New musical theater degree shines spotlight on the triple threat
With a prestigious annual jazz festival, an award-winning publisher, and a permanent collection of artwork, the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of the Arts has been an important player in Northern Nevada’s arts and culture scene.
But now it’s gaining prominence on the national stage, thanks to a recently completed $4 million renovation of the Church Fine Arts building, an appearance at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival and a new dance major launched last year. And this fall, a new set of faculty will be hard at work establishing the Silver State’s first four-year degree program in musical theater.
“The Department of Theatre and Dance is in this great transformative moment,” said Gavin Mayer, the department’s new assistant professor of theater who will direct the new Bachelor of Arts program in Musical Theatre.
Originally from Colorado, Mayer is an award-winning professional theater director who was resident director at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, founding co-artistic director for the Historic Elitch Theatre New Works Festival, an adjunct theater faculty at the University of Northern Colorado and a high school drama teacher. His work in both musical theater and curriculum development earned him this UNR position in 2017.
“We have a great musical theater voice person, CJ Greer, and in dance, we have Nate Hodges. It’ll be housed with theater, but the bachelor of arts in musical theatre will be an interdisciplinary degree with theater, dance and music,” Mayer explained. “Last year was about getting the pieces in place. This year, we’ll finish designing the curriculum and hopefully have Board of Regents approval by fall 2019.”
Mayer explained that the four-year, 120-credit, eight-semester major will encompass voice, piano, music theory, acting, musical theater acting, musical theater history, audition technique, ballet, modern dance and musical theater dance courses. Though it’s not an official degree yet, students can enroll in courses that will be part of that curriculum, which will apply toward the degree once it’s approved.
“Our goal is to be a pre-professional musical theater program,” Mayer said. “It’s basically a triple major, because those people who do it professionally have to be well-rounded performers, with excellent voices, acting skills and dance ability. We’re building the skill set they need to go to New York, which is really the epicenter of musical theater. … They’re getting a lot thrown at them, but it’s vital to understand how to incorporate that training into any genre of show, from Golden Age to contemporary. So they can walk into any style of show and be able to perform.”
Greer brings nearly two decades of experience to her position as assistant professor of music and vocal director for Musical Theatre. Her work spans everything from theme parks and cruise ships to regional tours and Broadway. She holds an MFA in musical theatre vocal pedagogy and an master’s of music in Classical Performance/Pedagogy from Pennsylvania State University. Her breadth of formal training and professional experience hint at what she intends to bring to the UNR program.
“As a voice teacher and professional vocalist, the idea of crossover training is really important to me,” Greer said. “I really believe singers should have good, classic foundations and a lot of variety in their training.”
Greer will provide individual and group voice coaching at the freshman level, as well as with seniors in the integration of styles and skills for performances. She explained that the current plan is to produce one musical each spring, though she will actively push to add a second, and the team hopes to eventually push the degree beyond a BA to make it a Bachelor of Fine Arts.
Nate Hodges brings experience to his role as UNR’s new jazz lecturer in the Department of Dance and dance specialist for Musical Theatre. His background includes founding professional dance company RhetOracle in Southern California, building a new dance department at Santa Monica High School and years of stage and commercial dance performance and choreography.
Hodges believes it’s a rare opportunity to find not only a full-time jazz teaching position but also a position that involves creating a new program.
“One of the things I’m really excited about is starting the program from the ground up, setting up the infrastructure and culture—that appeals to me, being part of that collaborative experience,” Hodges said. “This is really the first team UNR has created this way, and it’s a great step toward really having a cohesive art department in general.”
Hodges admires the way in which UNR’s theater faculty have mixed the conventional and unconventional—for example, setting last spring’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night on the Black Rock playa. “I’m excited about finding ways that dance can help tell some stories in unconventional ways, and I want to hone in on new ways for dance to push a story along.”
Both Greer and Hodges noted the emphasis on collaboration, progressive attitude and young, open-minded faculty in the Department of Theatre and Dance as important draws to the new program. Mayer added that the increased programming and community engagement the Musical Theatre program will bring as valuable steps along UNR’s path toward earning the Carnegie Foundation’s highest research distinction, an R-1 ranking.
Next spring’s production of Urinetown: The Musical will serve as an unofficial kickoff to the new major, though no official production lineup for the program has been announced.
“Now we have faculty on staff, we can start talking about the details of the program roll-out,” Mayer said. “Musical theater is a collaborative art, so these decisions need to be made together. We’re excited about Urinetown, a musical satire about corporate greed, so it will be a great challenge, and it’s a great stepping stone to rolling out the program. I think audiences will get a kick out of it.” Ω