Catholic University's renowned performing arts programs

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"Our program produces theater artists, not just actors," said Tori Boutin, a senior drama student at Catholic University in Washington.

The lithe, bespectacled Floridian was one among a crowd of drama students - aspiring actors, directors, playwrights, designers, stage managers, dramaturgs and teachers - chattering in the upper lobby of Hartke Hall for an informal reception before rehearsals. Hartke's main stage has witnessed the talents of Helen Hayes, Grace Kelly, Sidney Poiter and other stars. Professor Patrick Tuite, chairman of the drama department joked that the evening's buzz was not only about the free food, but for two upcoming shows, both written by candidates for master's degrees.

Catholic U.'s master's playwriting program is the only one on the East Coast that offers a full fellowship to its students, plus a professional production of students' plays before they graduate. The plays are directed and designed by professionals and performed by students. This year, the students presented "Conversations I've Never Had" by Kathleen Burke and "The Mage Knights of Eternal Light" by Amanda Zeitler.

Zeitler, who earned her bachelor's from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles in 2011, said that "sometimes theatre folk get a bad rap for being antireligious" but she feels that her Catholic identity is respected in her program, even among her many non-Catholic peers.

"People (regardless of faith) come here because it's a great program," she said.

Playwriting students participate in a writing workshop every semester, while also taking courses in theory, dramaturgy, screenwriting, adaptation and dramatic structures. Many students also choose to intern at one of Washington's many producing and educational theaters, from Arena Stage to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

At the undergraduate level, drama students pursue a broader focus. Tuitt says that the undergraduate program couples some of the rigor of conservatory training with a liberal arts curriculum.

"(In this program), an actor knows how to pick up a hammer and build a flat," said Lewis Folden, a professional designer and Catholic U. guest artist. Folden, who earned a master's from the Yale School of Drama in New Haven, Conn., is a Helen Hayes award-winner with credits in off-Broadway and regional theater productions, as well as ballets, operas and television shows.

More musically inclined theater-lovers should turn to Catholic U.'s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. According to school dean and professor, Grayson Wagstaff, the bachelor of music in musical theater is the school's most popular undergraduate concentration.

"(The school) is a preeminent center for music research … and the only comprehensive music program in Catholic education that includes everything from performance training to a PhD in musicology," said Wagstaff, whose musicology research explores early Catholic worship music in the Mexican and Spanish traditions.

Bachelor's, master's and doctoral programs are available in music education, composition, orchestral performance and more - a variety that Wagstaff described as "exceptional" and "unique." The Institute of Sacred Music and the Latin American Center for Graduate Studies in Music permit more specialized study for students with liturgical, theological and Spanish-language interests.

At the undergraduate level, students who prefer a liberal arts curriculum may major in music with no particular emphasis. This is the track recommended for students wishing to double-major or minor in another field for what Wagstaff called a "blended career."

Wagstaff said the school not only holds high expectations for its students as students but "as people."

"We want our students to have an intense (musical experience), but we also want them to have a sense of decency," said Wagstaff. "That comes from our Catholic tradition. If someone falls, we want our students to help that person. We ask them, what can you do to make the whole production better?"

As burgeoning playwright Zeitler said: "Don't expect (the performing arts) to be easy … but don't work with people who aren't nice." The environment at Catholic U. is "nurturing" and "welcoming," presenting her with "opportunities I never would've had anywhere else."

Find out more

To learn more about CUA's Department of Drama, go to To learn more about CUA's School of Music, go to

Stoddard can be reached at

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015