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USC Changes 'School of Theater' to 'School of Dramatic Arts.' So What's the Difference?

USC School of Dramatic Arts Dean Madeline Puzo

Mark BerndtUSC School of Dramatic Arts Dean Madeline Puzo

What's in a name? Would that which we call the USC School of Theatre by any other name smell as sweet?

Sweeter, apparently, or so it might seem from the announcement this week by the esteemed acting school that the institution will henceforth be officially known as the USC School of Dramatic Arts.

For a school that has produced a roster of distinguished, marquee alumni including Forest Whitaker, Deborah Ann Woll, Tate Donovan, Swoosie Kurtz, Kyra Sedgwick, Eric Stoltz and LeVar Burton, the rechristening immediately raised the question of what connotations the phrase "dramatic arts" might encompass that the word "theater" (or "theatre," as the school spelled it) didn't already cover?

An outside observer might point out the similarity between the name switch and that of its richer and more famous sister school of film, which changed its name from the School of Cinema-Television to the School of Cinematic Arts in 2006 and five months later received a whopping $175 million endowment from director George Lucas (class of '67). Cynics from the region's struggling stage community might sadly shake their heads at what might be implied by the ominously literal elimination of the word "theater."

Madeline Puzo, who is inaugurating both the name change and her second decade as the School of Theatre's dean, scoffs at any insinuations that SOT is somehow abandoning the legitimate stage. Speaking with the Weekly by phone, she leaves little room for doubt: "I mean it when I say theater is our home and our foundation. ... And I mean the live event."

Puzo says the name change originated in nothing more sinister than talks with alumni and supporters on the school's board of counselors about theater versus dramatic arts. "I liked 'dramatic arts,'" she says. "A lot of schools like RADA or [Australia's] National Institute of Dramatic Arts go for dramatic art, but the reality is they tend to be acting schools. ... [And while] the theater is certainly our artistic home and the foundation for all the training, how the students apply it in the world wasn't simply theater. And we felt ultimately that 'School of Theatre' was not articulating the mission of the school."

If that mission -- what Puzo calls "the education and training of artists" -- remains the same, she is only too aware that the culture and its appetite for technology-driven, industrial entertainments (and their seductive economies of scale) have hardly stood still. "My past has been solely theater," she insists. "That doesn't mean that's the students' future."

They could do worse. Before taking the USC job in 2002, Puzo put in seven years at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater as a producer under its legendary artistic director Garland Wright, and during the 1980s she was something of a local hero here in Los Angeles, where she founded the Taper, Too, the Mark Taper Forum's short-lived but highly lauded second stage, which both nurtured and provided a home to some of the most important L.A. stage writers, actors and directors of that decade. At USC she created three new graduate programs, in acting, playwriting and production design, while doubling the school's faculty and seeing an increase in enrollment of more than 25 percent.

But Puzo's tenure at USC also coincided with the digital media explosion, and the name change seemed an appropriate way to reflect the broader range of curricula that the school has introduced to meet the educational demands of these new storytelling technologies.

"The reality is that most of our students are seeing theater as one part of their lives, not the only part of their lives," she explains. "And indeed we have many semesters where they can take acting for the camera. We created a voice-over booth so they would learn voice work. There's a lot of training that we're doing that is preparing them to be able to jump media." She adds with a laugh, "We have kids now creating webisodes. And I don't even begin to know what that means."

Ultimately the name change was about adapting to the demands of the real world -- teaching the kind of nontraditional "dramatic arts" that will pay the rent, or that provide opportunities when stage work isn't available or when inspiration strikes for projects in other media. "The students we're teaching really want to have the skills, the training, the courage to work in whatever medium is presented to them," she says.

As for the hidebound theater purist who might see something dire in the change to School of Dramatic Arts, Puzo counters, "The reality is that it is the actors and the writers who incorporate and who embody what theater is and not these buildings." Citing esteemed institutions like Britain's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Australia's NIDA and Yale School of Drama (the general drama vs. theater distinction is a whole other can of worms), Puzo points out, "They do not use the word theater, but they haven't turned their back on the theatrical event. Neither will we."

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