In winter 2017, halfway into her freshman year, Merideth Kirry — a direct admit to the UW’s Musical Theater Program (MTP) — received an email asking for input on her experiences in the program. The steering committee behind the MTP explained that it was undergoing an internal review to evaluate its success over its five-year pilot period.
A few months later, Kirry, along with the other students in the MTP cohort, was notified that the program was being discontinued. Kirry’s class, the class of 2020, would be guaranteed their degrees, but no new students would be admitted into the musical theater major.
“I had done a little bit of research [prior to auditioning to the program], and I knew that at the time I auditioned, it was in its pilot period,” Kirry said. “And then, when the pilot period was over, it was going to be decided whether to continue to build the major, or add resources ... but I was just an incoming freshman, and I didn't really know anything behind it. They don’t put everything out there.”
The news that the MTP was being “sunset,” to use the drama department’s term, was a shock to the students and faculty involved with it. Shortly following the announcement, the MTP experienced several seismic staffing changes, which unsettled the students even more.
Firstly, Wilson Mendieta, the founder and program director of the MTP, announced that he would be leaving to take a job at Chapman University in California. His husband, Steven Sofia, who facilitated most of the dance classes for the program, would also be leaving the following year.
“This was his baby, and he was leaving,” Kirry said of Mendieta. “It was really disheartening.”
CaraLee Howe, another third-year student in the MTP, also expressed disappointment at this huge change.
“But it makes sense,” Howe said. “If the position’s going under, it’s not a very viable career option, and I totally respect the decisions that everyone have made. It’s just kind of hard on the students because of the lack of commitment to us.”
Following Mendieta’s departure, the musical theater students were without an adviser for “a good part of the 2017–2018 school year,” according to Kirry. Then, the steering committee brought on Shanna Waite. Waite served officially as program director and unofficially as a community networking advocate for the musical theater students.
Kirry described Waite as being fantastically dedicated to the students for the brief time she served as program director. But at the end of fall quarter 2018, Waite resigned, citing difficulties with the administration.
“[Waite] essentially said, ‘I am not being allowed to do anything for you,’” Kirry said. “That was the most devastating thing for us as a cohort.”
The position of program director then experienced more shuffling as the steering committee appointed a doctoral student (who has since graduated) to serve in the interim, and it has now been taken over by Jennifer Rodgers, another doctoral student.
Both Kirry and Howe emphasized the fact that the closure of the program itself was not the biggest issue they’d experienced in pursuing their degrees — after all, they knew when they auditioned that it would be a pilot program. They were most deeply affected by the chaos the program was plunged into after its impending end was announced.
“The biggest problem we've seen is a huge amount of faculty turnover,” Howe said.
Eloise Boyle, a drama adviser here at the UW, has taken over the role of advising for the 19 students who remain in the musical theater cohort. While she assumed the position long after students were informed of the program’s closure, she still deals with its effects.
“Students are obviously disappointed that the program got the decision to not be continued,” Boyle said. “But they’ve been so resilient in the face of everything.”
Boyle’s statements are echoed by Catherine Cole, the divisional dean of the arts, who was involved in the decision to sunset the MTP.
“The final outcome of the review has been understandably disappointing to students enrolled in the program as well as to donors who contributed generously to make the pilot program possible, and also to faculty leaders who have devoted so much energy and ingenuity to the pilot,” Cole said via email. “That said, everyone understands the need to have programs that are sustainable and that can offer all the resources genuinely needed to achieve and maintain academic excellence.”
Howe also has a generally positive outlook on her experience in the MTP, despite its challenges.
“It has taught me resilience, and I think that’s something I’m really going to need as an artist,” Howe said. “And because the program is closing, it has led to the community really kind of embracing us ... we’ve developed wonderful, wonderful partners in the community, at the 5th Avenue [Theatre], and different organizations.”
It’s important to recognize that UW students still have opportunities to pursue music and drama, despite the closure of the official musical theater program. But MTP students, in the program’s waning days, are mourning the loss of its community. With only 19 members, the cohort of musical theater students has grown close and undergone similar struggles together. The small size also allowed the program to focus on individual students and their strengths and interests.
However, the program’s small size and individualized nature ultimately contributed to its demise. The MTP never had its own department — instead, it was housed under the moniker of “Individualized Studies,” in limbo between the Schools of Drama, Music, and Dance.
“It is not adequate to simply have a ‘collage’ of disparate courses from dance, music, and drama respectively,” Dean Cole explained via email. “Musical theatre is a discrete discipline located at the fusion of these fields, and it is for this reason that musical theatre programs ... are generally quite expensive to run.”
The university was not up to funding this expensive program, concluded the committee that reviewed the MTP’s pilot years.
“The review process was both broad and deep, including extensive surveys and in-person interviews with students, faculty, and staff directly involved with the program, while also drawing upon external expertise from outside UW,” Dean Cole said. “Their ultimate finding was that, despite the best efforts of key faculty and staff, the Musical Theater Program was not sustainable in its current form.”
Howe and Kirry are frustrated with the closure of this intimate, exploratory program, which was relatively unique among public universities. While they understand the financial constraints involved, the final decision also feels symptomatic of a university-wide and country-wide devaluing of the arts.
“It's a part of the Seattle theater scene that's dying,” Kirry said. “And we're bummed out about it. People take pride in the theater community here, and we’re losing a little facet of that. But I really do think that the bigger issue now is that we expected the same caliber of education, and work, and resources, and commitment [as other majors] ... We are paying for the exact same education that everyone else here is. And we are not being met with the same support.”
For her part, Howe is grateful to the university for the experience it provided with the MTP, but she’s still frustrated about its closure and the leadership whiplash it has undergone in the past few years.
“It's been a real rollercoaster,” Howe said. “A rollercoaster I'm glad I got on, but a real rollercoaster ... and I thought I was getting on the carousel.”
The number of students involved in the MTP cohort may seem small compared to other disciplines at the UW. But this decision still shuts down the hopes of many prospective UW students who, like Kirry and Howe, admired the university for its trailblazing musical theater program. It represents an entire, distinct artistic discipline that students can no longer pursue at this university — and the fact that no one is talking about it, Howe said, indicates a campus culture that needs to shift.
“Anybody reading this should think about the places in which the arts have been important, and put a little more stock in them,” Howe said.
As Kirry pointed out, the impacts of art on daily life are impossible to escape and should not be overlooked.
“Anyone who ever watches movies, listens to music, dances to music, intakes any sort of entertainment media — all of that media is artists. All of that content is trained artists who work just as hard as computer science majors — in different ways, but just as hard,” Kirry said. “This program is producing artists. And it would continue to produce artists. And the world as a whole won't be as enriched as it currently is without that art, without that culture.”
Reach writer McKenzie Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @merqto