San Diego State University’s Independent Student Newspaper Since 1913

The Daily Aztec

San Diego State University’s Independent Student Newspaper Since 1913

The Daily Aztec

San Diego State University’s Independent Student Newspaper Since 1913

The Daily Aztec

Graduate students master musicals

Courtesy of Dmitri Diakov

San Diego State is home to a variety of programs with many different focuses. One of the graduate programs offered is the Master of Fine Arts in musical theater.

“It’s a very, very intensive program,” MFA musical theater program director Paula Kalustian said. “Students come from all over the country and the world for it. We only take on eight to ten students every two years.”

One of the students currently enrolled in the program is Courtney Kattengell. She has a background in performing arts, beginning at an early age with dance progressing into studying theater arts.

“I grew up dancing, and then I got into acting from dance,” she said. “I’ve been in other types of plays, but I am most interested in the art form of musical theater.”

After completing her bachelor’s degree in theater performance with a minor in musical theater from Marymount Manhattan College in New York, Kattengell decided she wanted to return to school and study to become a teacher of musical theater.

“While I was (at Marymount) I was teetering on the brink.” she said. “Do I want to just be an actress, or do I want to be an actress who also can teach and preserve? I am really into theater history, knowing where it all comes from and recognizing formulas and patterns to work upon in the future- that stuff intrigues me beyond belief.”

This interest led Kattengell to SDSU, where one of the two programs in the country offering a MFA in musical theater exists. The program consists of a small cohort of graduate students who study, practice and perform together throughout the course of two years.

Kikau Alvaro is another student in the program. Originally from San Jose he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from San Jose State. He was drawn to New York where he gained experience as an actor, dancer, director and choreographer. Though New York is now his home, he has returned to California for two years to complete his graduate studies. Like Kattengell, he hopes to use his education to teach others about musical theater.

“I want to take this program to an undergraduate or graduate level form of study,” he said. “I want to continue to pass along to a creative environment that this information is important, as well as in an artistic way by pushing the genre of musical theater through creating, directing, choreographing and investigating things that haven’t been done.”

The program focuses on every aspect of musical theater and allows students to be involved. Because the program consists of a relatively small group of students, it is easier for the instructor to focus on the weakness and strengths of each person.

“I feel like the program allows us to do everything,” Alvaro said. “We teach, we sing, we are doing accompaniments of musical theater history, and dancing. It is everything.”

For Kattengell, this has helped her grow into a more confident singer.

“I come from a more insecure vocal background,” she said. “I was trained as a dancer and then as an actor. Since the beginning of this program, I have sensed a change in my voice, and I feel more in touch with my vocal abilities. I have found my voice in singing now I know who I am as a performer. I think all of us have had that moment where you can feel something has changed.”

The small group of students working together fosters the ability for close collaboration between students. Alvaro, who has experience directing and choreographing different performances, finds collaboration crucial to success in musical theater.

“The idea of collaboration is critical, especially as a director and choreographer,” he said. “Really being open to ideas from all sorts of different places, including writing teams and other actors, as well as giving artistic vision to an audience. I feel there are ways in which I have sort of pushed that and can incorporate people into my process. Different artists have different ways they go about that but really musical theater cannot function unless everyone is on the same team. The idea of collaboration is something I champion, and am a part of, and seek and want.”

Both Alvaro and Kattengell will perform in “Les Miserables” in December. They are currently beginning rehearsal, and Kattengell, who will be playing Eponine, says she is both nervous and excited.

“It’s become such a big deal, because of the movie,” Kattengell said. “This is a great thing, because more people will come see it, but it is also a nerve-wracking thing because the audience knows it. They know how it sounds, and they can come in with a preconceived notion about the play. I think this is the first time I have been a character that is this commercially successful. This is the first time I am tackling a character that everyone already knew.”

Along with performing, the MFA program also allows students to gain experience teaching undergraduates and directing other plays. Alvaro will be co-directing and choreographing the musical “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” next spring.

The variety offered within this unique program helps students develop and master their already considerable artistic talents.

“Theater is ever changing, and not one thing always works,” Kattengell said. “I have been able to come out of these experiences as a more versatile performer.”

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San Diego State University’s Independent Student Newspaper Since 1913
Graduate students master musicals