Alyssa Algee was at a crossroads.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in theater from Mississippi University for Women in 2011, Algee decided she wanted to pursue the highest degree in her field. But Algee didn’t want to quit her job as technical director of fine arts at Northwest Mississippi Community College (NWCC), so she was stuck.
The W’s master of fine arts in theater education allowed Algee to realize her goal and so much more.
“This is THE program for the working teacher,” Algee said. “As a full-time teacher, in any capacity, few are in a position to be able to leave a steady, reliable income to take three years off to pursue that terminal degree, so to find there is a program that works with you and your job — priceless.”
Algee was one of seven students from Cohort 1 who graduated this weekend as part of The W’s inaugural class. Chelsea Petty, drama teacher, Columbus Middle School; Sarah Staggers, drama teacher at Starkville Oktibbeha School District; Suz Allmon, drama teacher, Ocean Spring High School; Marianna Coffey, alumnus and technical director at Kirkwood Visual and Performing Arts in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Lissa Slay, director of theater arts at Mater Dei High School, Santa Ana, California; and Juniper Wallace, drama teacher at Northwest Rankin High School, also were to receive their degrees. The other cohort member is Alexis Marsh, Bryan College instructor, Dayton, Tennessee. Cohort 1 started the program in the fall of 2019.
The MFA in theater education is a three-year, 60-hour degree that features online courses in the fall and spring semesters and a two-week summer residency for two years, followed by a thesis project. Since the program is geared toward theater educators, the basis of the thesis project will generally be a K-12 school production that the MFA candidate is directing, producing and/or designing. The program is open to all theater practitioners, whether in professional, academic and/or community theater. All courses feature instruction in the theoretical, critical and practical aspects of all facets of theater, as well as a pedagogical unit focused on developing lesson plans, modules and teaching strategies for each area of study.
David Carter, chair of the Department of Theater, has spent much of the last six years developing and implementing the plan for the MFA in theater education. He said the program has been tweaked in the past few years to ensure the course material is more relevant to the students.
“The original concept was to teach best practices in theater procedures, techniques and dramatic analysis that students could adapt into usable instruction in their classrooms,” Carter said. “We found the students could integrate the material immediately into their classes, and into the shows they were working on. These became a sort of lab for the classes, so we could get immediate feedback on what worked and what did not.”
Carter said Algee has excelled in numerous areas in the program from formulating lesson plans on acting and directing, as well as technical and design assignments, and called her “the best of the best.”
Algee, who is originally from Yuba City, California, and now lives in Sardis, said The W’s general bachelor’s degree in theater allowed her not to be pigeon-holed in the world of theater and education, and gave her the freedom to design, act, build, paint and teach in all of those areas. Those skills serve her well at NWCC, where she manages the school’s performance space, designs all productions, directs and teaches all of the technical theater classes.
Algee said The W’s MFA in theater education has broadened her capabilities even further. She bonded with the other students in her cohort and learned how to look at everything as a teaching experience.
“Every class was a full-on theater class that wasn’t always about how to teach, but it was always about, ‘How can this be a teaching moment? How could I take this moment, this lesson, this purpose, and make it applicable in my own teaching?’” Algee said. “It just changed the way I thought in a really beneficial way and stimulated my creativity and challenged me as an artist.”
Algee said the theater graduate program met her expectations in every way and that she is honored to be part of the inaugural class. She said she already has recommended the program to others looking to pursue a career in theater.
“We worked really hard but also really collaboratively, which I think is probably the main example we hope to have set: work together and lean on each other and share the load,” Algee said. “The camaraderie between the cohort and the support of the teachers was an invaluable part of the program, and it created an environment I hope lasts long after we graduate.”