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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 5, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 16
Drama Minor To Be Offered Through Writing Sems

By Amy Cowles

Three years after the reintroduction of acting courses at Johns Hopkins, undergraduates may now pursue a minor in the Writing Seminars with a concentration in drama.

The creation of the concentration in drama is in direct response to student enthusiasm for acting and directing workshops instituted by actor-director John Astin, an alumnus and a visiting professor of dramatic arts in the Writing Seminars. Astin returned to his alma mater three years ago with the hope of bolstering interest in drama on the university's Homewood campus. His plan worked; last month's Theatre Hopkins production of Our Town featuring Astin and several of his students played to rave reviews and a sold-out run.

"My main reason for being here is that ever since I graduated I've had a sense of appreciation and gratitude toward this school," said Astin, a member of the class of 1952. "I feel that the school — as great as it is — needs this sort of thing. And the fact that I'm doing this at Johns Hopkins rather than another university makes a major difference for me."

Currently there are 77 students studying acting with Astin at varying levels of difficulty. His courses draw students from diverse disciplines, including biomedical engineering, public health, political science and math, Astin's own major before transferring to the program that was the precursor to the Writing Seminars.

"Because each student, and each section of students, is different, I have to dip into my 50 years of working with people," Astin said. His teaching technique is drawn from his own early experiences as a stage actor in New York City theaters, where he learned to tap into his own personality while assuming roles, and from his five years of study with Harold Clurman, the late American theater master and founder of the Group Theatre.

"I use an approach I call 'the Process,' which contains a great deal of flexibility," Astin said. "It encourages freedom and the courage to expand, hopefully broadening the perspective of the student. One can't simply apply a rigid formula to teach acting because good, credible acting comes from the treasure that lies within the actor. Understanding and experiencing that principle has a usefulness that extends beyond acting."

Former students have gone on to careers in film and theater, but Astin said that even those who went on to be teachers, medical school students or scientists have told him that the workshops have had an impact on their professional lives.

"They tell me that they feel they see more of what is going on around them and that they have a better idea of who they are because of these classes," Astin said.

The requirements for the minor in Writing Seminars with a concentration in drama are two semesters of Introduction to Fiction and Poetry, one course from the English Department (Shakespeare is recommended), one course from the Department of History, one course from the Department of Philosophy, one advanced course in the humanities, two courses of a foreign language at the intermediate level and five advanced courses in the Writing Seminars, such as the acting and directing workshops, which are focused on Chekhov and O'Neill, or Projects in Theater, special projects created for and tailored to the individual theater student. The acting and directing courses introduce fundamental techniques, improvisations and scene work.

"I also stress [to the students] the importance of keeping a journal so they can track their progress," Astin said. "Some do it and some don't, but it keeps them from repeating techniques that didn't work."


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