Baker-White will lead theater department in new programdevelopments

Robert Baker-White ’80 has returned to the College as a professor of theater and chair of the department.

Baker-White joins the theater department at a critical point in the development of the theater program and the ’62 Theatre and Dance Center. With the help of a generous donation from alumnus Herb Allen ’62, the College is constructing a new theater and dance complex that will adjoin the Adams Memorial Theatre. The construction of the building, which began this past spring, is scheduled to be complete by the spring of 2005.

The new complex will have performance and rehearsal stages as well as classrooms. The additional and enhanced space will provide the College with the opportunity to expand its theater department and to better integrate the theater with other programs including dance and music.

“This is an exciting time for theater at Williams,” Baker-White said. “The challenge right now is how we are going to move into the new theater.”

He continued, “It’s an opportunity for us to work with the administration of the College to expand what we do.”

Baker-White explained that he did not know what kind of expansion he had in mind. He was convinced that the new resources of the theater department would aid the College in raising the profile of the performing arts program.

He insisted that in shaping the theater program from his position of professor and chair he has no models in mind. He ultimately is seeking to create a theater department in the context of a small liberal arts school.

“I think we have to be who we are,” he said. He foresees a program that encourages students to gain a liberal arts education and have freedom to explore the arts. He cited Oberlin and Wesleyan as two other small colleges that maintain this same balance.

At the moment, Baker-White said that “the primary focus is to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses as a department, and to formulate a coherent plan for accentuating the former and correcting the latter. We have wonderful, talented people in the department, both faculty and students, but we also have some areas in which we know we can improve.”

One of the first concerns that Baker-White will have to address is the loss of Sabrina Hamilton, assistant professor of theater, who left the College at the end of last year. Without her, the theater department is in need of a new scenic designer. Baker-White emphasized his hope to find someone “as dynamic as [she is] to fill her position.”

The expansion of the theater will also demand the theater department increase its staff. The staff is already overtaxed with the management of the theaters in the Adams Memorial Theater.

Further evaluation of the present theater resources and discussion with the administration will give the department a better idea of the expansion of the staff size.

The new theater complex also will require the coordination of a collection of departments and student groups. Baker-White already has begun meetings with Sandra Burton, director of the dance program, so as to develop a common vision for use of the stage space. The music departments and committees involved with lectures and other presentations will also participate in the discussions.

Cap and Bells, a student theater group, is another organization that has stake in the use of the space in the theater. With the school year underway, Baker-White now has the opportunity to ask for their input in the plans.

“I believe strongly that Cap and Bells has a function on campus that is valuable and in fact is quite separate from the function of the department,” he said. “But I also think that we can find ways of working together more effectively and I want to explore that with the leadership,” he said.

Baker-White himself was once a member of Cap and Bells. After Baker-White’s graduation from the College, he went on to the University of Washington to earn his M.F.A. in directing. He eventually received his Ph.D. in drama and humanities from Stanford. He has taught at the University of Washington School of Drama, Stanford University, Trinity University and Georgetown University.

Upon returning to Williamstown, Baker-White said, “Being back at Williams after almost 25 years is an odd experience, to be sure, but really not that much seems to have changed. One clear and positive change has been that the campus, faculty, students, staff are much more diverse now that it was then, in all sorts of ways. And this makes the campus more dynamic, I think.

“The fundamental thing that I valued at Williams as a student seems to have remained, and that is the practice of taking seriously the strong focus on rigorous liberal arts education.  Truthfully, that focus is what made me want to return as a faculty member.”

This fall, Baker-White is teaching a course titled “Interpretation and Performance II” in addition to maintaining all of his administrative responsibilities.

In the future, he intends to direct plays as well as continue his research project involving an eco-critical perspective on American drama and theater.

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