UB's Catherine Norgren Serving as National Chair of Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival

By Donna Longenecker

Release Date: September 20, 2002 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Approximately 18,000 students from colleges and universities nationwide participate each year in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF), a national program designed to serve as a catalyst for improving the quality of college theater.

Serving as the festival's national chair until 2005 is Catherine Norgren, associate professor of theatre and dance, and head of design and production for the Department of Theatre and Dance in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

Theater, Norgren believes, embodies most of what is essential about a liberal arts education.

"Theater strikes me as the most liberal of liberal arts because it encompasses and develops all that the liberal arts epitomizes -- critical thinking, making connections and articulate communication skills -- verbal, written and visual," she explains.

Based at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., KCACTF has grown into a network of more than 600 academic institutions throughout the country from which theater departments and student artists showcase their work and receive critiques of their performances.

Norgren has been involved with the festival since 1983, serving as an elected member-at-large and as national vice chair and chair of Region II, which includes New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Washington, D.C. She was elected national chair this spring.

"The heart of the American College Theater Festival," she says, "is the eight regional festivals that often last 4-5 days with back-to-back performances." Essentially, "you're asking someone from another school for objective and informed feedback and evaluation of your performance," she points out. "You accept the invitation (to appear in the festival) with the expectation to prepare for that and to be open to what that might be."

In January and February of each year, eight regional festivals showcase the finest of each region's competitive productions and offer a variety of activities, including workshops, symposia and regional-level award programs.

If a work is chosen from any one of the eight regional festivals to participate at the national level -- at the Kennedy Center -- it still faces another round of respondents, or critics in its quest for a national title.

The process of evaluating a work is complex, but Norgren insists that as much as possible, judgments must fair and take into consideration the "whole" production.

"Because theater has a visual product, judgments end up being about that," says Norgren, noting, however, that "my personal passion is for the process."

She is a better teacher, she says, because the process of evaluating a performance and all that it entails has forced her to respond as objectively and constructively as possible. "Fifteen years of responding has honed my own analytic skills and my own awareness and honesty. It has taught me a kind of patience, maybe an instinctual awareness of how to look backwards throughout the process."

One of the many challenges student participants face is designing a show in a way that makes it "tourable" -- with only four hours to put up the set and one hour to tear it down, and without numerous rehearsals, says Norgren.

And when the magical moments occur, it is like all great theater, she explains. "The collaborations are so seamless that there is no room to separate the elements."

And she points out, the failures are full of teachable moments. Constant interaction, negotiation and joint decision-making within a production crew and the intellectual exchange that occurs during critiques forces students and evaluators to focus on the work, learning to rise above ego and personality.

"Theater people are renaissance people -- even if we move on to other careers, we become specialists in humanity," Norgren says.

While experiences in drama may contribute to students being articulate, informed and curious, Norgren says student success also depends on being able to function effectively as part of a group dynamic and being willing to make constructive compromises.

"Like the liberal arts, theater embraces diversity, encourages individuality and nurtures capable, motivated and responsible citizens," she says. "The study of theater requires students to see themselves in others' shoes, to imagine and understand differences; it requires students to work in groups; it requires discipline, tremendous energy and commitment. As such, theater, therefore, provides students with attitudes and skills that better equip them to succeed in any field."

Not to mention the training it provides for greater ease in public speaking to groups large or small, she adds. "Theater students cannot succeed -- whether as performers, designers, critics or

theorists -- without doing extensive research in a wide range of disciplines, without being creative and metaphoric thinkers and without being able to present a cogent argument. They must be good listeners," she says.

Since its inception, KCACTF has given more than 400,000 college students the opportunity to have their work critiqued, improve their dramatic skills and receive national recognition for excellence. More than 16 million theatergoers have attended approximately 10,000 festival productions nationwide.

Regional festivals have exploded in size, Norgren notes, and seeing productions as they were intended is becoming more difficult -- festivals have grown from 200-seat houses to 400-seat houses to 1,000-seat houses. This has posed some major reorganizational issues that Norgren says she is anxious to tackle in her position as national chair.