The theater program at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs doesn't have the high faculty-to-student ratio touted by elite liberal arts schools. But theater program director Laura Tesman believes that forces the students to think, and learn, independently.
"I feel that if students take responsibility for their own education," Tesman says, "it provides them with skills they need once they get out of the university."
Those skills go under the spotlight once a year, when students get billed on Theatreworks' professional stage, the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theatre. This year, Tesman directs a student performance of The Playboy of the Western World.
In the play, main character Christy Mahon stumbles into a bar and says he's killed his father. The bar owner and his daughter idolize Mahon for being so bold, and he instantly becomes a local hero.
Tesman says that even though the play was written in 1907, the moral applies today.
"In this age of reality television and media-spinning paparazzi, we know how a 'star' can be made overnight ... It is human nature to want to idolize someone for reasons that may not always be well-founded."
The play explores what sudden, unwarranted adoration does to a person's behavior: When Mahon's father shows up in the tavern, Mahon's reputation sours, compelling him to try to kill the old man again. The town then loathes Mahon.
The play's moral wasn't the only reason Tesman chose it.
"If we have this opportunity to work in the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant ... I want it to be challenging," she says.
Playboy uses a few well-wrought characters, fight sequences and language from turn-of-the-century Ireland, where the play takes place.
Tesman says the kids surpassed her expectations, but adds that's typical of UCCS theater students. She notes that 2007 grads already have started two theater companies in town.
"They start to think, 'I don't need $5,000 I can do a show with a hundred, and I can do some borrowing and using of my friends' talents to bring something to life,'" says Tesman.
Assistant director Laura TimmKreitzer, an '07 grad who helped start local troupe Theatre 'd Art and also works as stage manager for UCCS' Osborne Theater, credits Theatreworks.
"There's an amazing benefit in having a professional theater in such close proximity to the students," she says. "It's a way for students with any interest in theater to look over and say, 'That's where I see myself.'"
She adds that when students act at the Bon Vivant, they use the same dressing rooms as actors flying in from all over the country for Theatreworks shows.
Sean Verdu, one Playboy actor, says Tesman put him in shows his freshman year. That means he had three years of experience as a junior in 2007, which helped him get a role alongside professional, union actors in Theatreworks' production of Hamlet last summer.
"In my opinion," says Tesman, "the opportunities that we give students all come together to create an atmosphere of freedom, of ability to achieve something."