UAA Theatre and Dance stages a comeback with support from the community

by Michelle Saport  |   

UAA's Fine Arts Building on a fall afternoon.
UAA's Fine Arts Building on a fall afternoon. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Two new study options — a minor in dance and a certificate in event production — plus expanded community engagement and an integrated approach to academics are revitalizing the arts experience at UAA.

"This is the spark that will light the fire, hopefully," said Dan Anteau, B.A. '96, managing director of the Fine Arts Building, chair of the UAA Department of Theatre and Dance and professor of lighting design.

Reviving the dance minor

Dance is back as a study option at UAA, with a new minor in dance launching this academic year, thanks to community support.

This past spring, as UAA Dance prepared for the final curtain call after program elimination years prior, community members gathered at Anchorage Museum for "The Last Dance," an end-of-program showcase by retiring dance faculty member Jill Flanders Crosby that featured dance alumni performing short pieces concurrently across the museum. The First Friday event saw record attendance and caught the attention of longtime arts supporter Ira Perman of the Atwood Foundation.

"We both saw how the community was so supportive and interested in dance that it seemed a shame that the minor should go away," said Jenny McNulty, dean of UAA College of Arts and Sciences. The pair worked on a funding proposal with Anteau and Craig Miller, senior development officer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

Now, thanks to support from the Atwood Foundation, the department recently hired a new faculty member to lead the program: Katie O’Loughlin, who earned a B.A. in theater with a minor in dance from UAA in 2017 and an M.F.A. from Ohio State University in 2023. O’Loughlin will build on the dance program’s strong history of community partnerships and recent accomplishments.

Among the recent successes was a sold-out multi-night run this spring of "Rhapsody" by Momentum Dance Collective, founded by former UAA adjunct professor Becky Kendall. The show took place on the Mainstage Theatre and featured students helping backstage with lights, audio and special effects. Earlier this semester, the department hosted a celebration of dance with Hamilton cast member Tyler McKenzie. The free, public event showcased the potential of dance and offered students the chance to learn from and talk with an accomplished performer.

In addition to continued collaboration with community partners, the department hopes to host an on-campus UAA Dance production in the spring semester.

Hamilton cast member Tyler Mckenzie leads a dance class at UAA.
"Hamilton" cast member Tyler Mckenzie leads a dance class at the Avis Alaska Sports Complex on UAA's campus. (Photo by Shannon Farr / UAA College of Arts and Sciences)

Launching a new certificate in event production

From theater and dance to live music, no show could go on without the behind-the-scenes work of those coordinating sound and lighting for productions. In Alaska, those positions often outnumber the skilled personnel available. For example, each show in the multi-year Broadway Alaska initiative needs about 200 people to go from truck to stage — but there are fewer than 50 active members in the Stagehand Union to draw from up here.

To help meet demand, the department launched a new occupational endorsement certificate (OEC) in event production this year. The OEC leverages the world-class facilities in the Fine Arts Building (FAB) and the department's strong community partnerships to prepare students for a technical career in the arts.

"We're a large laboratory, we're a large classroom, essentially," said Anteau of the FAB. Starting this spring, Theatre A105 - Audio and Sound Engineering for Event Production will showcase that dynamic by meeting in conjunction with the weekly UAA Jazz Ensemble rehearsals.

"We will have live musicians, singers and performers in our theater every week, and my hope is to invite experts from the community to come in," said Anteau. "And we might say, 'OK, here's what we have, we have so many brass, so many rhythm. We have drums; we have singers; this is the inventory that we have. What would you do? What style would you bring to enhance this concert?' We might do that for a week, and then the next week, I hope to invite somebody else and say, 'This time, we're going to do it with the same group, the same music, but we're going to do an all-analog system or an all-digital system.'

"You're able to have all the different elements of that — the live music, the interdisciplinary aspect. That's just unheard of, right? And I've shared that idea with some of the community sound people, and they're like, 'this sounds awesome.' Just to be able to come in and play when the stress level is low. With live shows, if somebody at the soundboard makes a small mistake, it ruins it for the entire audience.

"And so there are no rehearsals with live music. But in this instance, we get some."

In addition to the opportunities available through on-campus programming, the OEC's focus is broad to better support the variety of arts organizations in town and their facilities.

"At least once a semester, the goal will be to meet in different locations and do tours of their facilities to push those doors wide open and say, you know, what you're learning here applies in all these different locations," said Anteau.

Since such positions are in high demand for local arts productions, students in the program can dive in — with paid experience — right away, whether it's working on productions in FAB as a student employee or across town as a paid crewmember for one of the visiting Broadway shows.

"You can easily make a career out of being a technical event production or technical theater student professional," said Anteau."Or you can just supplement an income and have it be like a second job."

UAA Department of Music holds a dress rehearsal for its annual Symphony of Sounds performance in the UAA Fine Arts Building recital hall.
UAA Department of Music holds a dress rehearsal for its annual Symphony of Sounds performance in the UAA Fine Arts Building Recital Hall. The space will be utilized for an innovative event production class in spring 2023. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Taking center stage in the community

While downsizing due to budget cuts, the Department of Theatre and Dance began collaborating more closely with community arts groups to create enhanced opportunities for students and help monetize on-campus performance venues.

Last year, the department partnered with Perseverance Theatre so students could participate in a larger production process. Now, the theater troupe is one of many groups — including the Alaska Theatre of Youth, Sitka Music Festival, Pulse Dance Company and Momentum Dance Collective — regularly performing on campus. The shows add vibrancy to campus life while giving students hands-on experience. Off campus, the department's partnership with the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts creates more opportunities for students to learn and earn on a professional show. (As a bonus, students can purchase discounted tickets for most performances.)

The new and expanded ties further position UAA at the heart of the city's performing arts scene.

Regarding the donation from the Atwood Foundation, Anteau noted the organization's widespread support for arts in Alaska. "[They] started looking more at a broad picture, saying, 'You know, we're boosting up these companies and the university, but each one of these companies relies on the university.' I think they're looking at the smarter investment is to help build us back up so that we can sustain all of these other companies."

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