A Collaborative Approach to Theatre Education

Nancy Blankfard, AIA, LEED AP BD+C


A few weeks ago, I attended the National Association of Schools of Theatre Conference in Chicago.  While the view of Studio Gang's Aqua Tower and Millennium Park beyond was inspiring, the conversations at the conference kept me inside.

The conference was framed by a keynote presentation by Polly Carl (yes, HGA Design Principal Tim Carl's sister) of Emerson College. She spoke about the Theater Commons she created in HowlRound.  And what is a Commons?  It's a place where every member of an ensemble has something to offer--where a production becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. I think this Commons concept speaks directly to the way we practice architecture at HGA. Our team approach to projects is in direct alignment with the way theatre professionals practice their craft. 

So what are theatre faculty members concerned about and how can we as architects and theatre designers help solve those issues? Here are three topics that should influence our work over the next year: 

  • Theatre faculty members want to create multi-dimensional students. Sitting around waiting to be cast is no way to prepare students for a thriving career. Students need to be versed in entrepreneurial skills. They need to be able to write, act and produce their ideas and find opportunities to tell their story. The spaces we design also must possess this multi-dimensionality. Like students, our spaces must adapt, evolve and change so our clients are prepared for the future of theatre education.
  • Both faculty and the curriculum they create need to prove their relevancy. They need an argument when parents ask them, "What will my child be able to do after four years of this training--at this expense?" The critical question is, "Does arts education matter today?" And the answer is a resounding yes. Creative problem-solving, unique communication skills and meaningful story telling that brings community together can solve the complex problems of the 21st century. Spaces that foster dialogue, put the arts on display, and inspire confidence and personal voice are required for the new creative economy. Universities should be investing in facilities that welcome the creative energy often found in theatre arts spaces.
  • Surprising things happen when you think about abundance rather than scarcity. Faculty members increasingly are being asked to come out of their silos, share resources, and collaborate in meaningful ways with other departments. Opportunities are endless when you approach these mandates with an open mind rather than clinging to existing turf. In our work as architects, we often need to reduce project scope to meet budgets. By collaborating with our clients to find synergies with other resources on campus, we serve the greater good of students and the University.

These are issues that zero in on the higher purpose of theatre education in today's economy. By addressing these and other issues, architects can elevate the quality of our work, remain highly relevant, and create innovative solutions for our clients. 

P.S. Here are two innovative companies I saw or heard about in Chicago. Check them out: