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McLennan Center: 20 plays in 20 days

Jim Van Valen

Jim VanValen, assistant professor of theatre, is a professional actor who teaches courses in acting; voice and movement; Meisner; and auditioning. A member of Actors’ Equity Association, VanValen spent three years as a resident actor with the historic Barter Theatre and has performed throughout the country in such regional theatres as The Fulton Opera House and Florida’s Riverside Theatre. He has an M.F.A. in acting from the University of Iowa and an M.A. in theatre arts and B.A. in English, from State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Until last fall, I had never taught an off-campus course.

The most I had ever done were various day trips with students from the theatre department to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and Steppenwolf in Chicago.

And so, when the college welcomed proposals for off-campus courses at the new McLennan Center in Chicago, I decided to explore such an opportunity for our program in the Department of Theatre and our growing number of majors. The spring and summer of 2012 was spent researching and preparing our itinerary, contacting theatres and artists in the city, and working alongside the talented and patient folks in our off-campus studies office.

Some of Cornell’s off-campus study opportunities, while amazing, can also be expensive. And yet, the McLennan Center seems to allow an incredible off-campus experience for students that is also affordable. The November 2012 course in Chicago allowed us the chance to see diverse forms of theatrical work at award-winning theatres, world-renowned playhouses, and exciting storefront venues. In our three-week adventure we saw a play a day. We met for class seven days a week in the McLennan Center classroom where students discussed, analyzed, and critiqued each and every production we saw while relating such thoughts to our own work at Cornell.

We were also able to meet with guests who came to the McLennan Center—Broadway playwrights, Hollywood screenwriters, professional actors, and stage managers—many who travel throughout the country (and for some—the world) yet choose to make Chicago their home. We received private tours, performance talk-backs, and personal attention by so many theatre companies who praised our college for having a course like this.

We ultimately saw 20 plays in 20 days—an unbelievable opportunity to fully immerse ourselves in the art of theatre and examine the many expressions of that priceless relationship that theatre creates between living human beings gathered in a shared space.

The Chicago experience, and all off-campus experiences, offer the chance for students to further enrich the work they do upon their return, deepen their research and study, appreciate and seek out the opportunities available to them on campus, and infuse their current collaborations and their plans for the future with a new energy. The Theatre and the Arts in Chicago course, in just one block, inspired our students in ways that may last their entire lives. In fact, one of the best surprises came out of our personal connections made with Chicago alumni who visited with us, saw shows with us, dined with us, and continuously reached out to us. Those relationships, too, may last their entire lives.

We will always share this campus home here in Mount Vernon. What the McLennan Center as a place for higher learning can allow us to do is take the beautiful elements that make Cornell College such an incredible home to all of us—and share them in a home elsewhere. Not an institution mind you—but a home; a place where we cook together, live together, navigate and find our way together, and most importantly learn together in a shared space for a special period of time.


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