An in-depth look at one of the most underrated majors at Iowa State University.
by Alyssa Priebe
Keaton Lane sat next to his sister, his grandmother speaking to them from the other side of the dining room bar in her small house in Cascade, Iowa.
“Are you enjoying your classes?” she asked.
“Yea, I’m taking script analysis, acting and musical theater,” he responded. “I added a double major in performing arts.”
She looked at him confusedly.
“What do you mean you’re studying performing arts?” she questioned. “What’s that?”
It was a long conversation with Lane trying to explain what exactly it meant to study theater at Iowa State. Something he says tends to come up whenever he tells anyone his major.
“Most people I speak to don’t know you can major in theater,” he says. “Or that Iowa State even has a theater department.”
With only 40 students enrolled in the performing arts program, it’s not surprising stories like Lane’s are common. But small numbers don’t measure the success of the department. In fact, some believe it’s one of its biggest strengths.
“There are advantages to being small,” says Beate Schmittmann, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Students get a much better grasp on all the puzzle pieces that make theater work.”
Students experience these “puzzle pieces,” such as costuming, set design and directing, through six yearly Iowa State productions on Fisher Theater along with multiple, smaller, student-produced shows held in Pearson Hall. Adam Kroksh, a senior in performing arts, says it’s something not all students from other universities get to experience.
“We take our work very seriously,” says Kroksh. “Since we are so small, we get multiple opportunities other students don’t. The collaborative effort the entire department puts in is really remarkable.”
All Majors Allowed
Unlike many other universities specializing in theater, all Iowa State students are encouraged to participate in shows and take performing arts classes — regardless of their major.
Michael Clinkscales sat in his dorm room wondering what was missing. Sure, he enjoyed his psychology courses and knew he wanted to help teens recovering from substance abuse, but something was still missing.He thought back to his high school days when he acted in school plays and performed during speech competitions. He decided to look into performance opportunities at Iowa State. Then, he found an audition announcement for “Amadeus.”
He walked into 2140 Pearson, the program’s audition room, feeling an air of intimidation. He knew multiple students majoring in theater were auditioning, and was unsure how to compete with them. But he performed his prepared monologue, filled out the form and read a scene in front of the director, Jane Cox. After about five minutes, he heard the words ever actor experiences.
“Thank you, we will let you know.”
Clinkscales left, and began the waiting process. About a week later, he received an email from the Theatre Department at Iowa State University.
His eyes scanned over the show information until finally, he landed on his name.
“Michael Clinkscales, Joseph II.”
He felt surprised and excited.
“There’s a huge level of intimidation getting involved in theater in college,” he says. “I thought about how I was going against people who live and breathe it, so when I got a part I was surprised.”
He attended rehearsal five times a week and quickly remembered what he loved about theater to begin with: he got to bring stories to life. He also found himself accepted by all the performers — regardless of their majors — and inspired by Cox, the director of theatre at Iowa State.
After the show ended, Clinkscales decided to continue auditioning for different productions and take some theater courses — something he says a lot of other students do too.
“It’s rare to see someone do just one show,” he says. “There’s such an inviting and welcoming environment. It doesn’t matter which major you’re in. It’s a collective experience of people who are enthusiastic about the same desire: to create.”
As a senior, Clinkscales will graduate with 45 credits from the performing arts department. But he says he never thought to minor or double major because he wanted the freedom to take the classes he saw benefiting his future the most.
“I do want to pursue theater when I graduate,” he says. “But I’d rather take musical theater and directing — or other classes I feel most benefit me. They teach more than just facts. They teach me how to be a professional.”
Brad Dell, an associate professor of theatre, noted that many of students enrolled in his classes aren’t majoring in the program.
“Virtually every class and production is filled with majors and non-majors, which is a testament to our program,” he says. “We help the ISU student body become compassionate, empathetic, creative citizens.”
Every year, Iowa State students and faculty take part in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) which not only offers numerous workshops and competitions, but brings a representative to present feedback serves after each ISU production.
Following the audience’s thunderous applause, Kroksh headed into the basement of Fisher Theater. He and the fellow cast members of “Mr. Burns” listened as the KCACTF professional talked about what worked and didn’t about their most recent performance.
“I think the first and third acts were the strongest,” she said. “I especially liked their different tones.”
The cast members listened intently, and the representative continued, her voice echoing off the concrete walls.
“I want to ask you guys, how did you go about approaching the script for this adaptation?”
She talked for about 45 minutes, sharing insight and asking the performers their opinions. After she left, their director Amanda Petefish-Schrag, an assistant professor in music and theatre, spoke a few last thoughts and sent the cast on their way, ready to start again the next day.
Kroksh says he’s grateful that Iowa State submits each production for KCACTF because of the valuable feedback the cast receives at the end of each show.
“It’s super-duper helpful,” Kroksh says. “In the real world we are not going to get critique like this. So hearing what a professional thinks worked or didn’t is super helpful and beneficial for [our] future [careers].”
Students take the feedback the professionals provide and bring it back to their competition performances at KCACTF. This year, 44 students and faculty represented Iowa State at the 49th Festival held at the Downtown Marriot in Des Moines, Iowa in late January, including Kroksh.
Kroksh has attended KCACTF all four of his undergraduate years. This year, he reached the semi-final round of the Irene Ryan Acting competition with his partner, Vivian Cook. The pair started preparing for the competition earlier in 2016.
Kroksh isn’t the first Iowa State performing arts student to be recognized. This year, Taylor Millar took first place in KCACTF Region 5 Society of Directors and Choreographers Directing fellowship, Hannah Rublaitus earned first place in Dramaturgy for her project on “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” and Cook tied for 2nd place in the Society of Directors and Choreographers Directing fellowship. In addition, several faculty members also received awards for their directing throughout the years.
But competing isn’t the only reason theater enthusiasts pay the $80 ticket fee and return to the festival year after year.
“For me, going to the competitions and watching others present work they’ve been doing for so long is the best part,” Clinkscales says. “Theater will forever be a work of collaboration. It’s always learning from others, so watching these new performances is the most important part.”
“It’s about way more than winning awards,” says Dell, who serves as the chair of KCACTF Region 5. “It’s a nation-wide organization that celebrates and fosters excellence in theater.”
More than a Job
The stigma surrounded by jobs in art fields: they make little money. But generally, that’s not why artists choose their path. It’s not about the career; it’s about the chance to create.
Kivan Kirk’s gray 2002 Ford Focus cruised along U.S. 30 East. His 15-year-old hands reached for one of his favorite soundtracks. Soon, Johnny Depp’s voice blasted from the speakers, singing about how there’s no place like London. Kirk scream-sang along for the hour between Tipton and Clarence, Iowa.
He had never participated in chorus, or received any artistic education, but something about those days driving to and from work jamming out to his favorite musical numbers helped spark his life’s true passion: theater.
A few years later, Kirk started studying criminal justice at Kirkwood Community College. He decided to audition and received the lead role in “Lemon Sky.” After a few more productions, Kirk attended KCACTF and saw performances by Iowa State. After that, he decided to transfer to ISU and major in performing arts.
Kirk graduated from the program in 2015 and currently works in Des Moines, directing multiple children’s theater shows and acting in his free time. Although he doesn’t receive thousands of dollars for his work, Kirk says he loves his career path.
“The world runs on money,” he says. “You have to be financially well-off — not just comfortable — to be considered successful. It’s awful. For me, I do theater because art shapes life. Every production taught me something new about society and myself.”
Kroksh shares Kirk’s enthusiasm.
“Financially speaking it isn’t the most secure profession,” he says. “But I think the performing arts are necessary. We need art in life.”
Cox says this is the kind of thinking she tries to enforce through her classes.
“College is about teaching different ways to think about something,” she says. “It’s not about memorizing facts. It’s about how to learn and that’s what the performing arts do.”
Dell agreed with Cox’s approach.
“It is a wild myth that after college you will have a stable career,” he says. “The point of college is to grow, learn and help you become an individual. There shouldn’t be one path, but 100. I view theater as one way to prepare students for that element.”
Why is theater important?
“What kind of world would we live in without the arts? They are vitally critical in any society.” – Brad Dell, Associate Professor of Theatre
“Functionally people need food and shelter, but people thrive off stories. Regardless the medium — dance, theater, painting — without the arts you’re just surviving not thriving.” – Adam Kroksh, senior, performing arts
“It’s a look into the lives of other people and the similarities between us. It teaches empathy and understanding.” – Keaton Lane, sophomore, performing arts
“It’s a healthy program that creates experiences for students to remember Iowa State for the rest of their lives.” – Dean Schmittmann, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
“The chance to tell stories honestly and through a unique lens is what attracted me to the arts. The messages move me.” – Michael Clinkscales, senior, psychology