Setting the Scene
When Naomi Marin ’23 was growing up in Maryland, a visit to grandma and grandpa meant going to see a show at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, where her grandmother was a volunteer usher. When Marin was about nine years old, she got the chance to go backstage before a performance of The King and I.
“I got to see all the behind-the-scenes stuff, and I thought it was really cool,” Marin said. “So, when our theater teacher made an announcement my freshman year in high school about working in the theater, I went and joined the sound crew.”
Today, Marin is one of two arts students who graduated with a self-initiated major, or SIM, this May. Though Marin and the other student, Emily Bradigan ’23, graduated with a theater design and technology major, they are in fact the forerunners of a brand new arts major at Ursinus called performing and visual arts design and technology (PVDT) that will be offered this fall.
Meghan Brodie ’00, associate professor and chair of theater and dance, traces the origins of the PVDT major to a scheduled external review by a group of academics in theater and dance from other institutions who recommended that Ursinus hire a design and technology faculty member for the department.
“They affirmed our suspicion that we needed this position to round out and ensure the integrity of the theater education we were offering,” Brodie said. “They didn’t necessarily think we needed a new major, but after we hired Shannon Zura, our design and technology professor, it soon became apparent that it was an opportunity waiting to be seized.”
Zura, a professional lighting, sound, scenic, and projection designer with extensive teaching credentials, is the new PVDT coordinator as well as an associate professor of theater and dance.
“We have five more students who intend to declare the PVDT major as soon as it hits the catalog this summer,” Brodie added, “and we have had prospective students learn about the new major who are now considering Ursinus because of this option.”
There are currently 28 theater majors and 16 dance majors—the most the department has ever had. “And the overwhelming majority of our theater majors are double majors in theater and another discipline, which they can very easily do—without spending any additional money—in four years at Ursinus,” Brodie said. “So, the students will be able to take advantage of a lot of opportunities with this new major.”
The PVDT major is also designed to encourage cross-pollination within and between disciplines at Ursinus, leading to productive partnerships with many other departments and programs at the college including art, media and communication studies, music, museum studies, and film studies.
“The new major requires students to take drawing or painting in art,” Brodie said. “We also have new media and digital filmmaking classes, among others, over in media and communication studies, as well as music technology courses to help broaden the scope of the major.”
The theater and dance department also has its own scene shop in the Kaleidoscope, where students can learn from technical director Meghan Jones, who is also a professional scenic designer as well as the department’s production manager.
“Students can work in her shop as a part of a stagecraft class, but also for pay as work/study students,” Brodie said. “So, they have real hands-on experience building sets that have been professionally designed, and they’re acquiring heaps of different skills.”
The Kaleidoscope also has a performing arts engineer who works as the master electrician and audio engineer for theater and dance productions. Students who work with the engineer get experience with things like hanging and focusing lights for stage productions.
“I feel like it’s a little bit like window shopping,” Brodie said. “You can experience countless areas of design and technology and see what excites you. There are built-in opportunities for students, depending on what’s calling to them.”
That kind of interdisciplinarity has been important for Bradigan, who has had a passion for both fine art and theater all through high school.
“I did a little bit of everything during my high school career,” Bradigan said. “I acted in every show, did all the set painting for productions—I was just someone who ended up doing a lot of different things while involved in theater.”
While pursuing her SIM, Bradigan has been able to participate in nearly every aspect of theater production at Ursinus. In addition to courses in lighting, sound, and scenic design, Bradigan’s been a part of the wardrobe crew, helped build sets, worked with electrics, and appeared in roles in Pride and Prejudice and Kissing the Witch.
“I was given so many opportunities at Ursinus to round myself out and learn as many different aspects of theater that I can,” Bradigan said.
After graduation, Bradigan hopes to leverage her major into a career as a scenic designer, so she can incorporate her twin loves of theater and painting.
Marin, who wants to pursue a career as a stage manager, said that her SIM in theater design and technology has taught her the importance of every aspect of theater production, from the musicians in the orchestra pit to the lighting and sound board operators. “There are a lot of moving parts in a production that make it look amazing for an audience,” Marin said. “The role each person has and how important it is that every single person works together—from the designer to a director to the actor—is really emphasized here at Ursinus.”
Professors Brodie and Zura believe that the formative experiences Bradigan and Marin have had are possible because the new major epitomizes the possibilities of a liberal arts education.
“Oftentimes, when you get too narrow, you remove the critical thinking component of learning something,” Zura said. “I do believe that our students walk away with strong critical thinking skills that translate to a variety of things, not just in terms of a career, but life.”
For example, both Zura and Brodie note that a proper liberal arts education like the one at Ursinus encourages students to approach a field like theater design and technology with a consideration for important related goals like sustainability, inclusion, and equity.
“I’m very proud of the manner in which our students approach what they’re learning with those values in mind,” Brodie said. “What I’m most proud of are the communities we’re creating among the students who are involved in production work within the major, so that they have a microcosm for what an inclusive professional community looks like.”
Bradigan also points out that a unique benefit of a Bachelor of Arts degree is that students don’t have to have just one focus. Bradigan loves the fact that a B.A., as opposed to a B.F.A. (Bachelor of Fine Arts), is a much more expansive way of looking at what might resonate for a student, and how that might translate into a fulfilling profession.
“In a lot of B.F.A. programs you can only stay in one track—if you’re going to do acting, you can only do acting,” Bradigan said. “But with a liberal arts education like Ursinus, we have so many opportunities to do different things within the theater world, and beyond.”
Zura, who has arranged for two Ursinus students, Caitlin Shanahan ’26 and Joey Nolan ’24, to work behind the scenes on a professional production at InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia, routinely mentors students and encourages them to take advantage of opportunities both at Ursinus and in the professional community. With global media and entertainment being a sprawling, trillion-dollar industry, the career possibilities are virtually endless. The PVDT major will allow students to explore and prepare for careers not just in theater, but anything from managing the lighting for arena-sized music concerts to sound mixing and editing in Hollywood studios.
“But our goal is not just to produce students who are going to make a certain amount of money,” Brodie said. “Our goal is to produce students who find fulfillment in a career and have the skills they need to make decisions when their career goals shift so they’re able to navigate that in ways that are less scary and more rewarding.”