From an early focus on elocution and oratory to the rise of the dramatic arts, the School of Communication has grown considerably over the last 140 years and become a trendsetter in the field of the communication arts and sciences. Now two new initiatives will enhance graduate theater education at Northwestern and bolster the school’s long-standing contributions to Chicago’s flourishing cultural community.
Starting in September 2019 the school will launch a master of fine arts program in acting to be housed in a forthcoming downtown Chicago performing and media arts center — developments that will help to increase Northwestern’s presence in a city that is hailed for its theater and film and for developing new talent. The plans also will advance the University’s impact on the performing arts, a priority of We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern.
“We are known for our undergraduate acting program, and we expect that our new graduate acting degree will be equally successful and give our entire theater program greater visibility and competitiveness,” says Barbara O’Keefe, Annenberg University Professor and dean of the School of Communication. “Building a downtown Chicago hub where the acting students can collaborate and create with those in our design, directing and writing graduate programs will dramatically elevate the work our community is producing — and foster an even stronger relationship with Chicago artists and supporters.”
Since becoming dean in 2000, O’Keefe has worked to strengthen, expand and add professional and graduate programs in theater design and directing, writing for the screen and stage, documentary media, and sound arts and industries, as well as in other areas, including the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.
The new acting program will build on this momentum and benefit other graduate students in the communication arts. As the actors hone their craft, they will collaborate with writers, designers, directors, sound artists and specialists from other graduate-level studies, creating more opportunities to learn from one another. Students in the new acting program will inspire those in Northwestern’s top-ranked undergraduate programs in theater, dance, music theater and performance studies. The new program also will provide opportunities for the school to recruit faculty and be more competitive in national rankings for graduate theater education.
The school’s growth has precipitated a need for more space for graduate studies. Over the last few years and with support from the “We Will” Campaign, the school has renovated and expanded its footprint on the Evanston campus — with state-of-the-art classroom, rehearsal and performance spaces — and is now poised to do the same in Chicago. Last June the school dedicated the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts, following renovations to improve the facility.
“Marilyn and I are proud to honor my grandmother’s love of theater and Northwestern through our support of the new center downtown.” — William Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz ’75
To accommodate students in the new acting and other graduate programs, the school plans to open a performing and media arts center on Northwestern’s Chicago campus. It will be made possible by a lead gift from Chicago Blackhawks Chairman William Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz ’75, University trustee, and his wife, Marilyn, whose previous gift was recognized with the naming of the Wirtz Center. The couple also has provided generous support for graduate programs in theater directing and design as well as for a professorship, children’s programming and collaborations with professional artists and regional theaters. With these gifts, they carry on the legacy of Rocky Wirtz’s grandmother, Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz ’24, who championed the performing arts at Northwestern.
“Marilyn and I are proud to honor my grandmother’s love of theater and Northwestern through our support of the new center downtown,” Rocky Wirtz says. “The School of Communication now has the opportunity to expand its graduate education program and fully integrate itself with Chicago’s vibrant performing arts scene.”
The performing and media arts center will be located on the second floor of Abbott Hall — with views of Lake Michigan — in the city’s Streeterville neighborhood, a few blocks from the Chicago theater district and many cultural institutions. The 20-story building was constructed in 1940 as a dormitory for the University’s graduate students and, at the time, considered to be the tallest building in the world used exclusively for student housing. During World War II, Abbott Hall was home to the U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School, which graduated more than 20,000 midshipmen, including future president John F. Kennedy. Today the historic landmark contains offices and a campus bookstore as well as Northwestern initiatives such as the School of Communication’s Center for Communication and Health and the Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools.
The second floor of Abbott Hall (left) on the Chicago campus will house Northwestern’s performing and media arts center.
The school will renovate and transform a former large cafeteria with high ceilings into the center downtown, which will provide space for collaborative projects across the University. It will feature black box, teaching, work and reception areas and be used to host student productions, readings, workshops, screenings and other events.
Once complete, the center will support the expansion of graduate education in the performing and media arts, serve as a hub for new and experimental work being developed by students and faculty, and provide opportunities to reach downtown audiences. It also will further connect the school to Chicago’s thriving theater and film communities and cultural institutions.
Faculty and alumni from the school have founded and shaped some of Chicago’s most prominent, Tony Award-winning theaters, including Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Goodman Theatre, Lookingglass Theatre Company and Steppenwolf Theatre. The new center and program position Northwestern to enhance those connections and develop new partners and projects.
CommFest 2018 — a two-day event featuring Northwestern alumni, faculty and students (see “The Stars Will Shine”) — will further support the school’s expansion while celebrating its successes.