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New MFA in Theatre program welcomes first faculty, students to campus

MFA faculty mentor Lelund Durond Thompson, center, cheers during the student performances that concluded the program’s first residency.

The laughter rose from the small crowd gathered in Randolph’s Student Center late one evening in mid-July. Applause soon followed as the audience showed their admiration for a series of short performances that marked the conclusion of the first residency for the College’s new Master of Fine Arts in Theatre program.

Students in the program’s first cohort gathered at Randolph this summer for a week of workshops, mentoring sessions with faculty members, and various social events, as well as rehearsals for the scenes they would eventually present.

“The opportunities that have come from this week have changed the trajectory of my life,” said Georgia Tsolakis ’25 MFA, who directed one of the scenes. “I’ve learned so much.”

Tsolakis, who graduated from college in 2021, is a scenic designer by trade and came straight to the program from a gig with an opera company in Utah.

“The low-residency part interested me,” Tsolakis said, “as well as the personalized track and mentor-mentee relationships.”

The two-year program includes five residencies on campus and four semesters of virtual classes along with one-on-one faculty mentorship.

MFA students presented scenes to their peers and mentors during the residency.

That format is also what attracted Rebekah Martin ’25 MFA, technical director of theatre and music at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith.

Martin is exactly the kind of student the MFA program was designed for—working and aspiring theatre artists, educators, and leaders.

She is also an adjunct professor and mom of three. Thanks to the program, she’s able to pursue her passions without uprooting her family.

“This program just really spoke to me,” said Martin, who is on the MFA’s directing track.

Students in the program can choose from three tracks—acting, directing, or design—though many have chosen to pursue two tracks during their two years of training.

“In theatre, there’s rarely ever just one thing to do,” Martin said. “You get called to do everything.”

The ultimate goal of the program, which will continue with residencies in January and June, is to help students develop their individual artistry and leadership through advanced, specialized training in acting, directing, design, producing, and management.

During the July residency, faculty members led sessions on topics ranging from storytelling to branding and identity to building safety in theatrical spaces. The week also included a film and TV panel, an on-camera audition intensive, faculty/mentor meetings, and other events.

MFA faculty member Dennis Whitehead Darling meets with a student during the program’s first residency.

“It was so wonderful to see the faculty and students connecting and forging those bonds,” said Stephanie Earl, director of the MFA program. “It reinforced that we found the right people, individuals who are open, kind, and supportive.”

Each residency is followed by a 20-week semester that includes an online class in diversity, equity, and inclusion “tied to our mission of theatre for the modern world,” said Ally Farzetta, assistant director of the MFA program.

Students also spend that time working virtually with their faculty mentor while pursuing a project that fits into their goals as theatre practitioners.

Harper Whetzel ’23, ’25 MFA wrote, produced, directed, edited, and starred in a short film that will be shown on campus. 

Whetzel called the virtual mentoring a unique and remarkable experience that has helped her build a professional portfolio and website and added to her acting reel. 

“My mentor and I try to meet twice a month,” she said. “We talk about readings I’ve done, watch videos of my recent work, and
talk about my semester project and what next steps should be taken. It’s gone exceptionally well.” 

Fellow student Gordon (Toby) Emert, Jr. ’25 MFA, has also been immersed in his work since the summer residency. He directed a staged reading this fall, and following January’s residency, will direct an original musical he’s writing with support from a National Endowment for the Arts Research in the Arts Grant based on the podcast, Million Bazillion.

“I needed a program that would support the work I’m already doing,” said Emert, a theatre professor at Agnes Scott College who holds a variety of degrees, including a PhD from the University of Virginia.

Support is the right word, and one the students used often as they praised the collaborative nature of the program.

And it wasn’t just the students who walked away from the first residency feeling energized.

“We all have a voice at the table,” said faculty member Karl O’Brian Williams, an actor, playwright, producer, director, and educator. “It doesn’t feel hierarchical. I’m bonding with people and feeling love and connections that I don’t get everywhere. I feel seen, loved, and appreciated.”

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