Theater and Dance Department update

May 6, 2021
Lauren Josef talks with a student

Theater and Dance Department Chair Lauren Josef graduated from James Madison University with a degree in musical theater performance and earned her master’s degree in costume design from Southern Illinois University. In 2015, she accepted her first part-time position at the Academy, collaborating with colleagues to create unified theatrical and dance productions and instructing Exeter Summer students in clothing design and construction. Josef joined the full-time faculty in 2018 and was named chair of the department in 2020.

“It’s important that we create an inclusive department where we’re telling stories from people of all identities.” In Josef ’s first year as Theater and Dance Department Chair, she found inspiration and opportunity working through the pandemic and channeling the famed theatrical expression “The show must go on!” Notably, she arranged a series of Zoom chats between current students and Broadway performers and crew members to share their experiences and oversaw the installation of live-streaming equipment that makes it possible for remote learners and family members to watch student productions. When indoor audience size was limited due to health and safety protocols, she spearheaded the build-out of a new outdoor stage on the David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center lawn. “Donor funds have been invaluable this year to make all of this possible,” Josef says.

“It’s important that we create an inclusive department where we’re telling stories from people of all identities."
Lauren Josef

With nearly a quarter of the student body collaborating on theater productions each year, Josef and her department are thinking broadly about how to appeal to such a diverse group. “I see what a great institution Exeter is, and I also see the potential for change,” she says. “I want to serve our students in a way that is current and exciting.” As part of a new initiative, the theater and dance department will focus on a singular, unifying theme each year. The 2021-22 academic year’s theme is “identity” and it will guide decisions about everything from which plays to read to the choreographers invited to campus. “We really want to honor the traditions of the school, that canon that the school has paid such close attention to,” Josef says, “but it’s important that we bring in new voices, that we create an inclusive department where we’re telling stories from people of all identities.”

Connecting a student’s intellectual and physical abilities is at the core of the theater and dance curriculum. “Theater and dance offer opportunities for hands-on learning,” Josef says. “When students are up on stage or working in the tech crew, they can be very present and focused. It really allows them to create relationships with each other and, depending on the play that we’re doing, it allows for some really great conversation and Harknessing on stage.”

Inspiring all of Josef ’s work is the student experience. “I have a card on my office wall that the “Wizard of Oz” cast gave me,” she says. “Katie Reid ’21, who played Dorothy, wrote, ‘I’ve never felt so confident in myself, thank you for bringing that out of me.’ That’s why I do this.

Department quick takes

Students pursue their passions

Eli Brotman ’21 came to Exeter as a new lower with a real interest in technical theater. “I remember his first day,” Josef says. “He sent me an email that said, ‘I want to do tech production. Who do I need to talk to?’” Brotman quickly became a fixture at the Goel Center, helping out in the scene shop during his free time and working behind the scenes in main stage productions. For his senior project, Brotman designed the lighting layout and programmed the fixtures for the spring musical.“ Eli attended all of the production meetings, he really performed as a professional lighting designer,” Josef says. “He had [instructor] Jake Josef in this corner guiding him, but it was really Eli’s project.” 

Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives 

“We, as a department together, are seeking out and reading contemporary plays that are relevant, that our students can relate to, that we can relate to as artists,” Josef says. That effort spurred a new course THR:207: New Voices, New Stories, in which students will not only discuss a selection of plays by underrepresented BIPOC, LGBTQ+, women and intersectional playwrights at the Harkness table, but also develop their acting abilities in small-scale productions. 

New voices on campus 

Always looking for new ways to expose students to professionals working in theater world, Josef launched “Catching up on Broadway: Quarantine conversations with Broadway’s finest.” The series of Zoom chats featured performers and crew members from such high-profile shows as Hamilton, Chicago, Kinky Boots and Evita, who spoke about everything from auditions for musical theater programs at the university level, to working in productions on cruise ships, and the perks of getting an Actors’ Equity card. “The Zooming convention has opened up so many possibilities for us, because we won’t need to bring people on to campus,” she says. “It’s something we’ll continue to do in 2022.”

On-the-ground experiences 

Performing offers the opportunity to gain confidence, Josef says. “A lot of times, this is our students’ first exposure to theater or dance,” she says. “Because we run our productions like a professional production, we are really preparing them for the future in theater if they want to pursue it. But we also providing an element of surprise and excitement for all students as they discover something new about themselves that they didn’t really realize before getting here.

Wizard of Oz performed at Phillips Exeter Academy.

The Exeter Bulletin

Space that performs