Muhlenberg College’s Theatre & Dance Department

By Kathleen Shannon

Harold and the Purple Crayon, the 1955 children’s book by Crockett Johnson that’s also a play for both children and adults, lets us know we can create the reality we want, step by step.

That’s exactly what Professor Charles Richter did with the Theatre and Dance Department at Muhlenberg College, and it’s paid off big time.

When he started the program in 1978 Richter wanted to have a program that both grounded students in liberal arts as well as provide a footing in theatre and dance, with courses taught by theatre professionals.  That’s happened.

The pay off?  The prestigious Princeton Review named Muhlenberg’s theatre and dance program best in the country in 2011.  Better than NYU or any school in California, including the California state system of universities, which includes UCLA, Berkeley and Stanford.

“The niche the department fills now is the niche it has always filled,” said Richter, current Director of Theatre.  “We provide first-rate professional training, whether it is in acting, dancing, directing, or design — really as good as most conservatory programs you’ll find — and first-rate theatre and dance academic scholarship. But what makes the department unique — and what I thought would make us successful 34 years ago — is that we provide that training in the context of a comprehensive, world-class liberal arts education. That has always been the case. Students come to Muhlenberg to get a well-rounded education AND to learn how to act, dance, direct, and design. That combination appeals to a lot of students and parents.”

The program has about 180 students majoring in theatre or dance, exclusive of first year students. Many others minor in theatre, like pre-law students needing poise and confidence for future real life courtroom dramas.

Richter practices what he preaches.  He’s been artistic director for the Pennsylvania Stage Company and has worked extensively with the New York City Opera. Richter’s additional experience includes Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park, New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Theatre Three in Dallas, Texas.

Other lead faculty is equally talented. Dr.  James Peck, department chair, has taught at the Yale School of Drama as well as New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and has been director of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Karen Dearborn, Director of Dance, performed professionally for 12 years in concert dance and musical theatre and has choreographed for the National Theatre for the Deaf.

Peck attributes the program’s success to not only the caliber of faculty members, but to the aim of Muhlenberg itself:  teach students to think, talk and write well.  And for theatre students, do that about art forms.

He says it’s hard to find a small liberal arts college that invests in the arts the way Muhlenberg does, especially with high quality faculty from both New York and Philadelphia.

Incredibly talented faculty includes two Baker Artists in Residence for 2011 –  2012. Deborah Wingert, in dance, was selected by The George Balanchine Foundation in Manhattan at age 16 to join the company of the New York City Ballet. During her 15 years there she had many soloist roles in productions including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Coppelia, Orpheus, Prodigal Son, and  Peter Martins’ The Sleeping Beauty, among others. Wingert has danced in film and in television productions of The Nutcracker (Time-Warner), PBS Great Performances’ Dinner with Balanchine, and Live from Lincoln Center’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

On the theatre side, Liv Covey is the Baker Artist in Residence for 2011 – 2012.  She’s done costume design for  Wittenberg for the Pearl Theatre, NYC; You Can’t Take it With You and The Diary of Anne Frank for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis; The Savannah Disputation and Misalliance for the Olney Theatre in Maryland; Betrayal for Capital Rep in Albany, N.Y.; and Frost/Nixon for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.  Covey has coauthored two textbooks,  The Costume Designer’s Handbook and The Costume Technician’s Handbook, which are standard classroom texts in the field.

Professors and instructors who can tell a student how to emote, what facial expression to create or how to provide direction to on-stage actors – from their own experience – are an invaluable asset.

One of those invaluable instructors is Marisa Cerveris, a former dancer with The New York City Ballet, Compania Nacionale de Danza, and Ballet du Capitole de Toulouse. Cerveris also owns ByMarisa, couture designer dancewear that has been featured on ABC’s  Dancing with the Stars.

Vanessa Lancellotti, a 2010 Muhlenberg graduate, is now a faculty member after assisting the General Manager of Broadway’s Time Stands Still, and was the SDC (Stage Directors and Choreographers) Foundation Observer on Primary Stages’ world premiere a capella musical, In Transit.

A theatre professional for over 25 years, Leslie Reidel is on the faculty of both Muhlenberg and the University of Delaware. His directorial credits include The Walnut Street Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, the Madison Civic Rep, the Pennsylvania, Utah, Colorado, and Fort Worth Shakespeare Festivals and 12 years as the resident director of the Great American Children’s Theatre.

Curtis Dretsch, Director of Design and Technical Theatre, teaches scenery, costume and lighting design.  He’s been at Muhlenberg for 31 years and has designed for the Dallas Shakespeare Festival and the Pennsylvania Stage Company.

Dretsch is currently working on the designs for On the Town, which has music by Leonard Bernstein and needs sets of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Times Square that can accommodate a large number of dancers on stage, so a choreographer is on the design team.   “It’s a very sweeping story during the World War II era,” Dretsch said. “Students can be on the design team along with staff.  We have some volunteers that work with students to construct sets.  A student working on a play can use it as an independent study for credit.”

Recipients of this enormously talented faculty’s collective expertise are the students.  Heather Lavin of Allentown, Assistant Director of the Muhlenberg Fund, was in the class of 2008. “I was a double major – Media Communications & Dance and I spent a lot of time coordinating my other courses with my dance work. I had a really rich liberal arts experience, “ she said. “The faculty at Muhlenberg Theatre and Dance is unbelievable,” Lavin said. “When you go into another state, another country, people know your professor from Muhlenberg.” She recalled perfecting a technical aspect of ballet, and credits Karen Dearborn for helping her get it right over a three year period.

Jennifer Lifson, a 2001 grad with both a theatre and dance major, now teaches theatre and dance in the Boston area. “I chose this school over a conservatory for two reasons,” Lifson said. “You’re getting educated in the liberal arts in addition to getting the education in theatre and in dance.  You can’t get that at a conservatory where you’re only getting educated in that major.”

As Dr. Peck said quite succinctly, “What makes us the best is the caliber of the faculty.”

2012 – 13 Muhlenberg College Theatre and Dance Productions

44 Plays for 44 Presidents
September 29 – October 3

On The Town
October 26 – November 4

Moving Stories
November 15 – 17

The Earth Our Hospital: Or, The bourgeois Pig
November 29 – December 2

Master Choreographers
February 7 – 9

Bartholomew Fair
February 21 – 24

New Visions – Directors’ Festival
March 20 – 24

Dance Emerge
April 18 – 21

The Marriage of Figaro
April 25 – 28


Scott Snyder, Director of Marketing, Theatre & Dance, Muhlenberg College, Chew St., Allentown, PA

Dr. Jeff Peck, Department Chair, Theatre and Dance, Muhlenberg College, Chew St., Allentown, PA

Karen Dearborn, Director of Dance, Muhlenberg College, Chew St., Allentown, PA

Charles Richter, Director of Theatre, Muhlenberg College, Chew St., Allentown, PA

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