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Practicum problem solvers: How guest speakers enriched theatre education during COVID-19

Headshot for alumna Christina Leineke

School of Theatre and Dance alumna Christina Leineke was one of 17 professional theatre artists who used Zoom to speak with students in the theatre practicum class about their careers.

Every semester, over 100 theatre students sign up for practicum hours where they are given the opportunity to work hands-on in the theatre production process. In practicum, students “learn by doing,” advisor Rob Fulton said.

Due to COVID-19, practicum hours along with in-person classes and productions in the School of Theatre and Dance were suspended in March. Theatre practitioners, however, are known for their ability to find creative solutions in difficult situations, and the response to the pandemic called this can-do attitude forward. Fulton and School of Theatre and Dance Interim Director Ann Haugo made a plan to continue to provide real-world experience to practicum students.

Haugo’s idea was to invite professional theatre artists to talk about the realities of their careers via Zoom. Fulton reached out to several alumni and friends of Illinois State University, who were more than happy to offer their time and expertise to students. The seventeen generous practitioners who are “crazy hard workers,” as Fulton describes, represent a variety of theatrical areas including stage management, drag performance, and costume design.

School of Theatre and Dance alumna Christina Leineke as a student working in the Costume Shop on a yellow dress for the production of MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM

School of Theatre and Dance alumna Christina Leineke as a student working on a costume for the production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

One guest speaker, Christina Leinicke, was eager to recount her own experiences as a student at Illinois State. The 2008 graduate is now a costume shop and design associate at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora where she has professionally utilized the skills that she learned at ISU.

“It was in the practicum class, fall of 2004, that I first discovered my passion for costumes,” she said.

Starting on wardrobe crew, Leinicke quickly worked her way up in the School of Theatre and Dance program to be an employee of the Costume Shop and eventually a cutter and draper for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. After graduating, she continued her studies at the University of Alabama and received a Master of Fine Arts in costume design and production. She has since worked professionally in many cities including Los Angeles and Chicago.

Leinicke shared her best advice to students committed to pursuing theatre professionally. She encouraged young artists to take advantage of working in summer festival theatre, like the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. “You learn so much on the job in practical application of skills that you grow exponentially in these work opportunities. You can build a professional resume and make connections with artists already in the business,” she stated.

Leinicke offered wisdom that certainly applies to every line of work: “Be kind to everyone, be the person that people can stand to be locked in a room with for 24 hours and still be excited to work with the next day…Be a problem solver, come to the table with solutions, and save the venting of frustration for after work with friends.”

School of Theatre and Dance alumna Christina Leineke as an intern working for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

School of Theatre and Dance alumna Christina Leineke as an intern working for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

Fulton confirmed that all of the speakers emphasized networking as one of the most essential parts of succeeding in show business and believes that the guest speakers had a profound impact on the students who attended in place of their normal practicum hours.

“Talking to these professionals really helps students connect to the professional world,” Fulton said.

The experience clearly impacted him as well as he shared, “I learned a lot too. It made me think of my own experiences of entering the professional world and what I wish I would have known back then.”

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, theatre artists and instructors continue to get the job done by finding creative solutions and utilizing technology. Along with hosting guest speakers, the School of Theatre and Dance and its students produced multiple play readings and other activities via Zoom. While the theatre world faces a time of great turmoil, the enthusiasm for the art and the love of connection remains strong.

Guest speakers included alumni Christina Leinicke, costume shop and design associate at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora; Kathryn Rohe, former costume technician for The Lion King on Broadway; Andrew Blevins, stage manager for the Cats national tour; Keizo Osuga, carpenter on the Sesame Street LIVE! tour; Theresa Ham, costume and shop practitioner in Chicago; Ryan Finley, theatre electrician in Las Vegas; Claire Buchannan, theatre practitioner in Chicago; Jack Schmitz, wardrobe crew for The Lion King on Broadway; Joe Court, sound technician in the Midwest; Clatie Fischer, costume practitioner in local theatre; Gaby Labotka, intimacy director based in Chicago; Chris Wych, props practitioner in Chicago and at Northwestern University; and Nick Spindler/Claire Voyant, makeup/costume designer and drag performer.