Skaggs helps coordinate productions of the Ole Miss theatre. Photo by Leah Davis.Leah Davis
Lights. Camera. Action. These words echo through the stage as actors and performers scramble to take their beginning places on set. Theatre is not often thought of as an intense or demanding area of study, but it highlights the talent and dedication of people who would not be discovered in another atmosphere.
Brandon Skaggs, program coordinator for the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Mississippi, is an Ole Miss graduate who studied journalism and psychology. He started in the theatre department as a public relations and secretarial intern and has been the project program coordinator for two years.
“We do about four productions throughout a season – two in the fall, two in the spring,” he said. “Usually one is smaller and the other larger. I do know next year we’re actually doing five. We’ve increased the number of shows, and we’re also moving our film festival to the fall.
“We’ve generally had a small film festival every spring, and since we are now transitioning to having a film major with an emphasis for our actors to do stage and screen. We’re basically enlarging the festival, and we moved it to a better slot in the fall. We’ll also be able to use that as a recruiting tactic as well.”
The department has had to shift from traditional theatre training to screen training because most actors’ goals are to end up on TV and the movies.
Skaggs says, “Essentially we have programs where the performers, they would be in the acting for stage and screen, but you could do your emphasis in musical or stage theatre. You’re gonna get exposure to other areas, but your emphasis would be whatever you decide. Nowadays, mostly actors have to somehow transition between both of those.”
Skaggs says, “We generally always do one musical. There have been several seasons where we do two musicals. Like this past season, we did Chicago, our big budget musical and, this past spring, we did Zombie Prom while the two other ones were just plays.”
“We’ve worked a little bit with the music department,” Skaggs said. “We’ve gotten music majors, and we’ve had a few that are double majors. So there is a bit of crossover, but generally theatre is focused in this department just because it takes a lot of time to do even one or the other.
“A lot of people talk and think that a theatre major is only acting. But we do production, design, film, and all of this takes a lot of time. Even if it seems easy, you’re still committing. Students are here until midnight, rehearsing and running lines, and blocking and setting things up.”
Abby Wilson, an Oxford native, is a senior theatre major at Ole Miss who has been involved with Theatre Oxford during her high school years.
“Being a theatre major, people think all you have to do is perform on stage,” she said. “But there’s a lot more to it. Being in a show does nothing for your degree. So on top of all your classes of 15 or 18 hours, you’re staying here later for about four or five hours of rehearsals every night. You’re required to audition for every production, and you cannot turn down a role unless it interferes with your religion.”
Skaggs said freshman have the opportunity to work with guest artists to observe the work.
“Starting out as a freshman in the department, most of the students will not declare an emphasis, yet their first year they will be exposed to everything,” he said. “So they’ll do time in the shop constructing sets and learning lights and sound, the work of designers on renderings and how to come up with these sets.
“They also do time in the costume shop. So they’ll get exposure to other areas to see if they are interested in any of those and if they are good at it to get a jack-of-all-trades and versatility.
“As soon as they get though freshman year, they can choose their emphasis, if they want several things. I think the department is really great at giving them a well-rounded education of preparing them for the world of theatre. As population grows, they’re going to have to be able to do more than one thing to show job employers.”
Skaggs believes the theatre environment encourages diversity and self-expression. The department is home to numerous personalities who all come together to perfect their art, whether it’s acting or costume design.
Skaggs said, “You deal a lot with loud personalities, eccentrics, and creatives, so it’s a very inspiring place to be. There’s not a whole lot of stigma about how to present yourself or how to be because you just have to do whatever you have to do. It just makes you feel comfortable and generally happy. I thinks it’s a morale booster to be around artists.”