With only five professors, the ISU theatre program rose above other schools across the country as it was recently ranked as one of the most under-rated collegiate theatre programs, according to onstageblog.com, second only to Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington.
Vanessa Ballam, the head of the acting program, first heard of the program’s success from sophomore Tristan Berg, and attributes the ranking to fate.
Since she first became an ISU professor five years ago, Ballam has seen the program grow in many ways, such as incorporating guest artists and providing opportunities for students to show their talents outside of Pocatello.
“We don’t push our students any less,” Ballam said. “I want to show them that great art can exist anywhere.”
One of her students, senior Venus Gulbranson, attributes the program’s success to Ballam.
“She saw where the program was and she saw where she wanted it to go,” Gulbranson said. “Because of her, students are traveling and pursuing careers outside of Pocatello.”
Last year, Gulbranson was nominated and won a spot in the Gateway Program, which focuses on diversity. She was paired with a mentor and was given an all-expenses-paid trip to the United States Institute for Theatre Technology conference in Missouri.
Through the conference, she met with people for graduate school and was offered a job at the Santa Fe Opera this summer.
One of Ballam’s other students, freshman Brayton Hunt, recently won an acting competition the first year ISU students competed. She participated in a showcase in Washington, D.C. where she met with Broadway directors and enhancing her skills.
The theatre faculty is invested in the careers of the students, and discusses every student during faculty meetings to make sure no one is being left behind.
The College of Arts and Letters leadership, including the Founding Dean Kandi Turley-Ames and Associate Dean for Fine Arts & Humanities Randy Earles, support the faculty in various ways, including providing ways for professors to participate in professional theatre opportunities with theatre groups across the country.
Having guest artists throughout the year has allowed students to make lasting connections and have colleagues across the country.
“The faculty is so eager to help,” Gulbranson said. “I don’t know where all this motivational dust came from, but we’re taking a lot of big steps forward; we have the talent and the drive to become number one.”
Ballam encourages students to reach out to professionals in the theatre community because, according to her, the worst thing that can happen is you’ll be in the same place you are right now.
Earles believes the powerful combination of a caring faculty and first-rate facilities, such as the Stephens Performing Arts Center and the Bilyeu theatre in Frazier Hall, sets ISU apart from other collegiate theatre programs.
“I personally helped the department with the accreditation documents that led to their initial accreditation by the National Association of Schools of Theatre in 2012,” Earles said. “We added a new specialist in acting in order to meet the accreditation standards, which resulted in the hiring of Vanessa Ballam.”
Earles explained how the wealth of experience and knowledge Ballam brought to ISU has been a tremendous benefit to theatre students.
The program is continuing to grow, but not without obstacles.
One problem Gulbranson notices is how difficult it is to get students involved in the program. Even though an introductory acting class is now a general-education option, Gulbranson believes it’s not enough.
The biggest thing holding the program back is funding.
“I’m amazed that we produced anything with the funding we have,” Ballam said.
Long-range plans for the program include adding a MFA program in acting and a bachelor’s program in musical theatre, but funding needs to be stabilized.
There are large supporters including ASISU, the Bistline Foundation and individual donors, but until upper administration supports a new funding program seeking to use a dedicated activity fee instead of an annual appropriation from student senate, ISU’s theatre program will likely continue to see cuts in funding.
“We’re a small but mighty program,” Ballam said. “I don’t want it to stop now.”