Planet Duke: A Drama-Filled Summer in Chicago

Students get a crash course in collaboration
April 29, 2015

From the time he performed in an abridged version of Cinderella when he was eight years old, Andrew Jacobs has been a theater kid. He acted in plays all through elementary, middle, and high schools, and joined Hoof ‘n’ Horn once he got to Duke. When he started to wonder about the management side of theater, his adviser steered him toward Duke in Chicago.

Launched for the first time in 2014, Duke in Chicago is a summer program that exposes students to the ambitious world of arts and entrepreneurship. For six weeks, students tour the Windy City’s theater, music, dance, visual arts, and comedy scene. With waterfront Roosevelt Universityas their home base, they take backstage tours of theaters and shows, meet working artists for lunch, and roam museums and galleries. They also can sign up for acrobatics and physical-theater classes at Actors Gymnasium, dance classes at Joffrey Ballet, and improv and writing classes at Second City, the improvisational comedy club that claims Bill Murray and Amy Poehler among its alumni.

One of Jacobs’ most memorable days was visiting Steppenwolf, a Tony Award-winning theater company. He met people from different departments, toured the office and theaters, and saw two performances. The program shows students “that the career choice they face is not starving artist or investment banker. It’s a step toward becoming the next generation of arts leader,” says program director Jody McAuliffe, chair of Duke’s theater studies department.

The program culminates with students producing a show from start to finish: conceiving the idea, managing a budget, marketing the event, and performing it. “It’s a crash course in collaboration that teaches them that they can make work seemingly from ‘nothing,’ ” says McAuliffe. With the help of Heidi Coleman ’89, a professor at theUniversity of Chicago, Jacobs and his classmates produced Artificial, an abstract theater piece exploring the theme of fear through acting, dancing, singing, and creative writing.

“The show was a simulation of running our own arts-based organization. We had a venue and $5,000 ‘grant,’ and were left to decide what the name of our organization was, what our mission and purpose was, how we would use the money and manage the event,” says Jacobs. He wrote and performed a monologue based on his fears around gender norms and sexuality, sang a song from the musical Hair, and participated in a few other numbers as well.

Duke in Chicago has revolutionized Jacobs’ perspective on how to both make and manage his own art. “My dad runs his own business, and growing up I always thought that would be such a dry career to have. I never thought it would be a topic that really inspired me,” he says. “I was able to see how art, especially innovative art, needs strategic leadership, business acumen, and money to survive.”

A rising senior, Jacobs is now taking business and entrepreneurship classes and working on a distinction project with the theater studies department. He is even considering getting an M.B.A. He is imagining ways that he can be “that man behind the scenes, keeping the arts and culture alive in our communities.” Where will he head after graduation? Chicago is definitely on the list.

  • Elizabeth '11 is a writer in New York. She previously worked as a senior editorial fellow for The Trace and a staff writer for Duke Magazine.