A Perfect 10

Celebrating 10 Perfect Seasons at the River Campus

Story / Michelle Queiser
Design / April Schoen


What is a perfect ten? It’s reaching your optimal peak performance, knocking out your opponents, finishing the race. At Southeast’s River Campus, it’s not just about making it stick, it’s about revolutionizing the game.

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Opened the fall 2007 semester, the Earl and Margie Holland School of Visual and Performing Arts brought together the Departments of Art, Music and Theatre and Dance under one unique venue. Every square foot of the River Campus was thoughtfully and intentionally designed to support and train student performers and artists.

“Our students have always been talented and always had a great education,” says Rhonda Weller-Stilson, director of Southeast’s Holland School of Visual and Performing Arts. “We really have always had a great foundation at Southeast, but now we’re stronger.”

This year’s tenth season showcases the hard work and conditioning the students, faculty and staff have dedicated to their craft. During this time, the school’s curriculum has seen exponential growth and in some cases completely overhauled. New degrees were expanded and implemented, and the number of faculty and staff has grown.

With the addition of the Kenneth and Jeanine Dobbins River Campus Center in 2014, the campus truly changed the lifestyle of the River Campus. Dance studios, practice rooms, costume and scenery shops, galleries and a residence hall located by their classrooms give students unlimited opportunities to strengthen their craft and fuel their resolve.

“We are a 24-hour campus and having the facilities to support our students offers them a professional and vibrant environment in which to create,” she says.

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She remembers that before moving to the River Campus, the smaller, shared spaces on the main campus would limit the size of the shows and exhibits and thus limit the scope of what students could accomplish.

“When I look back at the shows we did before, it amazes me,” says Weller-Stilson, who used to bring costumes home to have the space to work on them. “The large spaces at the River Campus allow us to branch out and do more. This is their workshop, their lab, their gym. Now there aren’t any shows that are off limits because we don’t have the facilities to do them.”

The River Campus also provides an arena for the community. From touring performances and galleries, to original productions and concerts, audiences can have the thrill of big-city cultural entertainment in their own backyard.

“It’s really united the whole community,” says Weller-Stilson. “Audiences can know about and see something they might not have before without traveling.”

Education at the River Campus has evolved beyond practice and performance to include K-12 workshops, camps, academies and exhibits.

“It’s truly an educational experience for all ages,” says Weller-Stilson “We never stop when the academic year is done. We’re going full blast all summer long, and there’s isn’t a space we don’t use.”

Enrollment in the musical, art, theatre and dance academies has swelled over the years as children and adults provide creative learning experiences in a wide variety of venues – from private lessons to group sessions and public recitals.

“Students range in age from three to 83,” says Steve Schaffner, director of Southeast’s Music Academy. “From tiny little Suzuki violin students to grandmas who take adult piano.”

The Academy’s recitals attract hundreds of spectators as well, not to mention the community outreach performances and outdoor family events.

One of the most successful partnerships between the River Campus and the Cape Girardeau community has been the River Campus Summer Arts Festival. The annual event began in 2013, featuring live music, dance, theatrical performances, visual arts displays, hands-on family-friendly art activities and much more.

This relationship with the community has in turn fostered a positive impact on Southeast students in preparing for their professional careers.

“This gives our students the opportunity to perform or display their art at outstanding facilities and to bigger audiences,” says Weller-Stilson. “Our audiences are more diverse and broader, giving students the feedback they need to grow and succeed for the world after Southeast.”

While all the little bits and pieces have come together to lead to this perfect tenth season, there’s still hard work to be done. They’re constantly assessing and reviewing themselves for improvements, says Weller-Stilson. This includes having all of their programs accredited.

The Department of Theatre and Dance achieved accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Theatre in March 2014 and recently shifted to a new name to reflect its expanding presence, becoming The Conservatory of Theatre and Dance. Southeast’s dance program had a site visit from National Association Schools of Dance this fall; and the art program’s site visit with the National Association of Schools of Art and Design is next spring. Music has been accredited since the 1970s.

Accreditation is important for not only the University and faculty but also for students and parents who are looking for the best place to launch their careers, says Weller-Stilson.

“If that happens we’d be the only public or private school in Missouri with all their arts programs accredited,” she says.

Another expansion of facilities is also a top priority to bring the art department, which is currently split between buildings downtown and the main campus, to a permanent spot in the River Campus’ roster.

Creativity isn’t just about what students learn in class but is a communal process. Having a new building could create those opportunities to collaborate and converse, allowing much more inspiration, says Caroline Kahler, chair of Southeast’s Art Department.

“It would transform the student and their sense of space and belonging,” says Kahler. “A new building would provide the spaces for students to hangout and congregate. They could create new bonds or build professional and personal relationships that we just can’t do as well now among five locations.”

For all of the experience and preparation the arts programs provide students, the end result is always preparing them for a life of successful work. Weller-Stilson says from professional development opportunities to audition practices to how to market themselves, the curriculum is focused on making sure students “make it.”

“Honestly, when I get an email from a student writing that they just nailed an audition or were cast in a TV show or are performing with an ensemble or just sold a work, then, I know we’ve prepared them fully to use the talents we recognized in them when they were accepted to the program,” she says. “To me, that’s a perfect 10.”

For information about upcoming River Campus performances, go to rivercampus.org.


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