College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Theatre Arts Program Prepares Students Well

Besides teaching students the art of acting, dancing and designing, the theatre arts faculty at The University of Mississippi takes on the responsibility of helping students find work after they graduate.

“Every fall, we have an informal meeting with the rising seniors called ‘Jeez O’ Peet: I’m about to graduate, and I don’t know what I’m doing with my life,’” said Rhona Justice-Malloy, chair and professor of theatre arts.

In May, faculty and select seniors travel to New York, where the recent graduates benefit from the department’s strong relationship with alumni, and join students and faculty from Western Kentucky University for an event dubbed “Showcase in New York.”

“Students prepare songs, monologues and scenes. We rent a space and invite casting members and agents to see [the students] perform, give them feedback and establish a relationship with students,” Justice-Malloy said.

“I really learned a great deal about the auditioning experience and got great feedback from casting directors and other theatre professionals,” said Pep Speed, who attended the Showcase in 2008, received his B.F.A. in musical theatre in 2009 and is now living in New York City, pursuing theatre roles. “Thanks to the Showcase, I’ve been able to walk into auditions and already know some of the people sitting behind the tables.

“The thing is, you have to love what you do and love this city to live in New York and try to be an actor. It’s all an uphill climb, and nobody’s going to give you any breaks. If you’re willing to make the uphill climb, then there’s no other place to be. A lot of what the Ole Miss theatre department taught me is never stop challenging yourself.”

Justice-Malloy said that design students are placed into first-rate internships and jobs because the UM design faculty is well-respected for its work in such renowned theatres as the Santa Fe Opera and Alliance Theatre in Atlanta.

“The fact that they work consistently attests to their abilities,” she said. “In our world, if you don’t do well, you don’t get hired back.”

Carey Hanson, associate professor of theatre, is one of those professionals. The costume designer has helped place her students into internships or jobs at such professional theatres as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Utah Shakespeare Festival, Santa Fe Opera (where she works most summers) and Stagedoor Manor in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Some of her students have gone on to schools such as the North Carolina School of the Arts.

“It’s my job to make sure students have jobs when they graduate,” Hanson said. “We’re training them to be able to work professionally. A lot of my students eventually want to go on to graduate school, but it’s really important for them to get professional experience first.” That’s why, she said, “I network aggressively.”

The B.F.A. in theatre arts degree offers students a choice from emphases in acting, design/theatre production and musical theatre. Within the design emphasis, students work on costume design and technology, makeup, sound and lighting design and scenic design. Hanson teaches costume design and makeup and gives her students some practical advice as well.

“You have to be pleasant to work with at all times. You need to be a hard worker, dependable and committed. You’re sometimes working 12-hour days. Those are the things you have to do in order to be successful. You have to check your ego in at the door,” she said.

Anna Knight’s preparation through the theatre arts program paid off with her acceptance to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles.

“After the theatre department taught me skills in costume design, I felt ready to apply for a competitive position in the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. So I prepared a portfolio, applied and went to visit the school over spring break, which is when I got accepted,” said Knight, an Oxford native who majored in theatre arts with an emphasis in costume design.

Knight said she has learned such skills as sewing, drawing, hat and mask making, corsetry, fabric dyeing and batiking, as well as working with a team of people, meeting deadlines, budgeting, preparing a resume, handling interviews professionally, and dealing with stress and pressure.  She was a designer for several theatre department productions, including head designer for the play “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress.” She said Hanson never let her give up even when she was in tears, and that Hanson and Andi Bedsworth, UM instructor in theatre and costume shop manager, were her mentors.

“I think one great things about the costume design program is that Carey and Andi often have to tell the student designers to go home and get some sleep, which I feel really says something about how great they are [as professors] that we would want to push ourselves that hard.”