Marking its 10th year in November, the Royden B. Davis Performing Arts Center has more to celebrate than an imminent milestone — over the past decade, it has served as the home for the nationally recognized and still-burgeoning department of performing arts.
Utilizing its capacity for interdisciplinary study and social justice activism, the department has claimed a unique and prominent position among other U.S. programs, consistently receiving high praise from the media for the staff’s work.
Yet given the relative novelty of a hub for performing arts programs, students are sometimes unaware of the important and longstanding role that the university plays in inspiring a passion for the arts on campus.
Georgetown was the first in United States history to give out an honorary music doctorate in 1849, with President Zachary Taylor in attendance at the ceremony to mark the occasion.
A century and a half later, this tradition continues to manifest in the form of meaningful student interest in the arts.
“We have over 1,500 students take classes in our academic classes every year,” Director of Theater and Performance Studies Maya Roth said.
Yet it seems that Georgetown’s vast student interest in the arts is expressed as a hobby or as a personal pursuit rather than as a potential career path — the Theater and Performing Arts Studies graduates on average 10 majors and nine minors per year, while music produces approximately six majors in American musical culture and eight minors per year. On a campus where a pre-professional, career-oriented culture is deeply entrenched in our daily lives, an enduring commitment to the arts and to performance studies remains undervalued despite its prominence in campus activities.
Since its founding in 2007, the DPA has also been wracked by a lack of monetary and spatial resources. While the Davis Center has helped alleviate some concerns about theater program space, faculty and students are continually forced to adapt to rigid constraints that affect their daily academics and the department as a whole.
Performing arts generally fit into two primary categories: theater and performance, and music. The DPA offers majors in American musical culture and theater and performance studies as well as minors in music, theater and performance studies, and performing arts. It also provides courses in dance and public speaking.
Additionally, 19 performing arts student groups are associated with the DPA through the Performing Arts Advisory Council. These include all the campus theater groups and, aside from The Georgetown Chimes, all of Georgetown’s a cappella groups. Membership in PAAC allows student groups to receive funding and programming directly from the academic department.
The DPA owes much of its recognition and praise to an interdisciplinary style that allows the department to draw on Georgetown’s other strong academic areas. This is consciously done to ensure greater, more fruitful interaction between the DPA and general campus life.
Derek Goldman, who serves as the artistic director of the Davis Performing Arts Center, sees the department’s interdisciplinary nature as something that was planned and valued by the DPA.
“We’ve really designed the [theater and performance studies program] to be highly interdisciplinary and inclusive,” Goldman said.
At least one-third of the department’s courses are cross-listed with subjects from other departments. Some of the subjects listed on its website include American studies, culture and politics, African American studies, comparative literature, English, women’s and gender dtudies, gilm and media studies, and history. These courses fulfill class requirements across a wide spectrum for students with any level of interest in the arts.
There is a mutually reinforcing relationship that arises from interdisciplinary study, where each of the subjects studied is more comprehensive when understood in the context of other cultural angles.
The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics is the brainchild of the DPA and the School of Foreign Service. Through this joint effort, the lab has been able to bring several projects such as the Myriad Voices Festival to fruition, drawing cultural figures and important policymakers into the campus arts sphere.
“Through the Davis Center, we are contributing to the intellectual life as well as the distinctive whole-person development,” Roth said.
The DPA has rapidly risen to success and recognition in the past few years, with its achievements being featured in prominent publications such as U.S. News and World Report, The Washington Post, American Theatre and PBS. Its students have been honored to perform at the White House as well on international tours and have served as U.S. delegates at the UNESCO World Theater Conference in Peru.
Yet the academic portion of the department is still consistently faced with budgetary constraints and an overall lack of funding, even for things that appear to be basic and essential.
“There is no maintenance fund for equipment and replacement of specific lab needs. … For the Davis Center, that means no university or donor fund to defray costs for technology for theater spaces and classrooms [and] predictable repair of theatre-specific equipment, from fire curtains to lighting equipment to orchestra shells to painting for floors [or] walls to multimedia upgrades and replacements,” Roth said.
Because the DPA has outperformed its relatively low budget and produced at a very high level, there may be hope within the administration that it will find a way through its financial problems.
“One of our challenges is how successful we are because we are delivering more than really our resources would suggest is possible,” Roth said.
This lack of funding is far more prominent in the music program, which is not able to utilize the Davis Center to the same degree as the theater and performance studies program. The program also has an extremely small budget of $15,000 dollars, an amount that hasn’t changed since the DPA was officially established in 2008.
“We’ve been forced to basically have a lab fee. When orchestra has its concerts, it’s either going to be in the Gonda Theatre or its going to be at Gaston [Hall],” Thomas E. Caestecker Professor of Music and Music Program Director Anna Celenza said.
“But, for us to use that space, we have to pay for it, so the lab fees are basically covering [that]. Because it’s weird, the university is charging us for these spaces basically to give the equivalent of a final exam. It would be as if an English class had to rent the room in which it would give the final exam,” she said.
Because of its lack of official performance space, the music program has been cornered into an unusual predicament.
“Many spaces on campus (like Gaston and Lohrfink) are maintained by [the Office of Planning and Facilities]. Others, like classrooms, are maintained by the registrar’s office. My understanding is that any group that uses OCAF spaces has to pay a fee. When we use a classroom space like McNeir Hall for a recital or the Friday Music Series, we do not have to pay a fee, because it is designated by the university as a classroom. But there are no ‘classrooms’ large enough to host an orchestra concert, so we are charged fees by OCAF every semester even though the performance is a required activity for the academic course,” Celenza said.
Conversely, PAAC-affiliated student organizations tend to run smoothly in terms of finances.
“If you can be a PAAC group, you will get pretty good funding. They’re good with special requests,” Andrew Walker (SFS ‘16), director of “Killer Joe,” the upcoming co-production from Nomadic Theatre and the Mask and Bauble Dramatic Society, as well as co-founder and co-chairman of the Georgetown University Student Association Subcommittee on Creative Expression, said.
Alex Smith (COL ’17), who serves as musical director of the Georgetown GraceNotes and is an expected music minor, concurred, citing her own experiences in her a cappella group.
“In terms of travelling and performances, we’ve always been able to do the things we want to,” she said.
This trend of stable PAAC funding is influenced by the university’s distinct stress on student initiative. Yet, despite its needs and its excellent staff performance, the DPA itself is not receiving the same sort of funding.
Coupled with this problematic budget is a lack of space for student endeavors. The music program, which already suffers from a small budget and from the added costs for using campus performance locations, has been most affected by this problem.
Even though Georgetown has a rich musical history, with over 100 years of student participation in ensembles and a strong a cappella culture, the academic music program lacks its own collective place for students and staff to gather on campus.
“The music faculty is divided up in four different buildings: Poulton, New North, subbasement of New North and Reynolds. So it’s hard to have a unified faculty when [they] are not in the same building” Celenza said.
According to Celenza, the fact that there is no unified, representative space for the music program creates misconceptions about the program.
“People from the outside come in and look around and say, ‘Oh, well there are no facilities, there must not really be a music program,’” she said.
The program does in fact offer a minor as well as major in American musical culture, which emphasizes the department’s interdisciplinary approach. Courses analyze music from all angles, branching into topics of management, media, business and journalism. With an educational emphasis on career-oriented skills, the program has created an extensive network among art and media organizations throughout the District. Among these institutions are CBS, the Kennedy Center, NBC, NPR, PBS and many other big names that offer internships to music students looking for hands-on experience.
The lack of space reveals another more glaring problem for the program — it simply does not have areas in which students can rehearse or record in a consistent fashion.
“Just about any place on campus, you will get sound leakage; either the people playing will interfere with other people or other stuff is going to bother the recording. It’s possibly the biggest problem the music program has,” Angelique Barbeau (COL ’16), a music major and treasurer of Hoya Breaksquad, a campus dance group, said.
Prior to attending Georgetown, many students were involved in some form of music. In fact, Georgetown’s class profiles list band/orchestra as one of the more popular high school activities among those whose choose to enroll. Yet, the campus lacks the strong facilities that could foster these interests during college.
Space concerns are strongest within the music program, but they pervade the entire DPA to differing extents.
“Dance faculty [members] don’t have any office space, and the dance studios in the Healey Family Student Center — they’re beautiful — but they’re a third of the size and have to be shared by more groups. Although they look nicer, they’ve actually forced us to make the dance classes about five students smaller,” Celenza said.
Problems arise not only in the need for more physical space, but also in the allocation of existing areas. GUSA’s “Report on the State of the Arts and Creative Expression” reveals that most student performing arts groups are concerned with the limited amount of rehearsal space, and frustration is only exacerbated by the administration’s indirect responses with regard to this space shortage.
“PAAC does the best they can in terms of [space] allocation, but the place they can improve is in transparency with it. If I want to rehearse in this place at these times and they say no, there’s not really a strong connection of why not — it’s not, ‘No for x,y,z reasons and there are these times instead,’” Walker said.
The Davis Performing Arts Center’s was meant to alleviate this lack of space. The $30.8 million project was funded entirely by donations, with the mission of becoming Georgetown’s first building dedicated solely to arts education. Although it has indeed helped gather students of similar passions under one roof, for students and faculty current involved in the arts programs, there just doesn’t seem to be enough space to go around.
There is a general assumption that establishing a stable career with a degree in the arts is difficult at best, but this does not hold true for those coming out of Georgetown’s DPA. As a result of the approaching anniversary of the Davis Center, an external evaluation of the DPA was recently conducted.
In terms of alumni performance, the music program has had very impressive results as well, which goes largely unrecognized. Celenza discussed the results of the external review as it specifically pertains to the music program.
“They evaluated our classrooms, what we’re doing in our classrooms, what our students are doing and as part of that, we went back and tracked what all our music alumni are doing. We have a 100 percent placement rate in jobs in music or graduate school,” she said. “We have people who have won Emmys for songwriting — one of the biggest songwriters, Jim McCormick [CAS ’90[, in Nashville right now, is a Georgetown grad. Bill Danoff [CAS ’68[ wrote “Afternoon Delight” — he’s a Georgetown grad.”
For a program with such success in its field to remain relatively unrecognized on campus is a vexing situation.
“When kids come to Georgetown and say that Georgetown doesn’t care about music, that gets a little frustrating,” Celenza said.
The DPA has become nationally recognized for its unique approach to the arts, and its greatest achievement lies in its ability to create a small, loyal community surrounding its various projects.
This strong sense of community stems from the passion and love that the DPA’s faculty and dedicated students have for performing arts.
“I think the faculty is great, they’re really committed to their jobs, and they seem really invested in teaching and inspiring the students to get really into it. The other students are also really committed. To come to a school like Georgetown and do the arts means that you have to be committed,” Barbeau said.
Few individuals pursue majors in the DPA, and this intimacy has created a very intimate group of individuals with a shared passion.
“The arts department is really close-knit. We’re not like exclusive, but we do really care about each other, so when we find someone who’s also a major, we just about know everyone else ’cause it’s small enough. We all get along; we enjoy spending time with each other,” Barbeau said.
Even though the faculty, classes and student groups are all vying for the same space and funds, there exists camaraderie among those in the performing arts. The department works from within to create interdisciplinary seminars and creatively address its shared hindrances, which requires the collaboration of students and faculty across the different programs.
Walker finds that faculty support from the DPA in the execution of his play “Killer Joe” has been extremely productive.
“All of the faculty, especially the co-curricular adviser, is heavily involved in the process, and so is our technical adviser; they’re both employed by the department, and we couldn’t do the play without them. They have been invaluable resources. The fact that they have made themselves available for a play that is not a department play is really something special,” he said.
This kind of internal coordination indicates that the DPA is a very a cohesive unit, regardless of its different branches and constrained resources.
“The relationships feel really constructive, positive, collaborative. There were tensions in early years because so much was unknown; the groups were worried about their autonomy. But, the more years that go by, I see very little of that,” Goldman said. “There is an awareness of this ecosystem and that we are all interdependent and the success of one fuels the success of the other.”
Despite Georgetown’s pre-professional mindset and the setbacks placed on the DPA, the high number of students who either enroll in courses in the department or participate in performing arts groups on campus indicates a continued, campus-wide desire for arts-related outlets.
“The Department has a unique way of bringing together students from all different schools and grades, and in the process we are able to combine our many gifts to create something beautiful for both ourselves and the Georgetown community,” Daniel Frumento (COL ’18) said.
Frumento is planning to declare a double major in government and performance studies.
“I have passions for both, but theater can give you the confidence you need to work in government and teach you how to behave on the spot to in-the-moment situations,” he said.
The Davis Performing Arts Center’s upcoming 10-year anniversary marks both the continuing growth and struggles of the department of performing arts. Faced with a lack of funding and space, the DPA has been forced to come up with less-than-ideal alternatives to accommodate its programs. Yet, its positive media recognition, its exceedingly high alumni performance and its praised interdisciplinary community have developed despite these shortcomings. While it may not receive the most tangible benefits for its work, the DPA’s resilient and adaptive way of thinking remains one of Georgetown University’s most prized assets.