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Michael Billington, top center in white shirt, theatre critic for the Guardian newspaper, met with Texas Christian University students as part of a month-long London adventure studying modern trends in theatre in 2006. LaLonnie Lehman, top right, led the group.

Photo/Courtesy LaLonnie Lehman


'All the World's a Stage'
When Studying Abroad

Lauren Lowell
Costume Design & Technology Commission

At the 2008 USITT Annual Conference & Stage Expo in Houston, it was refreshing to hear about the successful creation of five diverse summer study abroad programs geared toward students of theatre and/or the fine arts.

While each program presented was different in scope, duration, courses offered, and eligible population, the existence of these opportunities specifically tailored for students of the artistic disciplines gives hope that there will be more such programs in the future. Furthermore, the presentation gave inspiration to start laying the foundation for additional programs.

Gretel Geist Rutledge of Michigan State University sought connections with study abroad programs based in London. Scholar Services Ltd. has been particularly helpful in helping her make arrangements across the pond -- aiding in securing facilities and other arrangements. The program that MSU offers is best described as "Theatre in the United Kingdom" as their program typically visits three locations. Regularly scheduled Stratford and Bath itineraries are combined with one other destination (variable upon the UK events in the given year of travel). Past locations have included Brighton and Oxford. MSU opens the program to any student of theatre including those from other United States universities. The five-week course generally costs approximately $450 plus tuition and travel. Typical courses offered include Theatre History, Period History, and Acting (which is taught by Londoners hired as teaching guest artists).

In contrast, the program overseen by LaLonnie Lehman from Texas Christian University takes another approach to studying the theatrical arts. The main course of study is entitled "Modern Trends in Theatre." This five-week program is open only to TCU students. During their adventures in the United Kingdom, students attend approximately 20 productions at prominent venues in London, Stratford, and Bath.

The TCU Office of International Study Programs arranges for classroom and housing for the students. Tickets are secured for these productions in advance through a professional residing in London who makes recommendations and takes requests for shows. The group meets as a formal class each day following the performance for detailed discussions.

Classroom time also includes opportunities to visit museums and British libraries. Students have time in their schedules to explore the three locales independently. Costing approximately $11,000 (including tuition and theatre tickets), the program can accommodate eight to 14 students.

Yet another unusual program is sponsored by Utah State University. Spearheaded by Nancy Hills, this course includes performance opportunities as well. Days are structured with morning classes and afternoon activities (possibly including rehearsal time), and shows at night. Nine credit hours of class time are included in this four-week program. Students choose from topics including Historical Clothing, Period Styles, Contemporary Theatre, Design Studies, Specialized Projects, and a Performed Show.

Locale plays a role in this program, as instructors teach wherever they may be. For example, for a unit on Antiquities, class is held at the British Museum. As a result, students benefit from exposure to primary research and visual aids. Enrollment of about 20 includes USU students and those from other United States universities. Tuition is included in the cost of about $4,000 plus airfare. Two faculty members usually accompany the group.

A group of University of Iowa students participated in a different kind of adventure. Loyce L. Arthur has completed on-site research in many places studying the celebration of Carnival. On her latest journey, she arranged for her students have a role in her look at London's Carnival activities. The group researched Carnival designs, created costumes, and participated in the Carnival Parade, dancing alongside more than 300 other performers and dancers.

While the trip would be better described as an "experience" or internship rather than classroom study, it provided a truly unusual educational experience. The students spent six to eight hours a day working side-by-side with Londoners realizing the designs of Clary Salandy, the company designer at Mahogony Studios. In addition to gaining an understanding of Carnival culture, the group also gained personal experience with London immersed in the professional studio culture and local life of the city. The trip lasted 10 days and cost each participant $600 (which covered the flight and housing).

The final program discussed in Houston, Costume and Character in the London Theatre, is overseen by Linda Pisano at Indiana University. Its focus is reading plays and looking at them from different points of view as London plays, by definition, tell a story with a differing perspective than those in the United States.

In addition to this rather broad topic, there is generally a focus of study to help demonstrate this shifting of perspectives. A common focus of study is placed upon 18th century costume, theatre, and social histories. All of these topics can be studied first hand in London where he students stay in renovated 18th century dormitories in Chelsea to facilitate their immersion.

Faculty plan the itinerary, productions, and the types of scholars with whom seek interaction. The IU program works through the International Education System (their office is located in Bloomsbury) to make all arrangements. The three-week course is open to 300 and 500 level Indiana University students (participants must be enrolled at IU or one of its satellite schools to be eligible to participate) and costs approximately $4,300 plus airfare.

Beyond the details of the specific programs, the panel members at the session also gave valuable advice to those interested in planning a study abroad trip. One suggestion was to seek out other groups/programs that are occurring at the same time, even if study topics are very different. By working together, money can be saved on site tours and other services.

Another imperative was to become educated on the true costs of the trip including meals and incidentals to avoid surprises or having student wallets running dry.

The speakers stressed the importance of networking with international faculty members and artists in any manner available. Faculty should strive to make professional connections with Londoners, or those any desired study location. Local residents tend to have insight in finding the freebies -- yet another great use of personal connections and resources.

Another tip for enrolling students in an international program is to have a screening process. The coordinating faculty member/chaperone is responsible for the group, their behavior, and education. It is also necessary to become thoroughly educated about liability issues, which can be one reason why it is best to coordinate the program with an institution's Office of International Study Programs.

Final words of wisdom referred to the educational experience itself. A trip can be really overwhelming for students, particularly if they have little experience traveling away from the familiarity or comforts of home, family, or university. Faculty were urged to assist students in getting the most out of the experience by finding creative ways for them to seek out information. One example was creating a museum scavenger hunt to force the group to explore rooms they might otherwise skip. Allow students time to explore on their own. Require them to have a map and a watch and encourage them to find their own way around the city.

Regardless of the program specifics, students return from programs such as these not only with a greater world view, but a better sense of themselves. It is such an enriching experience for any budding artist. All of the session panelists had glowing things to say about the growth of their students upon return from their programs.

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