Coming into an existing theater program and talking about change is a tough job. But the University of Dayton’s Michelle Hayford was up for the challenge. With her vast experience and the administration’s willingness to reinvigorate the program, the results have been impressive.

“With all of the options to engage in our new program, and perform in our diverse production seasons, we really do offer every student at UD the opportunity to study theater, dance and performance technology,” says Hayford.

Behind the Scenes

Hayford came to UD in the fall of 2014 as the director of what was then known as the theater program. It is now the theater, dance and performance technology program. Previously from Florida Gulf Coast University where she served as the theater program director, she was also the assistant director of the Bower School of Music and the Arts, which comprised theater, dance, visual arts and music.

She double majored in theater and women’s studies as an undergrad at the University of California Santa Cruz, where she first made the connection that theater can change the world for the better. She has a Ph.D. in performance studies from Northwestern University.

“That program is well known for its interdisciplinary strengths and scholars who utilize performance for advocacy and social justice,” says Hayford—a combination that would serve her well at the University of Dayton.

At Center Stage

UD’s theater program distinctly aligns with the mission and values at the core of the Marianist university. Students are prepared to be servant leaders who understand how to use their talents to better their communities. For example, the applied theater concentration is the study of theater in nontraditional settings usually in partnership with social service agencies in order to meet a local need.

“My mentors there were Dwight Conquergood and E. Patrick Johnson, luminaries in the field of performance studies who schooled me well on the artist’s responsibility to community and the power of representation to transform communities,” says Hayford. “Our BA program requires students to have breadth as artists with the option of depth if they should choose, or they can dabble in everything with no pressure to declare a concentration.”

Recently Hayford devised, scripted and directed Sustenance at UD, a choose-your-own-adventure performance installation featuring the sound sculpture of artist Michael Bashaw and coproduced with the Hanley Sustainability Institute.

“The play staged the environmental justice issues of the local Dayton McCook Field Neighborhood toxic TCE plume in the soil and groundwater, the exploitation of Pennsylvania’s rural poor by the fracking industry, and the Flint Michigan water crisis to name just a few of the issues we tackled,” she says.

Recently, the theater department featured a one-woman show by faculty member Dr. Jenn Freitag. I Want My Jacket Back is an interactive solo performance that explores new ways to think and talk about gender violence. A blend of standup musical comedy and facilitated dialogue with the audience, Freitag invites critical reflection on the social construction of gender, consent, gender violence prevention strategies and healing after sexual assault.

“This is what theater for social change can mean for students interested in serving their communities,” Freitag says. “These are issues that every college campus faces, but they are not always easy to talk about.”

Scripts and Rewrites

The university has completely transformed the bachelor of theater degree by offering a new curriculum. Now known as the theater, dance and performance technology program, the department offers four concentrations in acting, applied theater, dance and performance technology. It also offers a minor, and a theater concentration in the communication major.

According to the department’s website, co-curricular, interdisciplinary and experiential learning are at the heart of the curriculum. The university is deeply committed to the city of Dayton and creating partnerships with Dayton arts organizations.

Debbie Blunden-Diggs, the artistic director of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, is part of the university’s dance faculty. In the 2015-16 school year, the organizations coproduced a concert featuring UD’s student dance ensemble and DCDC2. The groups hope to make it an annual event. UD has also collaborated with Zoot Theatre, Dayton’s local professional puppet theater company, to produce (ir)reconcilable, an original devised piece about faith and reason, and And a Child Shall Lead by Michael Slade.

This summer the university will begin a new partnership with Brighter Connections Theatre, a Dayton nonprofit that uses theater for therapeutic purposes for children ages 8-14 with autism spectrum disorders. UD will host BCT’s summer camp, and UD students will work with the children as a part of a College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Fellowship program, getting students engaged again with the servant leadership mission.

“I anticipate that this partnership will be incredibly rewarding for the ASD kids who participate, as well as for the Brighter Connections volunteers and UD students who will discover numerous mutual rewards by engaging in this work,” says Hayford. “I saw their performance last summer and was incredibly moved by these amazing kids and the transformative power of theater.”

The performances are scheduled for July 16 and 17 at 2 p.m. in the Black Box Theatre in Fitz Hall at UD.

Earlier this summer, students showcased their talent in the annual Celebration of the Arts at the Schuster Center. The show features programming from the entire academic year in all areas: music, theater, dance and visual art.

“It’s an incredible distinction for UD that we are able to have our students perform in this world-class venue every year,” says Hayford. “Celebration of the Arts is one of the ways we showcase creative scholarship, and there are a substantial percentage of non-arts majors who have this opportunity as well.”

Hayford believes that in today’s performative world, it is not enough to be a fantastic interpreter of already scripted works. Graduates in creative fields now also need to know how to create original works: how to research, respond to and ethically represent the communities in which they live.

“I truly believe our graduates will be excellent examples of servant leaders sharing their talent for the benefit of the communities in which they perform,” she says.

For tickets or to learn about other UD theater performances, go to udayton.edu or call 937-229-3950.