By Kyle Elphick
In 2017, theater is a major part of student life at the College. Hundreds participate in groups like TCNJ Musical Theatre, All College Theatre and Lyric Theatre to get their theatrical fix.
Up until the 1990s, theater was more than an extracurricular at Trenton State College. Back then, you could major in it.
A university known for education, business and engineering once hosted a thriving theater department. It featured four full-time professors — including Terry Byrne, a current communication studies associate professor — a host of theater arts specific courses and required performances of musicals and plays.
It began in the mid 1960s. For the first time in its history, then Trenton State College produced its first graduates with four year degrees in theater. The department was operated out of the theater and communication studies department, a predecessor of the College’s School of Arts and Communications
“It was a true liberal arts theater degree,” said Kay Potucek, an adjunct professor who taught some of the major’s classes. Theater faculty aimed to give students a comprehensive understanding of theater as an art form.
“It focused a little bit more on acting,” said Dale Simon, who was hired as a scenic designer for the program in the early ’90s. Now, he oversees Kendall theater facilities and serves as the building’s captain.
The major emphasized acting as an academic discipline and sought to instill proper technique. Acting courses were known as “studio classes” and would touch on other trades related to performing, like directing.
“We had theater production classes to teach you the technical side of what was going on,” Potucek said.
These included lighting, scenic design and makeup. Professors saw their students find connections between their courses, utilizing a skill learned in a behind-the-scenes class when performing on stage.
“You had to take a couple of theater history courses,” Potucek said.
Professors emphasized that understanding theater then was vital to understanding theater now.
“Toward the end, I also created an internship course, so that students could earn credit for working in productions on campus or off,” said Lincoln Konkle, an English professor involved with the program during its final years.
Putting on full-length theatrical productions, combining the experience of professional professors and the youthful energy and innovation of students was the department’s flagship strength.
“We had a six to eight show academic season. We did plays and musicals” Simon said.
Students, staff and faculty filled the Kendall Hall Main Stage and the Studio Theater — now a scenic shop to build sets for today’s productions — to watch theater put up by theater majors.
In the 1980s, the theater department would receive what seemed like a major boost. The College’s board of trustees approved a major renovation to Kendall Hall in the wake of the discovery of asbestos within the building. The theater department would have more space than ever before.
“They made the decision to invest in Kendall Hall,” Simon said. “The primary purpose of this building was to house that theater department.”
By the time Simon was hired, Kendall’s major upgrade was complete. Theater majors and faculty now had access to a renovated Main Stage, a scenic shop for set design, two floors of new classrooms and a new venue for intimate productions: The Don Evans Black Box Theater.
Things were looking up for the College’s theater program. How then, did it manage to dissolve just a few years later?
“The program kind of died by attrition,” Potucek said.
By the ’90s, the tenured professors who built the theater program from the ground up some 30 years before began to reach the age of retirement. In a few short years, the theater department was left without its high-ranking professors to steer the ship.
This was the beginning of the end.
“As they retired, they gave their faculty lines to other departments,” Simon said.
In a tumultuous period of changing deans and tight budgets, the duties of theater professors were folded into other departments. Many of these fell within the School of Arts and Communication.
“They weren’t gonna put any resources towards (the theater department),” Potucek said, “Instead, they looked to putting the resources towards television and film.”
The College shifted focus to its rising communications major instead of its fading theater one. Communications courses filled the classrooms and studios of Kendall Hall. With that, the major was ended.
Waning student interest also proved to be a death blow for the flagging department.
“When we originally discussed the possibility of reviving a theater program, we thought, ‘If we build it, they will come’ because clearly there was a lot of interest in theater among students,” Konkle said.
However, Konkle and others came to realize that, in practice, the theater major’s total enrollment never came close to that of other majors. It never eclipsed 100 students.
Many interested students were prevented from enrolling by already overpacked course schedules. The major’s required classes didn’t naturally fit into the busy schedule of a typical college student.
Now, those that remember the College’s theater program are left to reflect on what’s missing now that it’s gone. They believe studying theater academically — and the resources that came with theater being an official major — provided students with welcome support from faculty and staff.
“Theater is actually a disciplined art,” Simon said.
He believes the College’s students would be benefitted by studying theater through an academic’s perspective.
“To have a full-fledged theater program with a bachelor of fine arts… I think this area of New Jersey is underserved,” Potucek said.
If given the resources of a proper major, she sees College productions reaching new heights.
“We were putting the outstanding theater facilities on campus (MainStage, Black Box, scene shop, green room) to good use: educational theater as well as the already established productions by ACT, TMT,” Konkle said, referring to his favorite part of the theater program.
Konkle believes a theater major would fully utilize the campus’s performing and rehearsal spaces, and complement the works done by TCNJ Musical Theatre and All College Theatre.
Former professors of the theater department believe that, major or no major, the future of theater at the College is bright.
“TCNJ students interested in theater are very fortunate that there are two theater groups who have funds to put on plays and musicals and… some really nice facilities in which to do so,” Konkle said. “So I have no doubt that, as long as ACT and TMT continue to receive SFB funding, there will be theater at TCNJ.”
Simon hopes theater will continue to be a mainstay at the College.
“Theater can change the world, it brings down dictatorships,” Simon said. “We should take it seriously.”