Two professors created the program to provide students interested in musical theatre with the intensive, multidisciplinary training necessary to be successful.
Before 2016, Texas Tech University students interested in pursuing a career in musical theatre faced limited options: focus on acting while picking up a few elective courses in voice and dance, major in dance while attempting to get acting experience on the side – no opportunity was available for students to receive the intensive, interdisciplinary training necessary to succeed in the musical theatre industry.
Now, thanks to a program spearheaded by two professors in the School of Theatre and Dance, students have the opportunity to pursue a bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theatre: a specific, performance-based tri-disciplinary degree program that has never before been offered at Texas Tech.
Noticing the need
Dean Nolen, acting professor and head of the acting and directing program in the School of Theatre and Dance, noticed a need for this program when he came to Texas Tech in 2014.
“Before we introduced this program, studying musical theatre here was a hodge-podge of going around collecting a few classes here, a few classes there – there wasn't a specific curriculum for it,” Nolen said.
Prior to 2016, the School of Theatre and Dance offered bachelor of arts degrees in both theatre arts and dance, along with a bachelor of fine arts degree in theatre arts in which students could emphasize either acting or theatrical design (scenery, lights or costume). Without a program intersecting the three disciplines of music, acting and dance, students could choose to study within either the School of Music or the School of Theatre and Dance, having to pursue other disciplines within the limitations of their allowed elective courses.
In an industry as competitive as entertainment, Nolen said, musical theatre performers must be equally strong actors, dancers and singers in order to be marketable. Without a program offered at Texas Tech that emphasized all of these facets, prospective students interested in musical theatre were often forced to look elsewhere to find what they were looking for.
“Not having a musical theatre program certainly left us out of a cross-section of students we could work with,” Nolen said. “We were the biggest school in the region that didn't have this program, so we could either lose all those students to other universities or create a program of our own.”
Adam Howard, a professor of musical theatre who came to Texas Tech to help build the new program, emphasized the importance of the musical theatre degree to both Texas Tech and the students who will receive it.
“If you get yourself an acting degree that isn't musical theatre intensive, you won't be very successful professionally in musical theatre,” Howard said. “So having this program is going to bring a lot more students to Texas Tech who wouldn't have been able to consider us otherwise.”
The newfound demand for musical theatre programming is not unique to Texas Tech – in fact, both Nolen and Howard say a musical theatre renaissance is happening, in which the popularity of original musicals has drastically increased in recent years.
“Musical theatre was really dated for a while; for a long time I thought it was dying,” Howard said. “It seemed like Disney owned the entire thing in the ‘90s, then all of a sudden in the early 2000s, these quirky, different, interesting, brand-new musicals started coming out. Suddenly, original musicals went from old-fashioned to cool again overnight. Schools need these programs now more than ever because students are asking for them.”
Creating the program
Nolen began creating the musical theatre program as soon as he arrived at Texas Tech in the fall of 2014. He was fresh off a position as artistic director and assistant professor of theatre at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, where he created a similar program for students interested in musical theatre.
“I mentioned to my boss that creating this program would be easier here because of the dance program that was already in place,” Nolen said.
Mark Charney, director of the School of Theatre and Dance, had already recognized the national and local need for musical theatre programming when Nolen approached him with the idea.
“I'd been looking for the right time to begin such a program at Texas Tech,” Charney said. “Professor Nolen's background perfectly represented what we needed to kick start the area; he had extensive experience in the field. Now, with our recent hires helping to encourage it along, it finally seemed like the time was right to get started.”
Since his arrival at Texas Tech in 2012, Charney recognized the growing significance of musical theatre programs across the nation. When he and Nolen introduced their idea to the College of Visual and Performing Arts, they received overwhelming support.
“I knew it would take a few significant hires to get the program off the ground,”
Charney said. “When the college supported the idea, especially the provost with the
hire of Adam Howard, the dream for a musical theatre program could finally become
After garnering some initial interest in the idea, Charney and Nolen brought Howard on board in the fall to help build the curriculum based on his musical theatre experience.
“We were very lucky to find Adam,” Nolen said. “He's been a tremendous resource and partner-in-crime from the minute he got here.”
Charney said having both Nolen and Howard on board helped ignite the potential program, turning it from an idea into a developmental process.
“Musical theatre programs attract some of the best students,” Charney said. “When we were able to bring on both Nolen and Howard – two professors with significant experience in musical theatre – to make it happen, I knew the faculty would support our endeavor.”
Nolen and Howard worked together to create courses for the new program, including two musical theatre performance classes and a course that proved to be vital in the program's conception: music theory.
“Reaching out to Bill Ballenger, the director of the School of Music, was the next step,” Charney said. “With his excellent support on the new music theory course, we were able to round out the program's curriculum.”
Instead of having musical theatre students take the same music theory course as traditional music students, Nolen worked with Ballenger and School of Music Professor David Forrest to create a music theory course tailored specifically to musical theatre students. The course, which will be offered through the School of Music, will introduce music theory to students in a way that is relevant to their particular field of study.
“Creating this course was huge for this program,” Howard said. “By tailoring music theory specifically to musical theatre students, we've been able to really focus on the stuff most relevant for the study of musical theatre. Having Bill and David write this course for us was hugely helpful in getting this program off the ground, and it will help incredibly in retaining our students – I don't know of any other school that has a course like this.”
Though the tailored music theory course was a major advantage for the creation of the new degree program, Nolen and Howard agree the program's biggest selling point was how mutually beneficial the program would be for both the students and the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
“The biggest selling point of this program is to offer yet another opportunity for potential students to grow and learn,” Nolen said. “Not only does it make us more well-rounded as a college, but now students will be able to study each discipline fully and earn a degree within a program that exists specifically for them.”
Charney agreed, saying the new musical theatre program is the perfect way to fulfill student needs within the School of Theatre and Dance.
“Adding this degree is the perfect way to build our undergraduate program and stay student-centric,” Charney said.
The many selling points of the program didn't require much convincing, however. Nolen and Howard were surprised by how easy the approval process was, saying there were so few hurdles it seemed almost strange.
“Everybody liked it,” Nolen said. “They were excited and wanted to get behind it. There's been an incredible generosity of spirit among the people we've worked with on this – I think it just felt right. There's been a good feeling about it from the beginning.”
Howard agreed, saying the Texas Tech arts community has expressed nothing but excitement to see the bar raised for musical theatre performance.
“I've noticed a unique atmosphere here of enthusiasm for visual and performing arts,” Howard said. “People are into each other's disciplines. Other places often have this weird competition between departments, but that's not the way here. People like each other and are curious about what everyone's doing. This is a wonderful place for innovation, and this kind of cooperation, frankly, I've never seen it.”
Building the first class
After recruiting students from various events across Texas for the past year, the first official, full-sized class of musical theatre students received their acceptance letters in March.
The first class is made up of 12 students, a number Nolen expects to remain consistent in the upcoming years, noting the program's focus on quality of students, not quantity.
“We're only looking to bring in around 12 students per year,” Nolen said. “The growth of this program is not in the amount of students we're bringing to Texas Tech – we're not trying to build numbers, we're trying to build a rock solid, signature program in musical theatre.”
Auditions for the musical theatre program are expected to happen on campus a few times each year and will be available to all prospective students.
“The goal of this program is to train students to excel in whatever level of musical theatre they desire to reach,” Nolen said. “Whether that be performing at small and regional theatres within the cities they live or working in commercial theatre in New York City, our students will be trained to succeed at any level. The goal is that, if they have the talent and the drive, we want to give them the opportunity to be able to reach their personal level of success.”