BWW Interview: Chair of Connecticut College Theater Department David Jaffe
A highly adept theater professional and arts educator, David Jaffe leads Connecticut College's Department of Theater as its chair. From the beginnings of his career as a student at the very same institution, Jaffe has worked as an actor with companies such as the American Shakespeare Theater, New York City Ballet, and Yale Repertory Theater. He has taught at Wesleyan University and served as Director of the Eugene O'Neill Center's National Theater Institute for eight years. Now, he focuses his expertise on the students of Connecticut College. Jaffe spoke with BroadwayWorld about his work at the college and how he thinks education informs theatrical work.
What makes Connecticut College's theater program unique?
We sit squarely in the liberal arts world, and for us that's a strength. What we do, what we teach, and how we teach it, is deeply connected to the intersections between making and studying theater and other fields - the humanities, the arts, and other departments at Connecticut College. We do two things at once: we have this powerful production arm and a curricular arm, and they are woven together. We think of the production opportunities as faculty/student research. They give students a chance to engage in questions about what it is to be human, what it is to be in relationship to others, what it is to be a part of a community. In that sense, we are always alert to the why of what we're doing as well as the how.
What does it mean to be the chair of this department? What's your relationship to the students?
We fall under the category of a small liberal arts department, which means that there's not a student in this department that I don't know. Not only that, but there's no student in this department that I'm not willing and committed to mentoring. So that by the time the student is in a second course in our department, I will know how I need to work with that student, what I need to focus on in the work with them, what I need to strengthen, and how they need to stretch themselves. I take that very seriously, and the fact that the department is a close knit community allows for that kind of attention. I don't use the term mentorship lightly, I think it's a crucial aspect of my job. The advising sessions, the conversations I have with students in my office, are as valuable, sometimes more valuable, than the work in the studio.
How do you decide which shows to do each year?
We have a student faculty group called the Season Planning Advisory Committee, and it's faculty and students together considering the following year's season. Those conversations have to do with certain arbitrary considerations like when in the semester the production is happening, what can the production value be given the tech schedule, things like that. We look at a four year frame, so we look at the kind of material we have tackled over recent years and what's missing from that arc. Over any four year arc, we're trying to make sure we tackle a good solid range of genre, of writers, of ways of making work, and we balance that all together while keeping an eye on, without pre-casting, what kind of pool of performers we have that are able to commit to our mainstage work.
How do you think your past teaching experience, from the time when you taught at Connecticut College initially, to working at other institutions, to returning to Connecticut College, has influenced your approach to teaching now?
My time at the [National Theater Institute at the Eugene] O'Neil Center and our journeys to Russia and England especially, pushed me to keep learning and growing as a teacher, and a director, and an administrator. I think of myself always as a beginner. That I haven't yet figured it out, and I'm going to keep trying to figure it out with my colleagues and with my students, in action. I am a huge believer in the generous atmosphere of making theatre and I would suggest that our program is also distinguished by its support of one another, its openness and inclusivity, and that we really seek to bring as much joy to the process as we can. Sometimes the work can be a real struggle, but that can be a joyful struggle. If we're all in the room and we're working together to find a solution to a theatrical problem, the struggle to find that solution can be really, really rewarding.
Why do you think a theatre education is important?
I think theatre illuminates the human condition. One of my favorite quotes I read in an early collection of essays by David Mamet was something that he learned in school which is "the purpose of the play is to bring to the stage the life of the soul." If we can engage ourselves in an illuminating, or unpacking, of the human condition, we learn more about ourselves, and we learn about others. We experience and learn empathy, and frankly, we learn some skills that are useful for life. How to communicate directly and honestly, how to solve problems in a group, how to think generously. And of course, we learn concrete technical skills as well. But to me, theatre sits in a really interesting place because it embraces so much as a field. Creative work, intellectual work, technical work, an interest in history, an interest in literature, an interest in anthropology. There's so much that's embraced by the study of theatre.
What does your program do for students after graduation? What sort of resources do you provide?
Connecticut College has a really strong funded internship program for rising seniors. Between junior and senior year, most of our students have already found some sort of internship or summer training program that they've been able to do because of the funding that's provided by the college. Very often those internships or that training opportunity leads to something beyond the college. We also have informal professional counseling conversations with faculty and the students themselves in addition to the regular college career counseling office, so the connections that all of us have in the profession are offered to the students that are graduating. We bring such a breadth of experience, the faculty as a group, we have numerous connections into different cities, specific theaters, graduate programs, training programs, conservatories, internships, that we use to help students find their way after graduation.
For more information on Connecticut College's engaged and carefully curated theater program, visit the theater department's main page.