Senior students Maddie Roth and Raini R. StrongCallahan will graduate this spring as the first two graduates of the BFA in directing concentration at Salem State University. Established within the Salem State theatre and speech communications program in 2018, the directing concentration allows students to take classes in acting, directing, design, stage management and technical theatre to gain an understanding in collaborating and leading all theatrical disciplines. Students in the BFA directing concentration must assistant-direct faculty productions and complete a fully supported independent thesis production.
Earlier this year, Maddie and Raini reflected on their experience as the first two graduating students with a concentration in directing:
How did you learn about and decide on the directing concentration in the Salem State theatre department?
MADDIE: "I’ve been in theatre for a very long time, and I had primarily always been an actor. While still in high school, I sat in on one of Professor Peter Sampieri’s directing classes. It was my first experience in a college classroom. He said, ‘If you come here, we have directing classes. We’re working on creating a directing concentration.’ So I came in as a performance BFA, and then ended up switching officially to the directing concentration."
RAINI: "I came to Salem State as a communication major. And then through friends and through life and all of that, I ended up switching to a theatre major. Professor Peter Sampieri told me about the new directing concentration. I began jurying as a directing BFA since before the program was officially available."
What do you like about the directing concentration?
MADDIE: "I’m an actor first and foremost. What I like about the directing BFA is that it allows you to not only take all of the BFA acting classes, but you also get to take a bunch of tech and design and stage management classes. As a director, you really have to do everything. Depending on where you're working, you might not have a stage manager or you might not have a sound designer. You might just have to do those things. So it really gives you this rounded view of theatre."
RAINI: "It's really cool to be able to learn about every aspect of theatre. Like Maddie, I've done theatre for a long, long time. I did every aspect of it -- lighting, design, acting, stage management. Being able to come here and have a program that you can specialize in, learning how to do all of those things, is really cool. Rather than being able to focus on just one thing, you get to learn how the whole show gets put together."
Are there specific faculty members who have helped you in this process?
MADDIE: "Professor Peter Sampieri has been my primary directing mentor, as well as Bill Cunningham and Julie Kiernan. I've gotten to learn a lot from them in the sense of how they direct because everybody has different styles. It's really fascinating what you can take from them to then apply to your own processes and your own method that you use as a director."
RAINI: "Definitely Professor Peter Sampieri. He has been there for me since day one. I would also say Matthew Korahais, who is an adjunct. He's a really cool person and he's done a lot, and it's just really inspiring to see that. He showed us you can get a generalized degree and then be able to take it in so many different directions, which is what I'm really hoping to do after I graduate."
Maddie, tell us about the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) Award you won?
MADDIE: "Yes! The STC is the stage directors and choreographers’ society, and that's basically the union for stage directors and choreographers. And they run this directing initiative program through the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. We're ‘region one,’ which is New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and some parts of New York. I won the regional award for region one. There were over 80 applicants, I think 14 of us got selected and then four of us moved on to finals."
What was your favorite experience in the theatre program at Salem State?
MADDIE: "So I have an acting one. I can't say it in here, though. I can write it down for you. My sophomore year I got to be in the Scottish play, but we're in a theatre, so I can't say the actual title.* It was the first time I had ever been introduced to the technique of Devised Theatre and what that was. And this is now something that I'm doing in a project in Boston.
Also, assistant directing 'Top Girls' this past year for the first time, I was like, ‘I think I can do this.’ And it was the first time I had ever felt super connected to a piece and felt very passionate about the message that we were trying to display."
RAINI: "I have been in love with Shakespeare's work since I was about 10 years old. The first piece of Shakespeare that I was ever involved in was 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' And for my senior thesis project, I directed a full production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' in the Callan Studio Theatre. And I set it in a 1940s circus.
That was just one of the most incredible opportunities of my entire life. Shakespeare is very, very hard, but it is something that I've loved forever. I know this play like the back of my hand. I just let the cast have so much freedom with their character choices. I didn't want to be like a dictator and tell them what I wanted. I said, ‘This is the world, this is what the words mean.’"
What advice would you give to theatre students looking at Salem State, and why should they choose here over another theatre program in the region?
MADDIE: "Well, we are one of only a handful of BFA directing programs in the country. If you know in your gut you want to be a director, but you also love acting, be a director. You still get to take all the same classes the actors get to, but you also get a whole other set of skills that are super helpful. If you want to continue this path of directing, you can always be an actor."
RAINI: "I would say just never stop exploring. If you find something that interests you, that piques your interest, go for it, learn about it, study it, figure out how it applies to you. A lot of other colleges focus on one style of acting, one style of management, one style of directing. But here we get to see all of them. You get to work with so many different styles of directors and you just get to see so many facets through this program because we're not a conservatory. It's really, really eye-opening.
During my freshman year, a senior BFA actor said to me, ‘You are going to be told a lot of different things and a lot of different styles.’ And he said, ‘It's up to you to take and pick what or to pick and choose what works for you. You create your own style.’ I couldn't imagine only having training in the one thing and only having that in my tool belt to use as an artist.
Also, theatre is hard. It is long nights. It's crying. It is writing way more papers than you might think. People who think being a theatre major is easy -- it's hard work. Yes, talent exists, but talent is nothing without hard work."
What do you hope to do after graduating?
MADDIE: "One of the biggest challenges for me when I first switched [to directing], I was feeling like I only had to be a director because this was now what I was studying. Then we had theatre history with Matt Korahais, and during office hours, I was talking to him about theatre. He said to me, ‘You don't need to pigeonhole yourself to just be a director. You can be an actor or a designer or a stage manager, a photographer, or a musician. You can do everything…your degree doesn't determine your exact path.’ He pulled me out of my head and into: ‘You're an artist, be an artist.’"
RAINI: "I definitely feel more prepared to be an artist in general. I am not planning on directing at least immediately after I leave college. I have done theatre non-stop for I think 15 years at this point, or something like it. Because I'm getting this degree to be a professional artist, I also feel like I can branch off and do other things. I run a YouTube channel where I talk about how to live a healthy lifestyle as a working artist. Maddie and I are in a band. I take on a lot of managerial tasks from that. So does Maddie and we've learned how to do that because of this major."