Prior to 1936, university dramatic activities were informal. In 1877, the College Dramatic Club produced the first campus play, The Loan of a Lover. This group was inactive until 1893, when it was revived as a men’s organization. Strollers was formed in 1901 and existed as a theatre student organization off and on until 2004. In 1915, a third group, called Sash and Slipper, produced a student-written play. This group later called itself Zarzoliers, and in 1919 became an all-male group called the Scarlet Mask, dedicated to writing and staging of original musical comedies. James Thurber, Milton Caniff, Elliot Nugent, and Wes Fesler are illustrious alumni of the latter group. Scarlet Mask lasted through the 1950s.
In 1936, the Department of Speech was created and separated from the Department of English, and courses in the study of theatre were offered for the first time. These were under the direction of Herman Allen Miller (AM, Columbia University). He joined the Ohio State faculty in 1936. At the request of Miller, the first University Theatre was completed in Derby Hall in the fall of 1938. The first production in the new theatre was Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall. Original plays by the faculty were also produced and one of the student actresses of those years was Broadway actress, Eileen Heckart. When Miller left the university in 1939, he was succeeded by Eugene Bahn (PhD, University of Wisconsin). He served on the Ohio State faculty from 1937-1946. During the post-war years, theatre instruction was shepherded by John H. McDowell (PhD, Yale University), who became a member of the Ohio State faculty in 1945. Theatre course offerings were expanded, and the MA and PhD degrees in theatre were offered for the first time. The first theatre doctorate was granted in 1949. 1946 also saw the beginning of a regular series of University Theatre productions. For ten years—from 1946 to 1956—all performances were staged in Derby Hall Theatre. During the years 1956-1968, major theatrical productions were performed in the University Hall Chapel. In 1950, Stadium Theatre was founded as a university-community summer theatre series.
Also in 1950, the Ohio State University Theatre Collection (renamed Theatre Research Institute in 1971) was established. It is known internationally as one of the finest libraries of its kind. The library provides reference materials for student reports, theses, and dissertations. The collection contains 2,500 directors’ prompt books on film; 300,000 microfilm frames of theatrical manuscripts, costume, and set designs; and 3,000 slides of theatrical architecture. In recent years, the collection has grown considerably, especially in the areas of scenic and costume design, contemporary playwright collections, and mime/movement theatre. In 1986, the Theatre Research Institute became formally associated with University Libraries and also was rededicated as the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute.
Between the years 1955 and 1959, John Dietrich (PhD, University of Wisconsin) served as the head of the theatre. His successor was Roy Bowen (PhD, The Ohio State University). Bowen served as Head of Theatre from 1959 to 1968. In the 1960s, several international seminars in theatre studies were sponsored in England and Scandinavia. 1963 saw the formation of the American Playwrights’ Theatre (APT). The APT was an organizational alliance of professional playwrights and educational theatre producers for the production of plays. Under this organization, production rights for new plays were granted to nonprofit theatres prior to their Broadway production. Dr. David H. Ayers was selected as the first National Executive Director of this organization, and continued in that capacity until the disbanding of the organization in 1981.
In 1968, Arthur L. Housman (PhD, State University of Iowa) became the first Chair of the Division of Theatre in the College of the Arts. In 1969, the division instituted two new degree programs—the BFA and the MFA, both with emphases in acting, directing, or design. The division became a department and its first MFA was granted in 1971. In the spring quarter of 1969 and 1970, Ohio State theatre students participated in international study tours led by Dr. George Crepeau. The group saw theatres and theatre productions in Eastern Europe and the USSR as well as in Western Europe.
In 1969, the faculty had grown to 11 full-time members teaching 46 courses for 154 undergraduate and 87 graduate majors. In the summer of 1971, John A. Walker (PhD, Cornell University) became the chair of the department. Department offices were located in Derby Hall from 1968 to 1972. This period was one of considerable transition, as productions during this period were presented in Derby, Mershon, Sullivant, and Hughes Hall. Sullivant and Hughes were both stop-gap measures following the closure of the original Stadium Theatre due to a fire in 1968, and the demolishing of the original University Hall with its large auditorium in the early 1960s. Family plays were also produced in various locations in Franklin County in connection with the State Department of Mental Hygiene and Correction.
The Department of Theatre moved to new facilities in Drake Union in the summer of 1972. Stadium II Theatre (renamed the Roy Bowen Theatre in 1999) was open for performances that summer, and Thurber Theatre opened for performances in November. The first play presented in Thurber Theatre was the premiere performance of Lawrence and Lee’s Jabberwock. Another Lawrence and Lee premiere, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, had been presented in 1970.
In the spring of 1974, because of extensive renovations planned for Thompson Library, the Theatre Research Institute was forced to move. Since at the time, the university could not make available quarters more suitable to house the precious microfilm and other delicate collections, the Institute had to relocate to Oxley Hall, an antiquated former dormitory. This “temporary” remove lasted for twelve years, with some deterioration resulting to parts of the collection. The Theatre Research Institute moved to Lincoln Tower in 1984, another former dormitory location.
Undergraduate enrollment shrank by one-third during the 1970s, stabilized during the later 1970s, and dropped precipitously to 52 in 1981. Firman H. Brown, Jr. (PhD, University of Wisconsin at Madison) took over the leadership of the Department in 1981. Under his leadership, the department moved to implement its philosophy of providing an educational environment where “performance and scholarship meet.” The department dropped the BFA degree, coming to the conclusion that the BA degree centered in a strong liberal arts education is the soundest one for theatre undergraduates. The final BFA class graduated in June 1991. The BA degree was redesigned, and the department took a pioneering role in implementing the degree as the university adopted a new undergraduate curriculum. The MFA degrees with emphases in acting and design were strengthened; the MFA degree with an emphasis in directing was discontinued in 1980, reinstated in 1989, and formally ended in 1994. No summer program has been offered since 1984. Along with strengthening the department’s degree options, Brown established the Thurber House Playwright-in-Residence Program, which marked the first time that a visiting artist program was regularized.
Brown was succeeded in 1992 by Kathleen Conlin (PhD, University of Michigan). During her administration, departmental structure was revised, grouping faculty into three distinct areas of study. Conlin served as Chair until 1996, at which time a search for a new chair was conducted. Dennis Parker (MFA, University of Michigan) and Mark Shanda (MFA, University of Wisconsin-Madison), served as interim chairs from 1996 to 1997.
In January 1998, Lesley Ferris (PhD, University of Minnesota) became chair of the department. Under her leadership, the department emphasized its focus on new works, establishing a laboratory space in Drake Performance and Event Center (formerly the Drake Union) for experimentation, and drawing renowned artists to guest artistships, including Marcel Marceau, Anne Bogart, and Woodie King Jr. In addition, international collaboration and study has become a key element of the program, with such guest artists as Jaroslav Malina and Caridad Svich teaching students and creating work at Ohio State, as well as study abroad opportunities for students in London theatre and Cuban performance. In 1999, the department established an exchange agreement with the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. The department also took a lead in technical with a three-year research partnership, beginning in 2000, with Vari*Lite® Inc. The goal of the project was the development of a pilot collegiate automated lighting program valued at $1.1 million. Together, these elements build a theatre program that focuses on the creation of new work by drawing from international experimentation and new technologies.
The department has a long history of new play development extending back to 1970 with the world premiere of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, directed by Roy Bowen. Bowen was one of the founders of the American Playwrights Theatre (APT), cited by The New York Times as significant in the development of new play programs nationally, which helped establish regional theatres as centers for new work. With its premiere of Thoreau, the department launched the APT’s greatest success, which would have over 140 separate productions nationwide. In 1986, Lawrence and Lee gave their considerable theatre archives to the university, leading to the naming of the Lawrence and Lee Theatre Research Institute, which houses archival material from playwrights and designers as well as national performance figures such as Twyla Tharp and Robert Post. Complementing this collection is the department’s continued commitment to new play development through a fifteen year partnership with Thurber House and an annual Thurber Playwright-in-Residence program. This residency program brought a playwright selected through a national competition to the department for one quarter each year.
In spring 1997, the department featured a ground-breaking new work as part of its production season. Through the confluence of several elements (the history of new play development in the department, the funding of the Moving Lights Lab, and the Wexner Center for the Arts partnership), new works faculty created Interior Day. Following its success, other experimental projects followed, including the world premiere of Feral Music (which integrated the performance and compositions of a music student with moving light technology) in 1999; Breaking the Current (a full-length piece integrating text, mime, movement theatre, and technology) in 1999; the graduation of the first series of MFA students in a new works curriculum in 1999-2003; Behind the Mask: An Evening with Paul Lawrence Dunbar (which integrated poetry into a new play by Ted Lange) in 2000; Uncommon Clay (a devised, movement-based work based on the life of sculptor Camille Claudel) in 2002; The Fire Still Burns (a devised, movement-based work in collaboration with the Department of Dance) in 2003; and Sleep Deprivation Chamber (the first collaboration with the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD), which integrated Adrienne Kennedy’s text with video, digital animation, interactive computer interfaces, and projections) in 2003. This production celebrated Kennedy’s prolific work as a playwright. The department nominated her for an honorary doctorate, which she was awarded that in June 2003.
1999 also saw the department initiate an outreach program by touring Rock ‘N’ Roles from William Shakespeare to area schools. Since 2010, the tour has been an adaption of a Shakespeare play. Students receive credit for participation through a service-learning course.
The Mershon Center for International Security Studies awarded the department nearly $40,000 to support our proposal entitled “Identity Formation in the Arab World”. Spring quarter focused on this topic in the classroom, on the stage, with a symposium, and with a variety of guest artist residencies and performances. Iraqi Fulbright scholar Salih Hameed joined the department for the year and Syrian director Naila Al-Atrash directed Tewfik Al-Hakim’s play Fate of a Cockroach.
In 2004 Provost Barbara Snyder mandated that the Department of Theatre take over the student run TV station, BuckeyeTV, and develop a curriculum. The transition of BuckeyeTV from a student organization to an academic unit started in the 2004 - 05 academic year. BuckeyeTV is now the name of the station and it is the television studio in the department that serves the Media Production and Analysis Minor (interdisciplinary minor between theatre and the communications) as well as a Theatre Minor by offering a number of TV production courses. The department received one of the most prestigious awards given by the university: the Departmental Teaching Excellence Award that came with $50,000 to enhance teaching. A highlight of fall 2004 was London’s Royal Court Theatre Writing Workshop, which gave our students an opportunity to work with playwright Simon Stephens.
The department mourned the passing of Jerome Lawrence in February 2004 and celebrated the 50th anniversary of Inherit the Wind with a production in 2005 that was accompanied by a symposium on theatre and law. In a double win for the department, the department and one of its doctoral students each separately received the Distinguished Diversity Enhancement Award, the university's highest recognition for their ongoing efforts to promote diversity. The Office of International Affairs and the Department of Theatre co-commissioned playwright Catherine Filloux for a new work to address international concerns. The play, Escuela del Mundo, toured widely in central Ohio in 2005 and 2006. Joe Brandesky established the Czech Theatre and Culture Study Abroad program in 2005. It runs alternate uneven years with the London Theatre Program to time trips to coincide with the Prague Quadrennial. At the end of academic year 2005, Lesley Ferris stepped down as department chair after two terms of service and Mark Shanda (MFA, University of Wisconsin-Madison) was appointed to take the reins of theatre.
During Mark Shanda’s tenure as chair, the department produced several productions downtown at the Southern Theatre. During 2006 John Stewart and The Daily Show had a weeklong residency with the Roy Bowen Theatre serving as the “World Headquarters of the Midwest Midterm Midtacular”. Notable guest artist included Robbie McCauley with her solo work-in-progress Sugar, and Daniel Beatty and Lenelle Moïse presented their solo shows in 2009.
In 2006, Lecturer Robin Post created InterACT, an outreach theatre program that is a service-learning course. Using forum theatre techniques, the University Center for the Advancement of Teaching partners with InterACT to create scenarios developed in class that focus on various issues that students and faculty might encounter. The InterACT course received the Diversity Award for Best Program from the Multicultural Center and was featured on the Big Ten Network and in Research and Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre, volume 16, issue 2, 2011.
In February 2008 the College of the Arts opened a new gallery space downtown, the Urban Arts Space, with the exhibition of Midnight Robbers: The Artists of Notting Hill Carnival, co-curated by Lesley Ferris and Adela Ruth Tompsett. After forty years, the College of Arts was dissolved as a separate college in June 2008. It was merged with the College of Humanities Humanities as a division in the College of Arts and Sciences. In 2008 Karen Bell became the director of the Arts Initiative, an umbrella for arts related work connecting to the community of Columbus and beyond.
In 2009 two major events, which dramatically increased the profile of the department, took place: the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute moved to the newly renovated Thompson Library, where it joined forces with other Special Collections. Alan Woods stepped down from his role as Director of Theatre Research Institute and Mary Tarantino took on this role.
The second profile-building event was the establishment in 2009 of an Ohio State University and Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) partnership, brokered by Karen Bell as director of the Arts Initiative. This partnership continued through 2016. During these years three cohorts of MFA acting and PhD students were trained by the RSC in their Stand Up for Shakespeare pedagogy. They also worked in area K-12 schools as teaching artists. In spring 2011 and again in 2015, the department hosted a Shakespeare and Education Festival that featured workshops with teachers, graduate students, and RSC artists. Each festival featured local schools performing Shakespeare in the Thurber Theatre.
The provost invited Mark Shanda to serve as interim divisional dean of Arts and Humanities for the 2010-2011 academic year. Mark Shanda was then appointed for a four year term that ended in June 2015. Dan Gray (MFA, University of Massachusetts) took over as interim chair during 2010-2011 and served as chair from 2011—2014 after which Lesley Ferris became interim chair.
The Ohio Sate/RSC partnership initiated a major piece of research with the Department of Theatre, the Nisonger Center in Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, and Kelly Hunter, a company member of the RSC at the time the project started in 2010. The Shakespeare and Autism Project utilized the Hunter Heartbeat Method, a variety of theatre games using Shakespeare created to address the communicative blocks found in children on the autism spectrum. This three year project, funded by the Outreach and Engagement Office and the College of Arts and Sciences, trained students and faculty to work with the Columbus Public Schools. Doctors at the Nisonger Center conducted research on Shakespeare social skills intervention for children with ASD. Shakespeare and Autism, an upper-level course was added to the department's curriculum.
The State of Ohio mandated that all state universities convert quarter systems to semesters: Ohio State set autumn 2012 as the launch into semesters. This was a major transition that took several years to accomplish. The department used this as an opportunity to re-think and update the curriculum and to consider the production season. At the same time the university asked all departments to reduce the amount of credits to graduate.
The department's lone film-making faculty member, Janet Parrott, initiated Digi-EYE, an evening of original live action and animated moving image shorts created by students from the Departments of Theatre, Art, and Dance and the ACCAD.
In 2014, the Big Ten Theatre Consortium developed a New Play Initiative for women playwrights that provides newly commissioned scripts by with strong roles for women of university age. The department has held two staged readings and two full productions of plays resulting from this initiative. In 2015, the department produced Good Kids by Naomi Iizuka, and in 2019, the department produced Bonnets: (How Ladies of Good Breeding Are Induced to Murder) by Jen Silverman.
The department's first collaboration with a media team was in 2003 with Sleep Deprivation Chamber. Since then the department has collaborated with ACCAD faculty and staff on two major projects, both devised works: The Camouflage Project (2011, 2012) and There is No Silence (2014). During 2011 the department was able to hire a theatre media artist with a joint appointment in ACCAD. With hires in film-making in 2004 and 2015, film and video courses became more embedded in the department's curriculum, resulting in a significant number of students minoring in video arts or in media analysis and production.
Janet Parrott (MA, The Ohio State University) was appointed chair in 2016.
The Ohio State Board of Trustees gave initial approval for a new building in 2017 that would house the Department of Theatre and the Moving-Image Production Major administered by the Film Studies Program. The building is part of an $165.3M Arts District project that would also renovate and expand the facilities for the School of Music. When completed, all of the arts units will be located within walking distance from each other at the front door to the heart of the University District at 15th Avenue and High Street.
Lesley Ferris spearheaded a week-long residency as part of a city-wide celebration in 2018 of the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance called I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100. The department brought Minneapolis-based playwright/performer and artistic director of Carlyle Brown and Company Carlyle Brown to campus for a second time to perform Acting Black: Demystifying Racism at the Wexner Center for the Arts and at the King Arts Complex. The department also produced a staged reading of Brown's play Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been.... During his residency, Brown held a workshop at Transit Arts, a citywide youth arts development program. Co-sponsors for this event included the Greater Columbus Arts Council, The King Arts Complex, the National Performance Network/Visual Artists Network, and from The Ohio State University—the College of Education and Human Ecology, College of Social Work, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Office of Government Affairs, Office of Outreach and Engagement, Office of the President, Office of Student Life, University Libraries, and the Wexner Center for the Arts.
In 2019, Lesley Ferris organized On the Front Lines, a series of events centered on Afghanistan. As part of the series, Nushin Arbabzadah, Afghan playwright, scholar, translator, and journalist, delivered the Lawrence and Lee Theatre Research Institute Annual Lecture, "Shakespeare Among the Suicide Bombers: The Turmoil of Theater in Modern Afghanistan". Natalie Alvarez, Canadian theatre and performance scholar delivered the lecture "Strategic Culture: Staging Afghanistan to Simulate War". Lesley Ferris delivered the lecture "On the Road to the Pentagon: The Great Game Afghanistan". Dutch photographer Joël van Houdt discussed "'Kuja Meri?' (Where are you going?): Afghan Refugees Across the Globe" his gripping exhibit documenting Afghan refugees. In addition, the department screened A Thousand Girls Like Me by Sahra Mani and produced two one-act plays--Parwana: They Bear All the Pain by Alia Bano and Dust Allergy by Nushin Arbabzadah, part of Sahar Speaks: Voices of Women from Afghanistan, commissioned by Palindrome Productions of London.
Under Parrott's leadership, in 2020, the Department of Theatre became the Department of Theatre, Film, and Media Arts, uniting The Department of Theatre, the Film Studies Program, and the Moving-Image Production Major. The newly constituted department became the home of more than a dozen existing undergraduate and graduate programs.
- Undergraduate Majors: Film Studies, Moving-Image Production, Theatre
- Undergraduate Minors: Entertainment Design and Technology, Film Studies, Media Production and Analysis, Musical Theatre, Screenwriting, Theatre, Video Arts
- Graduate Programs: Film Studies (MA), Theatre Studies (MA and PhD), Theatre (MFA, emphasis in acting or design)
- Graduate Minors: Cinema and Video Production, Theatre and Performance
- Graduate Interdisciplinary Specialization: Film Studies
In November 2020, construction began on a new building for the Department of Theatre, Film, and Media Arts.
In spring 2020, when then university shifted to distance-learning as a result of the covid pandemic, the department was forced to cancel its production Once Upon the Oval, a devised piece by Nadine George-Graves about The Ohio State University, intended to be presented as part of the university's 150th anniversary.
Andrew Shelton (PhD, New York University), Professor of History of Art was named interim chair 2020. Shelton shepherded the department through the first year of the covid pandemic when the department was forced to cancel its 2020-2021 production season. The department provided alternative theatrical experiences for its students including a performance over Zoom of Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties by Jen Silverman, a radio production of The Big Loop by Paul Bae, and various design installations. Projects by the MFA acting class of 2021 and by moving-image production majors were streamed online, including the 1st senior showcase by the department's undergraduate film-makers.
EJ Westlake (PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison) was appointed department chair in 2021.
In spring 2023, the department moved out of the Drake Performance and Event Center and into the Theatre, Film, and Media Arts Building. The new building contained spaces for theatre-making and for film-making.