A Tale of Two (Univer-) Cities
Act I – It Happened One Night
It was just small talk, really. The show was over and two men were talking after the curtain fell.
Geoffrey Arndt, a recent undergraduate at Illinois State University, was working as the co-coordinator and VIP liaison for a regional festival of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festivals.
David Lee-Painter, also an Illinois State alumnus, was back at his alma mater in his role as the national chair for the Kennedy Center program.
The two began chatting and Lee-Painter learned about Arndt’s background.
“I asked him if he ever considered a Master of Fine Arts degree, as that is the terminal degree in his field,” Lee-Painter said. “He said he was actually thinking about it. I mentioned that U of I had a great MFA program and he should consider checking us out.”
When Arndt was indeed ready to start researching schools, he learned that Lee-Painter would be one of the professors he would take instruction from in the program at University of Idaho.
“When I saw his name again, I thought ‘This is kismet, I have to apply’,” he said.
Act II – A Program for Professionals
In 2009, Robert Caisley, chair of the Department of Theatre Arts at U of I, began recruiting playwrights for an MFA playwriting program and quickly found out the traditional on-campus route for this particular group wasn’t a good fit.
“I found out playwrights actually don’t want to come to Idaho,” he said. “They don’t have anything against Idaho, but they need to be in an urban center where they can hang out at a theater and hand out scripts and try to get people to read them.”
This led Caisley, the third Illinois State undergraduate in this story, to develop a one-of-a-kind distance program which allows students to pursue their MFA while leading their lives away from the main U of I campus in Moscow.
This idea was very attractive to Arndt, who began teaching theatre and fine arts classes at Saint Patrick High School in Chicago in 2007. As the director of theatre at Saint Patrick’s, he teaches 12 courses and directs two plays a semester. He has access to established acting companies in Chicago, such as the House Theatre, and someday hopes to become a college professor.
“I wanted to find a program to accommodate me not being a full-time student on campus,” he said. “It made so much sense to choose this program. What really sold it for me was working with other working professionals across the country.”
According to Caisley, the U of I MFA distance program also has two attractive features: a conversion program that allows up to 20 credits from an accredited master’s degree in theatre to be converted into credits for the MFA and eligibility for in-state tuition for all participants.
Those intangibles would not go unnoticed by Arndt.
Act III – The Graduate
Most directors want their stories to have happy endings. Arndt’s will come in December as he completes his program and receives his MFA. And yes, he will complete his degree in two years rather than three, taking advantage of the MA-MFA conversion.
And, as most directors try very hard to show, this story has connections that come together nicely at the end: both Caisley and Lee-Painter are members of Arndt’s three person graduate committee.
Caisley recently flew out to Chicago to watch Arndt’s production of “The Neverending Story,” which Arndt completed for his professional off-campus studio course. Caisley not only admired the show but noted how being in a big city gave directors like Arndt a big advantage.
Arndt’s future likely lies in the Chicago area, but he’s excited to share with his students the knowledge he has obtained from his time at U of I.
“Education is where I want to stay,” he said. “I want to bring these techniques and experiences from U of I to my classroom. I want to show how we connect our arts to the world.”
Article by David Jackson
Published in December 2019