Inside Look: Emerson College BFA Stage Management

The following article continues a series devoted to stage management training programs (undergrad, grad, internships, etc.) across the country from the perspective of working stage managers who attended them. – Hope Rose Kelly (Editor-in-Chief)

Emerson College – Boston, MA

BFA Stage & Production Management – 2013-2017

By Jessica Kemp

I come from a very small town in Upstate New York – the Adirondacks. My big sister introduced me to the world of théâtre and dance, but I eventually fell into stage management after I watched a scene change in a community theatre production of The Sound of Music take five minutes and cringed. I never fully committed to any trade. I balanced dance, stage management, vocal performances, and acting throughout my high school years. When it came time for me to think about life after high school, I had no clue, which is perfectly normal! I knew I wanted a small college. Large groups of people overwhelm me and I enjoyed my small hometown class size. The thought of a huge campus that took 30 minutes just to walk across terrified me and because of dance, I learn better in a one-on-one situation. My years of school and dance also made me realize that I’m a tactile learner and I have never been one to enjoy down-time for more than a few days.

EMERSON COLLEGE – THE SCHOOL IN A SNAPSHOT.

Emerson College is a small “liberal arts” college in Boston Proper with roughly 4,000 students on its campus. I say “liberal arts” because the BFA Stage & Production Management track itself is really a conservatory. The campus is the size of two blocks along Boylston St. with a Los Angeles campus and a castle in the Netherlands where you can study abroad. There are a few main schools within the college: Visual Media Arts (aka film); Writing, Literature, Publishing; Journalism; Communication Studies; Communication Sciences & Disorders; Political Communications; Marketing Communication; Liberal and Interdisciplinary Studies; and the Performing Arts. The BFA Stage & Production Management major lives within Performing Arts and all Performing Arts majors are Fine Arts majors – there is no BA option. Most students are undergrads but there are a few masters programs in each school. You can create your own major (called IDIP) if you don’t find a perfect fit and even dip into Entrepreneurial Studies. Emerson can fund your great new business and help you get started.

The culture at Emerson is to always be on the go – there isn’t a lot of down-time, and most people at Emerson like it that way: have an internship, be in five student organizations, go all the way in a class project, hold a job, study. I found that most people here have set their goals very, very high; they come in knowing what they want to do. There is a lot of creative energy. It’s exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.

It is difficult, as a performing arts major, to transcend and break into any other schools or fields, but extra-curricular activities are in abundance and minors are relatively achievable. You can work at a radio station or on live-broadcast TV shows put on by students, be in an a capella group, help with student-produced films. I chose to minor in American Sign Language. The Emerson Experience is what you make of it. No two Emerson educations are exactly alike.

BFA STAGE & PRODUCTION MANAGEMENT – AN OVERVIEW.

Emerson College has a tremendous technical theatre program. It’s not something I, or my beloved colleagues, quite realized until we went out into the real world. Below are some of the highlights of the college, the BFA Stage & Production Management degree, and other opportunities available to you at Emerson.

The Woman in Charge of the Program. The Stage & Production Management department is headed by our fearless leader, Debra Acquavella (from here-on Deb). She is an artist with a vast wealth of knowledge in regional and commercial theatre which will benefit your education.

Classes. You are required to take four stage management classes, one production stage management class, one arts management class, and some craft classes to learn what carpenters, electricians, and stitchers do on a daily basis. The Performing Arts department requires that you take a few overview theatre classes and that’s where you’ll meet your fellow acting, directing, and technical theatre majors. As you see, this major is highly stage management skewed, but the production management class is taught by a real-life production manager who comes in on his day off to teach and you work alongside a production manager daily.

Emerson Stage. Emerson Stage is its own little beast. Based off of the LORT model, Emerson Stage is a “company” that produces theatre all year round so students can gain practical experience. The General Manager, Assistant to the General Manager, Production Manager, and directors are all staff members. Students learn how to create theatre through Emerson Stage with assignments and guidance from an advisor. Though involved every year, Stage & Production Management students receive credit for these Emerson Stage shows junior and senior year – and they are involved in both stage management and production management capacities (we call these production management positions production supervisors). You start from the bottom in both tracks and work your way up to stage manage and/or production manage your senior year. Emerson Stage produces a variety of work which gives students access to classic plays, a fall musical/revue, a spring musical, and a spring month-long festival of new works by student and professional playwrights. When Stage & Production Management students receive class credit for the productions you will meet with Deb once a week in a class called Production Projects. In Production Projects, you discuss challenges within your own show as well as your classmates. Deb will encourage you to work in the props department on one of these shows, and some Stage & Production Management students have even gained experience in the sound and lighting departments. The more experience you get in each field, the more it will aid you as a stage manager.

Student Theater Organizations. Alongside Emerson Stage, some people find their theatre communities through student theater organizations. These are completely student produced works, where anybody can dabble in any field. Journalism majors can audition, marketing majors can be in a dance troupe, and a stage manager can try their hand at lighting design. It’s really quite incredible to see the work done for and by your peers. These are extremely low budget productions that tech in a few hours and are open for a couple of performances. You are not tied to a supervisor/advisor in these organizations, and your first year at Emerson you will need permission from Deb to participate in a production or stage management capacity. This isn’t as cruel as it sounds. The first year of college is a lot, this program is a lot of time and effort, and these student productions will take you by storm if you aren’t prepared. She wants to make sure you have the groundwork laid out for your own mental and physical health before you explore student theatre.

The Theatres & Rehearsal Space. Emerson has a surprising amount of room for such a small campus. Emerson calls six theaters home, and has nine studio/rehearsal spaces and countless private practice rooms across its campus. The Greene Theater is your traditional 100-seat proscenium theater, the Semel Theater holds a bit more and is a ¾ thrust. The Jackie Liebergott Black Box molds to whatever shape the designer and director decide. The majority of Emerson Stage productions will happen on these stages. Student theater organizations will produce most of their work in the Cabaret (the Cab), which is a smaller black box theater. The Paramount and Majestic Theatres are the largest stages and have the largest houses, but are kept busy throughout the year with ArtsEmerson productions. Emerson Stage traditionally puts up one show in the Paramount and one in the Majestic each year. Emerson College also owns The Emerson Colonial Theater, which, in its heyday, was home to many Broadway tryouts (Bob Fosse tap danced on the table – there’s still a chip). In 2018, the Ambassador Theatre Group will have a lease on The Colonial opening with Moulin Rouge. 

Internships and Outside Work. A large portion of your education will be outside of the Emerson bubble. While it isn’t required, you will most likely obtain an internship or outside experience of some kind in the Greater Boston area. Some of these experiences are paid and some of them aren’t. During my time at Emerson, my classmates worked at Huntington Theatre Company, American Repertory Theater, Actors Shakespeare Project, Central Square Theatre, Speakeasy Stage Company, Lyric Stage Company… the list goes on. These opportunities are invaluable, attainable, and encouraged. This business is incredibly small and someone with a connection to Emerson works at each one of these amazing companies. You will also be encouraged to do theater in the summer by way of internships or jobs, but it is important to remember that these are not necessary. While they are great for your career and you will come back to the fall semester having grown so much, your mental health is also important. If you need the summer off, you need the summer off.

Studying Abroad. You can certainly study abroad, but as a Stage & Production Management student, you have to prepare ahead of time for this. The most popular place to study abroad is in the Netherlands. Emerson owns a castle called Kasteel Well. In this program, you are in Europe for a fall, spring, or summer semester, and you travel to different places on the weekend. Food is not offered at the castle on weekends, basically encouraging you to go elsewhere. For those who went, I know it drastically changed their lives. They forged new friendships and learned more about themselves than they ever thought possible.

Stage & Production Management students can only attend the fall semester of their sophomore year. This is just the way it works out given all the different classes you have to take to earn your degree. I did know a student who went in the summer session, but class selection is extremely limited. Here’s the other catch: it’s a lottery system. A certain percentage of Performing Arts, Journalism, WLP (and so forth) students are selected to go at random. I was number two on the wait list when I left my freshman year. If people had dropped out, I could have gone. The college also encourages you to have $6,000 set aside for your semester, so get that second job now.

Another popular place to study away from Boston is Emerson Los Angeles. This is our Los Angeles campus that typically gets you an internship in the film industry. A Stage & Production Management student was the first to go in my time there and she worked as an executive assistant. If you’re interested in the west coast, the film industry, or want to find other ways to develop leadership skills, I highly recommend this. There are, of course, other places to study abroad!

The ProArts Consortium. This is an incredible opportunity that I, honestly, never took advantage of. At the most basic level, a bunch of art schools in Boston got together and said, “Sure! We’ll take some students from your school if you take some students from our school for a class and still have those credits count. Why not?” This means that if you’re interested in taking dance classes at Boston Conservatory/Berklee, you most likely can. A classmate of mine took a bookmaking class at MassArt.

THE APPLICATION PROCESS.

The Application. Emerson holds their application on the CommonApp and will require some supplemental materials. There is the opportunity to apply for their Honors Program there as well, which requires more writing. You will apply to the school and schedule an interview separately.

The Interview. Emerson College has an interview process. You must be accepted into the school and accepted into the program separately. Deb travels to different cities throughout the year and conducts interviews in NYC, Chicago, and Boston. You can even phone in internationally to speak with her. You’ll have to come to your interview with a 1” portfolio of your work, including pictures and any documents that you’ve worked on. Don’t bring in an entire prompt book, but bring in some complicated blocking pages if you have them. Did you make a calendar? Put that in too.

Deb’s interview stuck out amongst the rest of the other colleges. It was the first interview I had that wasn’t in a sterile room. Her office has personality, and her bookshelves show history. Deb doesn’t just look to see what you already know. She just wants you to succeed. In fact, she’ll breeze through your portfolio and then set it aside to talk to you. She looks to see if you’re a good fit for the school and for her department. She wants to get to know you, not just your work, in those few short minutes. Freshman year, her students will start from different spots on the path but her goal is to get you all walking together down that yellow brick road. You will work one-on-one with this woman for four years. Interview her as much as she does you. Just be yourself walking into that room, because that’s what she wants to see

How about those Standardized Tests? Academics are important to get into the college. Emerson doesn’t expect you to have a 4.0 in high school, but they do expect you to care about your studies. So study for those SATs and study before your tests. You can apply to be a part of the Honors Program, which cuts your tuition in half. If you choose this, you must write a thesis in order to graduate and will take classes that are only held for Honors students

OKAY, OKAY. BUT FOR REAL. ARE THERE ANY CONS?

Like all schools, of course there are. My main concern with the college is that I believe they are looking to expand their student population. There are more students than the college and its facilities can currently hold, and that causes extra stress on everyone. The student to professor ratio is increasing while the classrooms themselves are staying the same size, so it’s a tight squeeze most of the time.

Without a doubt. While everyone at some point has some issues with the college – this will happen anywhere you go – the education I received at Emerson is incomparable. This program is strong and there will be no need for you to attend a graduate school, though an apprenticeship after graduation isn’t a bad idea just to break into the industry. As alumni, we emerge ready to jump into the field and ready to swim. The program boasts of alums continually working on and off Broadway (Miss Saigon, The Band’s Visit, Sleep No More), Cirque De Soleil’s Michael Jackson One in Las Vegas, tours like Rent and The Book of Mormon, TV live productions (Peter Pan), regional theaters all over the country, and so much more. The fact that you are able to take hold of your own education while at school truly means that you are able to take hold of your future.

Deb and the rest of the Performing Arts faculty really do care about each and every one of their students. Personal connections are made over the course of four years that won’t go away. The program not only focuses on your career, but also on your life. The trust and support you gain and create with your classmates will continue to grow after you leave Emerson. Their successes are my successes, too. I found the second family I didn’t know I needed.

Jessica Kemp is currently a Stage Management Apprentice at Actors Theatre of Louisville where she is now overcoming her childhood fear working on a fun new number called “Little Bunny Foo Foo”.