A journey of exploration in theater art — starting at Mount Holyoke

Paula T. Alekson ’90

Paula T. Alekson ’90

Artistic engagement manager, McCarter Theatre Center

Academic focus: theater major, with additional studies in dramatic literature

Advanced degrees: Ph.D. in drama/theater history, Tufts University; M.F.A. in playwriting, Brandeis University

When I began at Mount Holyoke, I thought that I wanted to be a professional actor, but now I know that acting and performance was simply the launching pad for what has become my life’s journey of exploration in theater art.

By virtue of Mount Holyoke’s liberal arts focus and my theater major, I got to explore all aspects of the art form — from performance to theater history to the elements of production and design to technical theater (by virtue of production requirements) to advanced seminars in dramatic literature (in the English department) to playwriting (taken in my senior year at Smith College through the glorious Five College Consortium).

Outside of coursework, my experience in main stage and summer theater productions as an actor — mostly under the direction of my beloved mentor, Jim Cavanaugh, professor emeritus of theater arts — taught me professionalism, technique and craft and instilled in me both a strong work ethic and a great respect for the audience. Incidentally, summer theater and my production prep crew experience also taught me how to build, fix and demolish things! A person who knows how to use power tools, paint, sew and rewire lighting instruments is a force to be reckoned with!

As a work-study student, I was also given the opportunity to work in the Laboratory (now Rooke) theater box office, under the kind tutelage of Barbara Bunyan, the department’s business manager and academic coordinator, who taught me so many things, including customer service skills and attention to detail, and who modeled for me a devotion to project, student and institution, which informs my own work to this day.

And finally, I was given the opportunity to be a student leader representative and have a voice in faculty and staff departmental meetings — I’ve no doubt that this was a formative experience that imbued me with confidence and assured me that my voice matters.

It wasn’t until my senior year that I discovered and became besotted with playwriting. Having decided after commencement that I wouldn’t pursue acting, I enrolled in a professional training program in playwriting. It was in this program that I discovered I was less interested in creating plays than in analyzing and critiquing them (now known as dramaturgy and criticism — a field of scholarly pursuit that was just getting off of the ground in the 1990s).

Eventually, after a series of odd jobs (e.g., house painter, record store clerk, correspondent for a mutual fund company, independent school admissions office manager) and adult life adventures, I enrolled in a theater history doctoral program — based upon the suggestion of a professor for whom I was a graduate teaching assistant: “You’d be really good at this!” (i.e., teaching theater history and theory and criticism).

My hope was that a Ph.D. would eventually afford me the opportunity to teach theater on the undergraduate level in a liberal arts setting, with the big dream to teach at Mount Holyoke — which I did as a visiting instructor for three years in the Department of Theatre Arts. I had the opportunity to teach Introduction to Theatre, as well as classes on performance, playwriting, theater history and theory and criticism. I even had the opportunity to act as an academic advisor to a few students, which was very rewarding. I received my doctoral degree the same month that my visiting appointment at Mount Holyoke ended.

My journey of exploration in theater art next took me to the prestigious regional theater I had read about in American Theater magazine while at Mount Holyoke: the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey. For my first six seasons at McCarter, I was the director of high school programs, with primary responsibilities directing and teaching a high school playwriting residency program and festival, engaging with our student audiences as a master of ceremonies at student matinees and creating resource guides for teachers to use in the classroom.

I was then asked to take over as the theater’s artistic engagement manager. In this high-profile role, I oversee all audience and community engagement initiatives, including artist discussions, scholarly panels, pre-show talks, adult school classes and other programs intended to deepen and enhance the experience of the work on McCarter’s stages for audiences and learners of all ages. My work in theater engagement is an amalgamation of teacher, public speaker, talk-show host and community partner.

Amazingly, all aspects of my journey past are now utilized in the work that I do for McCarter Theatre education/engagement and artistic departments. I have been greatly served by the totality of my educational experience founded in the classroom, on the stage, at the box office and in the department meetings at Mount Holyoke College.