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The men of Stephens College study and perform in the land of women

Curtain falls on Stephens' degree program for men

March 28, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Rob Doyen, pictured in this 1969 yearbook photo (far right), planned to attend Stephens for a year. That turned into two and led to 31 years of teaching. Photo courtesy of the 1969 Stephensophia

In the rehearsal room stretched between the Macklanburg Playhouse and Warehouse Theater, two men who represent the beginning and end of an era practice lines.

Rob Doyen, with his gray mustache and lined face, stands out from Jacob Sampson and the rest of the smooth-cheeked cast. Sampson is younger with light stubble and sleepy eyes. These are the bookends of the anthology of men to graduate from Stephens College — the first to earn a bachelor’s degree and the last.

In May, Sampson and four other seniors will be the last male students to graduate from Stephens with bachelor’s degrees. The other four men who attend Stephens will receive certificates through the school’s Professional Conservatory Training Program, which began admitting students two years ago. These men share the same experience of being a minority in a land of women.

Rob Doyen, now a professor and actor at the school, was one of the first men admitted to Stephens in 1967. After his drama teacher at Jefferson College, just south of St. Louis, told him about the program, he decided to pursue it and was even scouted by some of Stephens’ theater faculty.

Stephens is making the change to eliminate confusion about its status as an all-women’s college.

“In the estrogen ocean”

Standing out has its drawbacks. John Lampe recalls his first week when one of the older guys warned him that male students would be under the microscope forever.

Lampe noticed that the older student was right. “By the time I got here, seemingly everyone knew my name, knew where I was from and knew everything I did,” he says.

“It sounds brutal to live under such scrupulous scrutiny, but it’s good preparation for the work that we do in that you think of everything as being an audition.”

Michael Burke, director of production, says that sticking out put subtle pressure on him and his fellow male classmates to go to class because it would be obvious if they were absent. He credits this for how every guy in his class earned his degree on time.

Lampe says some of his male professors have taken an instant liking to their male students because, as one teacher put it, “You’re floating in the estrogen ocean together.”

The faculty, like the rest of the student body, see them as a novelty, Lampe says, “which is not necessarily the worst thing to be.”

The novelty wears off, however, for both the men and women. “It’s a combination that you get used to, and they stop noticing you,” Lampe says. “Most of the girls on campus, even those outside of theater, see me every day. They see the guys checking their mail or eating in the dining hall. It stops being a big deal. It’s just that guy who goes here.”

Men. Can’t live with them, can’t have a theater program without them. Ty Carter, part of the certificate program, rehearses for Mauritius with Graham Galloway. Photograph by Elizabeth CardwellJohn Lampe, who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in May, builds props for Mauritius in the scene shop. The theater program at Stephens trains students to be versatile, bringing even actors backstage for a little carpentry. Photograph by Elizabeth CardwellSenior Jacob Sampson and his professor Rob Doyen are the first and last men to graduate from Stephens with a bachelor’s degree. Photograph by Elizabeth Cardwell Shop foreman Herbert Moore, a 2008 Stephens graduate, sings measurements aloud as he makes a rolling bookcase. Photograph by Elizabeth CardwellCurtis Vogts, a first-year student, will receive a Certificate of Fine Arts after completing the new two-year program. Photograph by Elizabeth Cardwell Dylan Bean lives at Hillcrest Hall with other senior men and will earn a Bachelors of Fine Arts in 2013. Photograph by Elizabeth CardwellProfessor Rob Doyen and students gather at Macklanburg Playhouse to rehearse Mauritius, the Playhouse Theatre Company’s second show of 2013. Both men receiving bachelor’s degrees and men receiving certificates are involved in the production. Photograph by Elizabeth Cardwell

Campus life

The men of Stephens have built a strong rapport. Sampson says they’re like brothers and can even finish one another’s sentences. He relates the senior men’s floor at Hillcrest Hall, with 12 rooms that house just five guys, to a fraternity. The certification students live off campus, which first-year student Curtis Vogts says is the worst part of the program.

Burke remembers his days living on the fourth floor at Lela Raney Wood Hall. Although strict rules applied to the other dorms, LRW lacked a desk attendant, so the men living there were more apt to break the rules regarding female guests. “If you kept it quiet, you could keep it under the radar,” he says.

But no matter where they sleep and study, the true homes to students of the theater program are the theaters tucked between Dorsey Street and Willis Avenue. Doyen says 90 percent of his time was spent in the theaters, and that’s the way the program has been for almost 50 years.

Of course, that leaves little time for anything outside of the Macklanburg or Warehouse theaters. Although the odds are in their favor when it comes to dating, Sampson says that’s not why he chose Stephens. The program demands long hours and devotion, so it’s challenging to balance theater, school and a love life. Being able to keep it all in check, he says, is one of the toughest parts of assimilating to Stephens life.

Burke says that challenge is a new issue he’s seen with the program’s younger students. When both he and Doyen enrolled, students needed two years of experience at a different school. Because the school dropped that requirement in the mid-1990s, students today are just starting college when they come to Stephens. “We make them start stepping up in the responsibility arena right away,” Burke says.

Changing of the guard

Doyen was supposed to study at the women’s college for a year — the program would provide male theater and dance students their third year of college before they earned their degrees elsewhere. Early into his stay, though, a professor asked if he would remain for his senior year if the board let him. “It was such a good program, I thought I’d take my chances,” he says.

That November, the board voted to let him and another male student continue their studies for a second year and earn the first two degrees awarded to men by the college.

Because Doyen’s name came earlier in the alphabet, he was officially the first man to graduate with a Bachelors of Fine Arts from the college in 1969. After spending two years in the Army and seven in the theater business, Doyen returned to Stephens. Now in his 31st year of teaching, he has acted in four to five shows every season while teaching students in an apprentice setting. This month, he’s appearing in his fifth show of the 2012-2013 season, titled Mauritius.

Listed alongside him in the playbill is senior Jacob Sampson, alphabetically last among the other men in his class. He’ll be the final man to graduate from the college with a degree.

But switching from a degree program to a certification system for men isn’t an abandonment of its male students, says Burke. It’s simply a change that needs to be made to preserve Stephens’ status as a women’s college.

“With more and more women’s colleges deciding to become coed institutions, we wanted to eliminate any confusion about Stephens College,” writes Janese Silvey, media relations representative for Stephens, in an email.

The college still wants to offer a way for men to attend the program, and as Doyen points out, the school needs men for male roles in both its theater and dance training. Silvey says enrollment numbers, which average about five men per year, haven’t changed since the certification was introduced two years ago.

Burke agrees that the switch hasn’t deterred students. “The degree’s great, but in my professional life, the degree didn’t really help me get a job,” the 1986 Stephens graduate says. “It was the experience and the work I got to do here, the discipline I learned and the expectations that the program had of me.”

That all-encompassing experience is what drew Lampe and Sampson to the program. Although both have an emphasis on acting, they’ve learned how to work the technical, financial and artistic sides of theater. “We’re required to do these things, but it’s never a chore because you want to,” Sampson says. “The mentality here provokes you to want to be better, and to be better you have to do more, keep busy, be wanting to learn more, wanting to be hands-on.”

Having Stephens on the résumé means more than experience, however. Burke and Lampe say potential employers are intrigued by the Stephens College for Women reference. Sheer curiosity gets a conversation started, which makes Stephens men stand out to a director as much as they do against the all-women backdrop of the campus.

Call of duty

Mike Nolan, a senior earning a Bachelors of Fine Arts, is one of two graduates with a technical theater emphasis. Photograph by Elizabeth Cardwell

This is an inviting opportunity for the Stephens men who forego a traditional college setting. Lampe and Sampson cite the program’s ability to offer experience, instruction in every theatrical field and individual attention as a main reason they enrolled.

It wasn’t love at first audition, though. For Sampson, a coat made him realize Stephens was the place he belonged. Into his senior year of high school, he was still wishy-washy on which college to attend, never having an affinity for any particular one. That changed when he saw a winter coat he just had to have, despite living in San Diego.

When the saleswoman asked why he was buying it, he responded, “I’m going to school in Missouri, and I’m going to need a winter coat.” He hadn’t made a formal decision yet but says, “Subconsciously I always knew that this was where I was going to go.” Buying the coat was his way of accepting that he was ready to make the leap from West Coast to Midwest.

Lampe, a St. Louis native, had been accepted to New York and DePaul universities before he heard about Stephens’ program from a family friend. “Stephens was almost an afterthought,” he says. After going through the lengthy audition process at his mom’s request, he finally chose to enroll.

Friends reacted with everything people would assume, Lampe says. First incredulity — “Wait, isn’t that a women’s college?” — followed by, “Aw, you’re going to a women’s college!” with an added nudge and wink. “Of course everyone assumes you’re either a genius or a pervert when you decide to go to a women’s college, but all in all it’s nowhere near as dramatic as that,” he says.

While Doyen and Sampson rehearse down the hall, Lampe puts together a rolling bookshelf in the scene shop with two female first-year students as the female stage manager darts in and out of the theater. Seniors Mike Nolan and Dylan Bean are also hard at work as they cut plywood and drill wheels onto set pieces.

The gender difference doesn’t surface among the roars of table saws and smell of toasted lumber as both men and women step up to put on the show. Despite what some may expect about life as a man at Stephens, Lampe says: “Sorry, guys, but it’s not that glamorous.”

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