Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
The new school year will bring an increase in the number of tertiary-education options available in the performing arts.
Over the last several years, degree programmes in music, dance and drama have come on stream at the Edna Manley College (EMC) of the Visual and Performing Arts. Now, beginning with the 2013 academic year, Excelsior Community College (ECC) will offer an integrated performing arts degree including all three disciplines. It is the bachelor of fine arts (BFA) in the performing arts, a four-year programme.
In the first two years, students will take equally balanced courses in music, dance and drama.
Successful students who wish to leave after two years can do so with an associate degree in performing arts. Continuing participants will specialise in one of the disciplines, graduating after two more years with a major in the chosen field.
Kenny Salmon recently told me that auditions for the first batch of students were scheduled to be held this month. Salmon is head of the ECC's School of the Performing Arts (SPA), which houses the programme. He said that over the past few years, graduates from the SPA's original three-year associate degree programme have excelled in the workplace, thereby proving the validity of the integrated approach.
It has led, he said, to the scores of medals and trophies that SPA students have won in Jamaica Cultural Development Commission dance, drama and music competitions over the past decade. For much of that time, SPA got 100 per cent passes from its students sitting the CXC/CSEC theatre arts exams.
Salmon said that SPA graduates have had significant impact on theatre nationally - and even made some impact internationally. "They can be found, for example, in the LTM (Little Theatre Movement) Pantomime," he said. He mentioned that, in the last pantomime, Skoolaz no less than eight present and past SPA students were on stage, acting, singing and dancing.
He might have added that both the show's director, Bobby Clarke (then directing his 11th pantomime) and the choreographer, National Dance Theatre Company principal dancer Patrick Earle, teach courses at the SPA. Other LTM shows, including the most recent one, Freedom Song, have featured SPA students.
"Our graduates are flexible," Salmon boasted, "and some are involved in roots plays while others are performing in mainstream theatre."
Salmon also said that graduates are to be found in schools as performing arts teachers, and in the hotel industry and the music industry. Some have gone on to gain degrees at universities in Jamaica and abroad.
Continuing to look overseas, Salmon added, "One graduate is now a cast member of The Lion King in Germany. And the well-known actor, television dance show judge and choreographer Orville Hall, one of our distinguished graduates, is travelling internationally doing lectures in universities and studios on Jamaican dancehall".
Jamaicans love musical theatre, where dance, drama and music come together. Performers have been getting on-the-job training in those disciplines for at least 100 years.
Ward Theatre's inaugural production in 1912 was a musical, Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. Staged by a local group, the Amateur Dramatic Club, it had a cast of more than 50 and a 17-piece orchestra.
Training since 1941
Since 1941, the LTM has been training performers, at first informally but in recent years quite formally with the establishment of the Pantomime Company by LTM chair Barbara Gloudon. Since 1960, the Jamaica Amateur Operatic Society (now the Jamaica Musical Theatre Company (JMTC) has done its share of training. And since 1984, for children from as young as six years old, training has come from the JMTC's junior arm, the Jamaica Junior Theatre.
Despite past successes, Salmon believes the time has come for formal, higher level training. "We believe that we need to create an advanced programme that allows students who have completed this (two-year) integrated performing arts programme to matriculate to higher-level specialised study," he said.
The document detailing the programme's philosophy and purpose further explains the thinking behind its conception.
It is based on a belief that the performing arts are an "integral component of all cultures" and that education in the discipline is not supplemental, but fundamental to students' "intellectual, aesthetic, and personal growth and development". It also holds the view that the integrated approach to performance is typically Caribbean.
With a nod to the Government's Vision 2030, the programme "fosters socially cohesive values and attitudes, encouraging the participation of the graduate in making their society a 'place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business'".
That the vision of the programme extends beyond the walls of the college is shown by this statement: "Our students have the option of moving on to further studies and/or immediately integrating into the creative industries, which have tremendous growth potential that can significantly impact both individual wealth and national economic development."
Over the four-year, seven-semester programme, students take between five and six courses each semester. These include core courses like mathematics and communication and several levels of dance, drama and music courses. There are also support courses like critical thinking, Caribbean culture, ethics, information technology, screenwriting, aesthetics, creativity, and Caribbean culture.
Applicants for the BFA must have five passes in CSEC or GCE subjects, including English Language, or the equivalent, and must also do well in the audition. Mature applicants without the passes may also be considered.
The philosophy document ends with a list of jobs and career options for graduates. They include entertainment coordinators, pre-trained teachers, entertainment managers, actors, television presenters, musicians, dancers, directors, choreographers, drama coaches, stage managers, set designers, playwrights, screenwriters, and producers.