An Interview with Columbia University Theater Chair,
So what's a nice Theatre Arts Division chair in an Ivy League MFA program doing talking up law school? Steven Chaikelson, Columbia College graduate and L.L.B., knows exactly why he's talking about law: career opportunity, solid general education, and an additional reason for students to consider coming to Columbia. Unlike Yale, its main competitor for students, which has strong connections in regional and nonprofit theatre, Columbia University has no drama school. Its Theatre Arts division is part of Columbia's School of Arts, which grants an MFA degree. Approximately 100 students are enrolled in the three-year program, and they are drawn to Columbia, Chaikelson notes, because they are interested in commercial theatre—Broadway and Off Broadway—and thus it makes sense for them to take courses in law, particularly in intellectual property, a hot area and one almost certainly leading to a job. His own career path ironically illustrates the advantages of combining the disciplines.
Drawn to acting as an undergraduate, but finding no way to major or minor in drama (undergraduates wanting to concentrate in theatre attend Barnard), Chaikelson wound up with two minors—psychology and English. Though blessed with supportive parents, he also felt their real-world concerns. His father, a lawyer, and his mother, a dean at Concordia University in Montreal (Chaikelson was born in Canada), were delighted when he enrolled at Columbia Law School. So was he, for he found mentors in its new joint degree program in Law and Theatre Management (he was, in fact, its first graduate). But right before the bar exam, he was offered a job at Les Miserables where he had interned. He took it, thus reversing the old saw—he was now a lawyer but had theatre to fall back on! Subsequent years earned him an extensive and enviable record in management production in New York and across the country, and he took up an adjunct position in Columbia's Law School, leading a seminar in law and theatre.
Before assuming the chair of Theatre Arts a year and a half ago, Chaikelson served as head of Theatre Management, a relatively new addition to Theatre Arts, and though he now serves as chair of the division itself, he maintains professional connections by way of Snug Harbor Productions, a Theatrical General Management and Producing Company in mid-Manhattan, and he continues to do research. This past June, Carolina Academic Press published Theater Law, a 526-page casebook he co-authored, “the first comprehensive overview” of its kind on laws governing the theater industry. It includes such subjects as the creative rights of authors, the practice of theater law, the financial rights of producers and investors, the employment rights of directors, performers, and crew members and the attendance rights of audiences—not to mention 104 casebook battles involving some of the most famous theatrical performances of all time. He's since “lightened up the course a bit,” bringing in mock negotiations and contracts—all essential to theatre managers and producers.
Though he professes no adherence to any particular school of acting, Prof. Chaikelson does concede a special regard for Meisner-based training and for musical comedy. Well, add Shakespeare and the Greeks, please. And contemporary British and American playwrights. Of course, his time is largely taken up by administration these days. Plans include “enhancing collaboration among the separate theatre concentrations,” bringing together acting students with those in producing, directing, and stage management, thereby simulating the kind of interchange that actually goes on in the theatre world. He'd also like to develop more new playwright voices and give students an opportunity to have actual showcase productions, not just one reading in their last year. In addition, he'd like to spend more time coaching students for auditions, a demanding and unique skill. He notes that students say they enroll at Columbia because of its extensive (two-day) audition interview, which is led by the Acting faculty and includes call backs—in any event, providing applicants with free Master classes. Of course, he wouldn't mind more notice of Columbia Stages, MFA Acting Class productions which are open to the public, and give third-year students “a solid transition to the real world.” Readers interested in learning about the 2005 season should call (212) 854-3408 or visit http://arts.Columbia.edu/theatre.#