, it feels like a confirmation of the Byker-era mindset that the college ought only to prioritize those parts of the institution with immediately perceptible growth potential. It assumes that the theatre department is doomed to perpetually stay in the purgatory of being not quite a major but not quite not a major either. It’s unimaginative and fails to consider the possibilities of where the department could go if given adequate focus and attention, building on the strengths of its educational component.
More broadly, it feels like a negative statement about the value of the fine arts in a liberal arts education. Calvin’s website states that it is “a Christian academic community dedicated to rigorous intellectual inquiry.” Theatre is an ideal venue for intellectual inquiry because of how it combines rhetoric with emotion to explore the sorts of questions that we might not have the answers to.
At its best, theatre has the power to thrill, shock, disturb, elate, compel—to create an inviolable community amongst total strangers who come together in a small room to watch other complete strangers perform for two hours. The chance to seriously explore that world as a vocation in a college environment is an unparalleled opportunity.
I never had that experience. But future Calvin students could.
I hope for that future.
Josh graduated from Calvin College with a major in political science and a minor in theatre. He currently is working as a theatrical director and designer in New York.