They take well-deserved bows on stage, build fanciful costumes and hit magnificently high notes. Baldwin Wallace (BW) University’s performing arts students in music theater, acting, theater and dance and voice performance excel in their school’s productions. They are already part of Northeast Ohio’s professional cultural arts scene, and they are making quite an impression.
Not every collegiate music theater arts program can say it “changed the face of Broadway.” But according to Victoria Bussert, director of BW’s music theater program, that’s exactly what BW has done. Bussert points to some of the school’s graduates, including the late Kyle Jean-Baptist, who was the “first Black and youngest actor (at 21) to play Jean Valjean in Les Miserables on Broadway, and Ciara Renee as Broadway’s first Black Elsa in Frozen.
“When children see themselves represented on stage, they know change is possible,” says Bussert. “Forty-three percent of students in our music theater program are young artists of color.”
Bussert can recite a long list of other successful alumni who are performing on Broadway, as well as with national tours and theater companies across the country.
Learning critical theater skills on and off stage is vital to student success. BW’s curriculum includes more than 25 courses, from script analysis and makeup for the stage to ballet bootcamp and audition technique. At BW, students hone their natural talents and love of theater in a scholastic environment.
Bussert says “there’s also something about that 20-minute ride from Berea to Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood, for example, that is wonderful and transforms these students.”
BW’s winter production is produced by Beck Center, a chance for students to experience a longer stage run than would be financially possible.
“If we did not have those relationships with Beck Center, Great Lakes Theater and Playhouse Square, we would not see our students graduating and immediately getting national tours or being on Broadway,” says Bussert.
BW’s spring musical production is possible because of its 15-year partnership with Playhouse Square. Instead of “making a giant leap from school to the professional world,” Bussert recognizes the “build-in steps” that working with the country’s second-largest performing arts center in the U.S. provides students.
One of the most recent seasonal collaborations enjoyed by BW’s music theater program has been the chance to be part of the Cleveland Orchestra. This fall’s production with the Akron Symphony Orchestra of The Sound of Music featured 40 BW students, including freshman, who filled almost every role.
This is the music theater program’s second partnership with the Cleveland Orchestra, the first being the production of South Pacific: In Concert prior to the COVID-19 shutdown. Additional performing partners have included Great Lakes Theater, as well as Cain Park, Nighttown and Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights.
Voice and Opera
BW’s undergraduate-only conservatory provides extraordinary opportunities that voice performance majors may not find at other universities that also serve graduate students. Undergrads in those environments find themselves at a disadvantage for roles in productions and meet stiff competition from higher level students.
Graduate students may be more experienced or developed, but not necessarily more talented, according to Scott Skiba, director of opera studies, Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music.
That graduate student advantage is never the case at BW, where voice and opera students often find themselves cast in top-notch roles and productions even as freshmen.
“With opera, it takes longer for the voice to develop,” says Skiba. “These students are not like first-year music theater students who are probably about four years away from being a professional on a national tour or on Broadway.”
BW is ahead of many other educational institutions for voice and opera students, and not just because they get a generous amount of stage time in four years. It’s also “where” they get it.
With three very different kinds of main stage productions per year, students get an incredible, unique, professional experience. Skiba directs two of the performances, and the third is under the guidance of a guest director. The fall opera is produced in partnership with Playhouse Square, giving students vital off-campus experience and the chance to work in a nationally acclaimed theater complex.
“Opera tells stories about what happens between people, not what happened 100 years ago,” explains Skiba.
Bringing opera to a wider audience is a mission for Skiba, who continually eyes intriguing off-campus and out-of-theater environments. His students have performed on the grand staircase in the historic Arcade Cleveland, built in 1890 and connecting Euclid and Superior avenues. BW has also collaborated with the Music Box Supper Club on the West Bank of the Flats and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, both in Cleveland.
“One way to keep opera alive is to realize we always need diversity in people creating it,” says Skiba.
He says “people who say they don’t like opera often have never seen it.” But BW’s connections with professional companies, other entertainment venues and nontraditional spaces help make opera more accessible and appreciated.
Acting, Theater and Dance
One student who graduated a few years ago from the school’s acting, theater and dance program was a talented costume designer. After college, she established a business building corsets and has since become well-known and in-demand for her work with the classic undergarment and its modern versions.
“We periodically ask her to come back because we do shows that need corsets, especially for period costumes,” says Jeff Herrmann, chair, department of theater and dance. “Not all of our students leave us and go directly into theater. But they learn a variety of skills, including carpentry, the ability to stand in front of an audience and to present themselves professionally.”
BW offers five educational tracks for its acting, theater and dance students, which provide a focus and more professional opportunities throughout students’ college careers. Tracks include bachelor’s degrees in acting and directing; tech and design (which includes costume design, lighting, scene design and technical direction; stage management; movement; and acting.)
Students also are encouraged to explore theater-related classes that might not be their first interest, making them more attractive to future employers. Herrmann says a student interested in acting should know how to talk to a scene or lighting designer.
“Directors are responsible for creating a unified vision for productions, and students with this interest should take a class in design. What does their production look like in terms of colors or textures?” he asks. “Or, if an actor has to wear a corset, they should know how a corset is made, how it shapes your body and how it allows you to move on stage in ways you normally wouldn’t in our time period.”
The auxiliary knowledge and skills that BW acting, theater and dance students receive help set them apart from others in an audition or when they are vying for a job.
“Professional companies love us,” Herrmann says. “BW has a such a great reputation in this community. Other companies look to our students for employees.
Great Lakes Theater’s School Residency Program has hired many BW grads as full-time, paid actor-teachers. The experience is a stepping stone for many graduates.
“I was the scene and lighting designer for Lizzie the Musical at Beck this year. I had a scene design assistant on that production with me. She helped with scenery and props and met many people in the area’s theater community,” adds Herrmann. “Whenever possible, our faculty always takes along a student as an assistant. One of our faculty members teaches stage combat and has worked with the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival. BW students were cast in productions he has directed.”