UMB Department of Performing Arts Gets Its Act Together

Carl Brooks

Heralding the return of short-shorts weather with an ambitious weekend performance of “Romeo and Juliet,” the recently consolidated Department of Performing Arts: Music, Theatre, Dance is making a strong showing eight months after its creation.

The department, chaired by Dr. Jon Mitchell, was shoveled together from disparate elements in August 2002, combining the Music Department, the McCormack Theatre Group and the Dance Program into an uber-department, occupying spiffy third-floor offices in the McCormack building. The aim was to make the diverse performing arts crowd at UMass work together, and doubtless to reduce administrative headaches by interring all those difficult artistic types under one departmental roof.

To catch up on the state of the arts at UMass, we spoke with Dr. John Conlon, Associate Chair of the new department and the Director of Theatre Programs. Comfortably dressed in regulation black and seemingly at ease in his cozy office, Conlon was more than happy to discuss the situation. “The new department… is fine. This way, we all get to talk to each other,” he said, referring to the corridor of offices that makes up the new group. Generally positive about the merger, Conlon discussed the direction that the department aims to take: “We want to get bigger and get our students out there. We are incredibly involved in the Boston theater arts community.”

UMass Boston is not famous for its theatre art; indeed, it’s a banner day if our hard-working crowd looks up from their books to notice the spring sunshine, let alone a budding actress or a thoughtful adaptation of a classic work of stagecraft. However, the UMass Department of Performing Arts boasts hundreds of students, 98 declared performing arts majors, and 7 professors, many of whom enjoy a cozy working relationship with the real world. “We even have a capstone course,” explains Conlon, “we just tell them, ‘Go do something!'”

The department has a close relationship with several outside groups, including the Boston Directors Lab, a non-profit theater group that shepherds aspiring directors into putting on a their very own show. The BDL signs up fresh young talent, charges a minimal fee for a semester and provides space, materials and help for the bright-eyed youngsters to stage their very own play.

Another event with close ties to the Department of Performing Arts is the Nantucket Film Festival. The NFF hikes up its swim trunks from June 19-22 and features local and indie film screenings and discussion panels. Now in its eighth year, the Festival is boosted by UMass Boston, which provides student volunteers to staff the event and help with PR and logistics.

Local acting upstart the Theatre Cooperative, in Somerville, is also a UMass Boston project, founded six years ago by a passel of UMass alums, including director Brendan Hughes. Hughes is currently at Yale and the Theatre Cooperative is still trucking, putting on an ambitious Gore Vidal this summer.

Taking it on the road, Professor Conlon was an event official and actor’s coach for the recent Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. A pack of UMB students attended the KCACT Festival, competing for the prestigious and lucrative Irene Kelly scholarship.

Conlon also points out that there is a swinging door between UMass and the real theater world: “Our professors are completely real world… they are intimately connected to the Boston theater world… We have several new prospects I am very excited about.”

Conlon also discussed the lineup for McCormack Theatre for the remainder of spring, now that Romeo and Juliet are all done smooching. The Boston Children’s Theater is putting on “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” from April 5-27. The strolling UMass players return in May with “Twelfth Night,” another Shakespeare rib-tickler, and the semester will cap off with a dance recital.