The Department of Communication & Theatre, formerly known as the Department of Communication Arts, the Department of Speech and Theatre, and the Department of Speech, has existed for about half of the “PLU Century” of existence. The department’s roots go back as far as the founding of the PLU Academy by Scandinavian clerics in 1890. The history of the department divides into three periods, each marked by differences in teaching and learning methods as well as differences in understanding exactly what it means to study “communication.”
The early years (1890-1940)
PLU began as a small academy, much like we think of today’s high schools. Like other schools of the time, the PLU academy thought of speech and theater as extra-curricular activities and skills that could be used in other classes.
Early records report debate, journalism and theater as part of the Pacific Lutheran Academy scene from the beginning. Debate took the form of “lyceums” and “literary societies” where students would meet to discuss current events and literary works. However, they created a “PLU twist” on the well-known lyceum and literary society form; debates were occasionally conducted in both English and Norwegian!
Students published a forerunner of today’s The Mooring Mast, called the Hurricane. The Hurricane was part student newspaper, part campus gossip column, and part yearbook. The paper reported about debates held on campus as well as the occasional theater production. During these very early years, students outside of class organized all of these activities with the help of professors.
The Mooring Mast began in 1924, and was advised by one of the legendary PLU figures, Professor Ole Stuen. The paper was named after a structure at Fort Lewis built to moor a dirigible balloon. The first edition reported on the activities of the debate club, who conducted a campus debate on the topic: “Resolved: that bobbed hair is desirable.”
Founding a Department in a Tumultuous Era (1940-1978)
The second era of the department began with the hiring of Professor Theodore O. H. Karl in 1940. Professor Karl founded the Department of Speech; directed both PLU’s nationally ranked debate program and campus theatre productions; founded what would become the National Public Radio Station KPLU; secured funding for the construction of Eastvold Chapel as the home for the Music and Speech Departments; was a national officer in the NAIA and Pi Kappa Delta, the national forensics honor society; was campus Parliamentarian and a Faculty Marshal; and had a hand in many of the controversies that plagued PLU in the nearly forty years of his teaching career at PLU.
The Speech Department’s original mission was helping to prepare education majors to become classroom teachers. Education was the university’s largest department during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Speech courses were required for Education majors. The department gradually expanded its faculty, adding professors to teach Speech and in 1955, professors to teach Theatre courses. Courses included Public Speaking, Voice and Diction, Beginning Acting, Speech for the Teacher, and Group Discussion.
The department was located in Eastvold Chapel from 1951 to 1982. Offices for The Mast bounced around from place to place, eventually ending up in the University Center. The debate squad room was in the basement of the library. Theatre held forth on Eastvold stage.
The 1960’s and 70’s were an exciting time for both the University and the department. There were a number of campus controversies in the 1960’s. Broadcast communication began to take root in the department. Courses in radio and television broadcasting began. An on-campus cable television program was initiated. PLU hosted the National Pi Kappa Delta Convention in 1965. The department’s focus on training education majors was supplemented by growing student interest in majoring in Speech and Theatre.
“Prof” Karl, as he was known to generations of students, retired in 1978, although he was visible on campus until his death in 1984. He, more than anyone else, is responsible for the health and vitality of Communication and Theatre on this campus.
Change, Growth, Re-Invention, Back to Basics (1978-present)
Much of the current nature of the Department dates back to the 1970’s. Many of the current faculty members (Michael Bartanen and, recently retired, Cliff Rowe) were hired during that decade. These people helped “re-invent” the department during the 1980’s from a “teacher training” program to the diverse program it is today.
Journalism was added as an emphasis area in 1980. Cliff Rowe was hired as a full-time faculty member to teach in the program and to continue to advise The Mast. Professors William Becvar and William Parker combined to teach theatre courses and direct the outstanding on-stage productions available to students and the community each semester. Michael Bartanen revived the forensics program and returned it to the regional and national prominence that it continues to enjoy. Christopher Spicer created the Public Relations emphasis area that has become a very important part of the curriculum of the department.
Through all these changes, the basic concept dating back to the 1890’s is still apparent: co-curricular activities are an integral part of the department’s offerings. PLU students, including a large number of students with other majors, annually participate in theatre, forensics, KCNS-6, LASR, and The Mooring
Mast, as well participating in internships and community service activities preparing them for lives of service and professional success.
While PLU founder Bjug Harstad might not recognize the PLU of today, he would surely appreciate the importance that communication and theatre courses and activities play in the cultural, social and academic life of the university. Who knows, the way things change, the departmental history on the web page of 2110 (or whatever dominant medium may arise between now and then) will probably show another 100 years of growth and change in Communication and Theatre at PLU.