Looking Forward: Theatre at Interlochen Arts Academy

Over the next year, arts directors from Interlochen will share their vision for the future of their discipline at the Arts Academy. This is the first of the series and will focus on the future of the theatre program. William Church is the Director of Theatre at Interlochen Center for the Arts, the Director of Comparative Arts at Interlochen Arts Academy, and serves as the Artistic Director for the Interlochen Shakespeare Festival, which he founded in 2008. He is a 1989 graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy. 

When I was a theatre major at Interlochen Arts Academy, Grunow Theatre was our only space. It was a quaint and rustic venue with low ceilings and creaky floors. As a member of the theatre community service team, one of my responsibilities was to chase the skunks and raccoons away from the building before performances. All of us loved the experience and I still reminisce about my days as a theatre student in Grunow with great fondness … but I don’t miss the skunks and raccoons.

More than two decades later, and as the new director of the theatre department, I often marvel at the changes that have taken place. As someone who left Interlochen and returned decades later, I can relate to those theatre alumni who discover the program they remember so fondly has become something that looks quite different - at first glance. With a closer look, however, alumni soon discover that today’s students and faculty are continuing the same traditions of artistry that have always been part of theatre at the Academy. With that in mind, I want to tell you about today’s theatre program and how we are striving to make the next fifty years as meaningful and significant as the decades that have passed.   

Returning alumni will quickly notice the most visible changes to the theatre department: the facilities of today are quite different from those of the late 1980s. We work in the dynamic Harvey Theatre complex, a building that exists because of a generous gift from Jim Harvey, who was on the theatre faculty at Camp from 1953 to 1987, serving many of those years as director. Jim always believed that the theatre program deserved better than Grunow, a building that has since been condemned and completely rebuilt as a summer rehearsal space. The Harvey complex features a 178-seat three-quarter thrust space with a suspension grid, top-notch scene and costume shops, multiple classroom spaces and offices. This year, the Phoenix Theatre has returned to life after a major renovation and provides the students with a large, well-equipped black box theatre and an infinite number of staging possibilities. The theatre department also utilizes Corson Auditorium every year, often filling the large auditorium for multiple performances of musical theatre productions.

Our theatre facilities are essential resources that serve to attract talented students and faculty from all over the country. Potential students often participate in strong high school, community or children’s theatre programs, many of which have excellent facilities. And once they take a closer look at the instruction that happens within our buildings, they realize that the educational and artistic experience we offer at the Academy far exceeds anything they can find at home.  

The mentorship and guidance of our faculty has a lasting impact on students. I had the privilege of studying with David Montee in his earliest years at Interlochen and still carry many valuable lessons from that experience. The faculty has grown in recent years to maintain appropriate class sizes and personal attention as we welcome more students into our expanded facilities. As the demand for our theatre program continues to grow, student skills and potential remain very high; we continue to turn students away. Anyone who has seen a recent performance will know that we continue to attract bright and talented students. With new instructors, we look for a wide range of educational and professional experiences as well as a sense of continued professionalism and dedication; these are characteristics that students and parents have come to expect from the Academy. Expectations are high that our instructors will bring new pedagogies, practices, fresh viewpoints and energy to our program. New instructors like Gulshirin Dubash, a graduate of the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre, embody the Interlochen ideals of artist mentorship. I hope to see many theatre alumni at the reunion this May, when I will have an opportunity to introduce the wonderful artists and educators on our theatre faculty.

The curriculum continues to provide a strong fundamental understanding of acting theory and practice. The core training class in theatre is Acting Technique. While each of our five acting instructors takes their own approach to teaching the class, they share a fundamental goal: providing a core technique that emphasizes inner truthfulness and the importance of the ensemble to help our young actors rigorously hone their craft.

As students acquire a foundational process to their work, we also encourage them to develop specialized skills and a deeper understanding of their art form. Many of the course titles will sound familiar to Academy theatre alumni, but we have expanded the options to include several courses in musical theatre as well as Acting for the Camera, Theatre History and even a class in World Theatre. You can see the full list of course descriptions here.

The opportunity to perform is a cornerstone of the Academy theatre experience and we are increasing the range of performance opportunities available to our students. We stage bold and innovative productions of quality material that could only be achieved at a school like Interlochen Arts Academy, and our expectations continue to grow. A typical year now includes two musicals, a Shakespeare play, a presentation of one-acts, and two other titles that range from classical to contemporary. In addition to our six-production season, students are featured in many films created by the motion picture arts majors and collaborate frequently with other disciplines.

This spring we will perform “West Side Story,” the first time this work has been performed at the Arts Academy. Fittingly, the timing coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Academy and the release of the “West Side Story” movie. It is a difficult production for the actors and musicians alike, but our students are eager for the challenge. I am looking forward to documenting this effort and sharing it with you this spring.  

The future of Theatre at Interlochen will be built on the strong foundation that has been thoughtfully constructed over the past fifty years. But the program must also evolve, embrace a wide range of techniques, build the collaborations with film, dance and music that are taking root in professional theatres across the country, and bring new ideas and energies to match the passion of our future students. We owe them the best, a commitment to unquestioned excellence, if we are to continue our tradition of preparing the next generation of theatre artists who will shape the art form in the years to come.