Theatre: 'You have to learn everything'

Forget about the image of the black-clad, chronically depressed hipster wearing a beret, dragging on an ever-present cigarette.

Lehigh University Theatre - Man angrily holding up chair

That clichéd image of a typical theatre major is a far cry from reality in Lehigh’s theatre department, says Augustine Ripa, professor of Lehigh’s theatre department and enthusiastic representative of Lehigh’s diverse and engaging arts programs.

"One of the things I love to point out to parents of prospective students is that you don’t find the typical, cookie-cutter ‘theatre rat’ dominating the program here," Ripa says.

So who are the theatre students at Lehigh?
There’s a great diversity of students here -- arts and sciences students, business students, and engineers--racially, ethnically, and nationally diverse students who may be athletes or poets or both. In our program, it would not be odd for a member of Amnesty International to play opposite an ROTC student. This makes us a strong group. And many of the students we serve tend to be among the best and the brightest. Theatre students are busy. Productions rehearse for three hours a night, five nights a week, for up to six weeks. You’ve got to be an organized and efficient scholar to maintain your academic standing with a schedule like that.

Does a student have to major in theatre to participate fully in all of the theatre-related activities?
Absolutely not! We depend on theatre students from all colleges to enrich our work. Students who are members of the Engineering or Business colleges can’t major in theatre without getting a second degree from Arts & Sciences. But they can minor in theatre, or participate at any level they find time for. Some of these students are our lifeblood--true leaders in our program. After some production activity, all can be inducted into the Mustard and Cheese Drama Society, which was established in 1884 and is still strong today.

What would you say to a prospective student who is considering Lehigh?
If you are thinking about Lehigh as a place to study theatre, you’ve made an important decision. You are interested in studying with a program offering a B.A. in Theatre accredited by the National Association of Schools of Theatre. You are pursuing a liberal arts education, not an undergraduate conservatory experience. This is exactly what I believe is best for anyone at this point. Medical schools, dental schools, law schools--they all have one thing in common: They accept only those who have already attended college. If, after a good undergraduate B.A. experience in theatre, or another major, you wish to study theatre in a graduate conservatory, good. That is the best time in your life to do it.

Is theatre an all-consuming major for a student?
If you come to me and say, "I want to major in theatre," I will say, "Great--and what else do you want to major in?" At Lehigh, it takes 121 credit-hours for the Bachelor of Arts degree. The theatre major requires 49 hours. But that leaves a whopping 72 hours. How are you going to spend that time? Take more theatre? Sure, most majors do. But even so, you’ll have enough time left over to pursue another major. The English major, for example, requires 34 hours, as does Journalism. Religion Studies requires 32 hours, Psychology 40, and a Mathematics B.A. needs 42. In addition to pursuing double majors, many theatre students take courses from the College of Business and Economics, where they gain valuable skills in things like marketing, management, and administration.

Where will theatre students spend most of their time?

Lehigh University Theatre - The Crucible, Group sitting in the dark

While studying theatre, the majority of their time will be spent in the Zoellner Arts Center. One of the first things that strikes people about us is the splendid facility we have to work with, and, indeed, we are blessed.  We make extensive use of two of the three theatres in Zoellner. We mount four plays per season in the Diamond Theatre, a 300-seat thrust space. We give each of these productions seven performances. In our Black Box theatre, which seats about a hundred, we mount several productions per semester, usually student-directed and designed through advanced course-work or independent study. Sometimes we are very busy. A typical fall season would see two Diamond Theatre productions, and three full-length Black Box plays. The combination of traditional academic offerings and a full production program creates numerous opportunities for students of all levels to experience theatre at Lehigh.

Another distinct aspect of the undergraduate program here at Lehigh is the relationship between the theatre department and the Zoellner Arts Center. Many members of the full-time Zoellner staff double as adjuncts in our department, extending our instructional capabilities in ways I believe are unique to undergraduate programs.

What kinds of experiences can a theatre student expect at Lehigh?
The size of our faculty allows for great opportunities for interaction, as well as the ability to accommodate individual preferences in courses of study. We can also draw upon a vast network of theatre opportunities that provide a sampling of all the creative outlets the field has to offer. Students can experience acting; directing; set, costume or lighting design--even mechanical automation. And, with strong working relationships with local professional theatres, such as Touchstone Theatre, and contacts with New York production houses, students are offered a wealth of internship and post-college career opportunities. Even when students aren’t on campus, their love of theatre propels them to various corners of the country, where they may be painting scenery in summer stock, stage managing, or performing.

What’s the best advice you can give to a prospective theatre student?
I remember the best advice I received as an undergraduate, which went something like this: "You’re going to study theatre? That means you have to learn everything!" I cannot think of a course of study that will prepare you better for whatever lies ahead. You will combine analytical skills with problem-solving exercises. You will learn the essentials of working well in groups. You will be asked to express yourself creatively in word and in deed. You will be challenged by the works of some of the greatest artists of all time--to apprehend their meaning, to express their truths. You will be asked to be creative, original, ingenious, resourceful, tolerant, inventive, and independent. Combining theatre studies with appropriate cross-disciplinary electives is a powerful way to go to college.

To learn more about Lehigh's Theatre Department, please contact Erica Hoelscher, Chairperson, at 610-758-3637, or email her at