Higher education

Mount Mercy University cancels performances, suspends drama program

Coordinator: News came as 'punch to the gut'

Marlon Flores-Paniagua, Randi Tumilty, and Nathan VanSlyke, in Mount Mercy University's production of  The Toxic Avenger Musical, 2017. (Submitted photo)
Marlon Flores-Paniagua, Randi Tumilty, and Nathan VanSlyke, in Mount Mercy University's production of The Toxic Avenger Musical, 2017. (Submitted photo)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Citing challenges casting its plays and musicals — and getting people in the seats to watch — Mount Mercy University has decided to suspend its co-curricular drama program for a year, canceling this season’s productions.

Administrators made the decision after Mount Mercy’s production of “The Toxic Avenger” last spring attracted too few student actors and forced the drama coordinator to recruit more community members than planned.

This fall, the school again struggled to cast the 11 roles for a production of “Godspell,” with students dropping out after realizing the time commitment, according to Jason Alberty, who has served as Mount Mercy’s drama coordinator since 2013.

“That makes it hard it to do a show,” he told The Gazette.

A Mount Mercy administrator delivered news of the hiatus to Alberty last month, coming as a “punch to the gut” — as Alberty already had cast and done a read-through for a spring production of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple, (female version).”

“But I understand where they’re coming from,” he said. “The drama program was not reaching as many students as they would like it to.”

Meanwhile, the private Catholic college of 1,848 students, has seen interest in its music programs soar. Participation has grown from a total of 30 to 40 students in its regular choir, show choir, and band program to about 115, according to Rob Callahan, vice president for administrative, enrollment and student services.

The difference might have to do with a less-intensive practice schedule — which involves one or two commitments a week, according to Callahan.

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“Versus in drama, what we were learning is those four or five weeks leading up to putting on a play — really putting on that play becomes your life,” he said. “I think, for Mount Mercy students, we were finding we didn’t have enough students who were willing to make that kind of time commitment.”

The school will take this offseason to re-evaluate its dramatic options and perhaps resume future programming under a more sustainable and viable model.

“We’re thinking that the way we’ve been doing your traditional-style plays is just not a good fit with our student interest and the time available that they have right now,” Callahan said.

The dramatic review also might help the university improve its campus efficiency, as it’s upgrading the theater to be more flexible and widely accessible.

With improved lighting, paint and an air conditioner, Mount Mercy choirs and bands can make better use of it, as can its National Society for Leadership and Success, and professors in search of another option for a large lecture hall.

“There is some benefit to us in terms of being able to serve more students with the limited space resources we have,” Callahan said. “When you’re a small college with limited resources, you kind of have to ... take a look at, ‘OK, what are our student interests, and how do we align the resources we have the best we can with those interests?’ ”

Challenges for the drama program aren’t new. Alberty said when he took the part-time coordinator job four years ago, the program already was on “life support.” He admitted to struggles casting the performances and getting the community interested.

“I had a feeling this was coming,” he said.

Although Alberty remains at Mount Mercy this fall as an adjunct professor in dramatic arts, his drama coordinator contract has been dropped. And he’s not received a contract of any kind for the spring.

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“I am no longer involved in any decision with the theater,” he said. “My involvement is totally in their hands.”

Although the performances cost money, as did Alberty’s stipend, Callahan said finances did not motivate this decision. And he praised Alberty as “well-respected” in the community and lauded his efforts, noting he did “everything he could to try and promote student participation and encourage people to come to shows.”

When asked about the potential loss for the Mount Mercy campus and community, Alberty said, “It’s hard to say.”

“If something is lost and not supported by the students it’s put out for, is it a loss?” he said. “For me, absolutely it’s a loss. I’m going to miss the kids and other staff members. ... And I’m an artist, and any loss of art is a loss to me.”

Mount Mercy sophomore Makayla Phillips, 19, was more definitive on the cultural impact for students — at least from her vantage point. She did theater as a high schooler in Tiffin and chose Mount Mercy — in part — because it had a small drama program she could escape to from her studies.

Phillips had been cast in the spring play and was looking forward to it.

“We had one rehearsal and then we got the very devastating news that we’re taking a hiatus,” she said.

Administrators said they’re planning to talk with students about what they’d like to see by way of theater on campus in the future. And Phillips said she’s counting on it.

“Being able to go and act was a getaway from the stresses of college,” she said. “Taking that away from students is very sad and almost harmful to the college experience because you want to be able to express yourself.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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