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UNCW: Building a Theatre Department

For years, UNC-Wilmington was known for its marine biology department. Now the school is looking to build its reputation in a very different field - the arts. WHQR's Megan Williams has a look at the school's evolving theatre program.

By Megan V. Williams


Wilmington, NC, January 18, 2006 – Here's a hint: if anyone at UNCW tells you to meet them at a construction site, be sure to ask which construction site. The campus is full of them right now, from the new student union, to a computer science facility. But the grandest of the hard-hat zones has to be the new Cultural Arts building. It's months away from being finished, but already Paul Castagno, the theatre program's new director, enjoys ducking under its skeleton of metal beams to show off his future domain.

He gestures among the girders and left-over rain puddles: "this will be the green room, which will be a place where the students and so on can hang out. It'll be like the first time they have a kind of gathering place, you know?"

Castagno joined the faculty last summer. He says the new building, and the commitment it represents, are what lured him to UNCW. This is a crucial moment for the theatre program. Until this year it was under the umbrella of the art department. But now, it's on track to become a department in its own right.

"Obviously with that new building, it's kind of a foundational moment," he says. "It's not just a selling point it's a real anchor for the arts in the University. It's rare that you see this kind of thing, people wait their lifetimes for the new arts building and it never comes."

Castagno attributes the change to two factors: chancellor Rosemary DePaolo's emphasis on the school's arts programs, and a seven-million dollar increase in annual funding signed by the governor last summer. But according to Sara Lipka, who covers arts issues for the Chronicle of Higher Education, future students aren't the only audience UNCW may be courting with this new building.

"The capacity for fundraising I think is also something that comes into consideration... You can invite donors to colorful performances and they might think that's really exciting, they might see the university as a livelier place because of that. It's great to shmooze the potential donors at a post-performance reception."

Lipka's seen a flurry of new arts buildings go up on colleges nationwide in the past few years. It's a tangible element of the 'creative campus,' an idea born at a conference in New York several years ago. Proponents argue that universities need to more actively support the arts in society. Good facilities attract high-profile artists-in-residence, and driven students who may some day reflect glory back on their institution.

But even attracting those students may be an uphill battle, to judge from the honors drama class at New Hanover county's Laney High School. The students laughingly repeat went through their heads when asked to give their views on UNCW's theatre program: "There's a theatre program? What?" "You mean they're getting one?"

For these seniors, all of whom intend to major in theatre, UNC-Wilmington isn't on the map. When asked about in-state schools, they name UNC-Asheville and the North Carolina School of the Arts. Senior Brandy Poland explains: "My thing with UNCW is that, even a beginning program, no matter what beginning program it is, no matter where you are, it's not going to be as good as something that's been established, that's been worked on for years and year and years."

Professor Castagno is trying to tackle the program's low profile. In the fall, he put out a recruitment brochure, and down the road, hopes UNCW will become a presence at the regional theatre conferences where other programs seek out their top students. The goal is to develop a reputation on par with the school's film studies and creative writing departments. The latter was recently described as a 'rising star' by the head of the prestigious Iowa's Writers Workshop. And enrollment in both has surged recently

"In both cases, those are somewhat unique programs, in that you don't find them at just any university." David Cordle is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. When it comes to the theatre program, he says the new building may make all the difference. "We see an enormous potential for arts to be something we're known for across all the board in all of our arts programs. We see that happening already. I think skies the limit."
But now the school has built it's facility, it must wait, to see if students like Brandy Poland will arrive to realize those ambitions.

Megan Williams, WHQR News