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Davis, California

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Amid staffing and funding struggles, students and faculty call Theatre and Dance Department essential

Community members share their concerns about the future of the performing arts on the UC Davis campus


By INDRANIL BASU — features@theaggie.org


The Theatre and Dance Department at UC Davis houses the theatre and dance majors and minors, which include courses in acting, the history of theatre, dance and movement. These courses are offered to students affiliated with and outside of the department and typically take place at Wright Hall. Theatre and Dance is a comparatively small area of study at UC Davis, with about 120 registered undergraduate students majoring in dramatic art, 40-45 graduate students pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in dramatic art or a Ph.D. in performance studies, as well as five to 10 visiting professional artists and teachers each quarter, according to the department website. 

Undergraduate and graduate students taking classes in performance art say these courses have a significant impact on their personal and professional growth, as well as their mental health. However, at a department review conducted during winter quarter, the department staff and students determined that Theatre and Dance is highly underfunded and understaffed. 

Madeline Weissenberg, one of two theatre and dance company managers who facilitate communication between staff and students, said the arts often take a backseat at scientific research universities like UC Davis. 

“Being on a STEM-focused campus, it is very often that the arts can get lost, but it’s so important for the arts to be here,” Weissenberg said. “So often we get some students who want to get away from hard classes like [organic chemistry] for example, […] to perform and be creative, and you can find those creative outlets in theatre or music or art. Because without that, that creative outlet for them maybe gets lost and that can feel very stifling.”

Other than its academic offerings to students, the Theatre and Dance Department also holds many shows and events that are open to everyone, with special ticket rates for UC Davis students. Theater students dedicate much of their time preparing for a mainstage show every quarter, such as “The Fall Show” in fall 2022, “Refuge” held in winter 2022 and “Open, Stay” coming up at the end of this spring. 

These are the highlights of the department’s work, typically developed and directed by the Granada Artists-in-Residence, who are working professionals in the theatre and dance industry. They come to the department for a quarter and work on the show, as well as teach a class at the same time, giving students hands-on experience. Students also choreograph and perform a dance and movement show, “Outside the Lines,” in various academic quarters.

All shows produced by the Theatre and Dance Department are performed by students under the guidance of professors and staff. Students also play important roles in creative production teams such as with lights, sound, set design, projection design, dramaturgy and costumes.

Students and faculty in the Theatre and Dance Department worry about the future of performance art at UC Davis given the current situation. 

“Something the review showed is that we’re all very concerned about the department,” Weissenberg said. “We are underfunded, understaffed and underappreciated in a way no member of our Davis community should be made to feel. If things keep going the way they are currently, we will potentially be down to only having three professors in the entire department, which is unacceptable.” 

Despite struggling with staffing and funding, the department has been holding courses and putting on shows to its best capacity because of the passion, expertise and dedication of the students, faculty and staff. 

“It often feels like the school tends to forget us, and a lot of students don’t even know we exist, which can be very disheartening, but we are here and we are passionate about what we do,” Weissenberg said. “Our faculty, professors and lecturers are pushed and pulled in every which direction and are made to do everything under the sun, but they do it with a smile because they are so passionate and so supportive of our education. They deserve so much more appreciation than they receive.”

Weissenberg said that the lack of appreciation from both the University of California and the student body makes it difficult for the department to function at full capacity. Despite this, it hosts a community that both students and faculty have worked hard to build, as well as a place where aspiring performance artists and production designers at UC Davis can grow their skills in preparation for entering the entertainment field. According to second-year theatre and dance major Daxi Jiang, students are extremely involved and put tremendous amounts of work into their classes and the department and are largely inspired by the effort of the faculty and staff. 

“We don’t have many professors or lecturers, but the professors we have genuinely care about the students,” Jiang said. “They’ll give everything they have or known to help a student’s growth. They use their free time to answer students’ questions and help them go further in the industries if the students are passionate.”

Jiang said theatre and dance majors also uplift and support each other, reflecting the dedication of their instructors. 

“We are more so friends to each other than classmates,” Jiang said. “We were able to form such a strong bonding through working a show together, and I’ve never had such experience anywhere outside the theatre department. We respect each other’s boundaries, we genuinely care about each other’s feelings and both mental and physical health.” 

The Theatre and Dance Department is also an important resource for non-majors and minors. Teresa Arenas Salas, a graduate student in dramatic art at UC Davis, recently ran her Master of Fine Arts show, White Dancer Loops,” last week, and has been instructing an intro-level acting class. According to Salas, theatre classes offer a change of pace for students in traditional academic majors. 

Many students from outside the department come in and take this class and […] have said that [it] is so different from STEM-based classes,” Salas said. “Here, you cannot just sit around. You have to get on your feet and be completely engaged and involved the entire class duration.”

Salas said theatre classes often build camaraderie between UC Davis students as they require them to “collaborate […] at a more immersive level,” and can also have positive impacts on students’ health. 

“The department’s classes are beneficial to the body and mind and are some of the few ones where you can make mistakes and have fun, be silly and yet have meaningful experiences while learning,” Salas said. “I would invite students to try a class; people say it is always way better and more fun than anything they expected and it opens up their mind.”

First-year theatre and dance and psychology double-major Yi Zhu has experienced these benefits first-hand.

I love it when we can fully enjoy dancing, performing and creating arts because that helps me relieve a lot of stress and gain energy and confidence,” Zhu said. “Feeling the fluidity of my emotions and body and forgetting the crazy and swirling world outside is always the best.”

According to Salas, UC Davis may be a STEM-focused university, but this does not mean that its arts programs are of poor quality.

  “I chose this department at UC Davis as it was one of the few Master of Fine Arts programs in the field that was interdisciplinary, and I can work across dance, acting [and] singing here and collaborate with artists of various disciplines,” Salas said. “Art is absolutely essential in the world, and so is our department on the UC Davis campus.” 

Salas said that students and professors as well as Davis community members can get involved in supporting the Theatre and Dance Department by spreading awareness of the departments’ courses and events. Salas believes that art deserves a place on university campuses and within student communities for the ways it contributes to personal growth. 

“Art helps us understand our place in the world, like within interpersonal relations, about social issues, politics, the human condition and creativity and increases our sensitivity in different ways beyond academics, very practically,” Salas said. “Art is a vehicle for changing perspective and the Theatre and Dance [Department] does this while working with our most important instrument: the body and mind.

To stay updated on events and opportunities with the Theatre and Dance Department, visit their website at https://arts.ucdavis.edu/theatre-and-dance, follow @ucdtheatreanddance on Instagram or sign up to join the department’s listserv by emailing the company managers at kezaldumbide@ucdavis.edu.

Written by: Indranil Basu — features@theaggie.org