Arts & Life, Fine & Performing Arts

Suspended BFA and rising class sizes hit theatre arts department

For Rhiannon Lewis, attending Long Beach State was initially an easy choice.

Her presidential scholarship and admittance into the pre-bachelor of fine arts in acting program meant she could pursue her academic and artistic passions. She had been in theatre arts since she was 10 years old and could not imagine pursuing anything else.

Lewis spent her first semester taking prerequisite courses for the bachelor of fine arts program, until she was blindsided by an email that the program would no longer be active.

She had to choose between staying at LBSU, pursuing an acting degree elsewhere or dropping out altogether.

“It felt like my whole world fell apart, truly, because all I ever wanted to be was an actor,” Lewis said. “I thought that this was going to be the place where I was going to be able to do that.”

The bachelor of fine arts in acting was implemented during the 2019-20 school year and then swiftly suspended before the 2021-22 school year, according to the university’s undergraduate catalog. The sudden loss of the program, coupled with rising class sizes, left some theatre arts students frustrated and confused about the state of their department.

Department Chair Ezra LeBank joined LBSU’s staff in 2011 and rose to his current position last fall. According to LeBank, the department only offered a bachelor of arts for most of its 70-year history and encountered challenges implementing the new program amidst the pandemic.

“We had some faculty retire or get other positions and so we had to look at our resources and had to look at some concerns,” LeBank said. “The university asked us to suspend admissions to the program while we assess whether it’s something that we can effectively do.”

The department returned to offering bachelor of arts options in design and technical theatre, performance and general theatre arts.

Victoria Martins applied to the program when the bachelor of fine arts was still available, but only learned that students would no longer be able to enroll once they began the school year. Martins was drawn to the idea of a small cohort in the program, which made it difficult for them to adjust to the larger acting classes.

The average class capacity in the department has been on a gradual rise, from 27 in Fall 2019 to 32 in Fall 2023, according to university enrollment data.

For students like Martins and Jane U’Ren, these increases have proven to be a challenge.

“In an acting performance class, it’s ideal to have 10 to 15 people so that you can really get intimate with your scene work,” U’Ren said. “When you have 30 to 40 people like I’ve had, it’s really hard for the professors to really critique and give you the attention they need to.”

The university’s enrollment data also shows that 23 of the 94 theatre arts classes during the Fall 2023 semester went over the designated enrollment cap.

LeBank recognized the difference that the headcount can make on a performance-based class, but said that placing further enrollment restrictions could discourage students from continuing in the program.

“I understand the cost of the smaller class is that there is a student who is not getting to take that class, there is a student who’s maybe having to wait another year before they can finish their degree, or maybe it stalls out their progress,” LeBank said.

Tackling the issue also requires keeping the department and administration’s goals in mind, which he describes as a constant give-and-take battle.

“At the end of the day, they [university] want students to be able to graduate from this university and get the classes they need,” LeBank said. “We don’t fail to meet the metrics that we need to function as a whole institution but we want to give students the experiences that we know we need to.”

LeBank would like the department to have a greater say in future class sizes, aiming to bridge the gap between theatre arts and the administration’s decision-making processes.

Despite these challenges, Martins and U’Ren have found strong communities in the program that have allowed them to flourish as artists. Martins has built lifelong connections with their professors and grown with their guidance.

“I’m learning a lot in my classes because our professors care. They want to get to know us and want to know what we’re good at and what we’re not so they can help,” Martins said. “We’re very lucky to have that and I value them a lot.”

U’Ren has enjoyed working alongside her fellow classmates in Theatre Threshold, a student-run production company that has recently put on shows like “No” and “The Jukebox Musical.”

“It [Theatre Threshold] gives us the opportunity to make our own art and a lot of colleges don’t have that,” U’Ren said. “I’m very glad that I’ve gotten to take advantage of that.”

After the bachelor of fine arts program was suspended, Lewis spent a semester as a general theatre arts major, but was unsure if it was the right path for her. During this period, she took a small group communications studies class and decided to give a new major a shot.

Now, as a communications studies master’s student and teaching assistant, Lewis has continued to embrace her roots in the arts.

“I really fell in love with teaching and it was a way to combine my passion for performing in a way that I never knew was possible,” Lewis said.

Once she finishes her degree, Lewis hopes to continue teaching at LBSU or at a community college. Although acting was her lifelong dream, she is grateful for where life has taken her.

“If I could do a musical and perform on a stage one more time, I would almost do anything to be able to do that,” Lewis said. “At the same time, I have developed such a passion for teaching and working with my students that I still feel fulfilled in acting.”

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