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Merging Theatre and International Relations

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Courtesy of Jeff Gan

When Jeff Gan arrived at AU, he declared a major in international relations in the School of International Studies. Like many of his fellow students, he wanted to work at the State Department and join the Foreign Service. But then he caught a bug that altered his path. 

On a whim, Gan joined the University College, a small-group learning and living community for first-year students. Participants share an on-campus “residential neighborhood” and attend an intensive seminar together, which for Gan’s cohort was Theatre: Principles, Plays, and Performance. 

Gan had done some theatre in high school, and he had made some new theatre friends through the program, so he decided to take a few theatre courses on the side. “I thought I’d be a theatre minor at most,” he says. 

But the more classes he took, the more he discovered professors he really liked, and he developed a passion for the art. 

Gan noticed that he had begun to look at international relations through a cultural lens—and at theatre through an international perspective. A cultural context, he discovered, enriched his understanding of history—and vice versa. And so Gan decided to declare a second major: theatre. 

“The more I got into the liberal arts curriculum, the more I realized there were more options that could give me a broader reach,” he says. “I could touch economics, politics, the arts, literature, and sociology through this art form.” 

It didn’t take long for Gan to become a part of AU’s small and intimate performing arts community, where everyone is on a first-name basis. “We have regular meetings as an entire department, initiated by Professor Sybil Williams,” he says, “and we hold informal freshman-senior gettogethers every month to address concerns, offer advice, even play Apples to Apples.” 

Gan knew he loved theatre, but he wasn’t sure where his second major might lead. His revelation, he says, came in Cara Gabriel’s theatre history class. Gan approached his teacher after class one day and told her, “I really enjoyed this—how can I do more of this kind of thing?” She told him that he could be a director or an academic—or look into dramaturgy. It turns out he didn’t have to look long or far. 

Gan went to see theatre professor Carl Menninger, who was directing the show Bare: A Pop Opera, and he asked how he could get involved in the production. Menninger suggested that he be the dramaturge. And that is how Gan discovered his path. 

“You get to form this very passionate relationship with the text,” he says. “Some directors say that their experience feels like giving birth—you pour so much of yourself into it. With dramaturgy, you’re really involved with the process, but it’s less emotionally draining.” 

Research is at the center of dramaturgy, which satisfies Gan’s insatiable curiosity. “You get to reach into subjects that aren’t necessarily about drama,” he says. “I get to do a lot of historical research. For one of the shows I did, I devoted three hours to researching the postage system in Weimar Germany, and I loved it.” 

Gan has long been a fan of the performing arts, but now he understands them on a deeper level. “Every live performance is unique. You’ll never have the same confluence of audience and actors or have the cues called in the exact same way,” he says. “It’s a really beautiful and very brief relationship between the audience and the performance that can’t be replicated.” 

Gan’s enthusiasm for theatre and his passion for research have not gone unnoticed by his professors or the directors he’s worked with. 

“Jeff is perfectly suited to life in the theatre because he is something of a Renaissance man,” says professor Meghan Raham. “He has a truly curious mind and is eager and able to synthesize ideas and information from seemingly disparate disciplines into a central idea. Jeff’s interest in everything makes him particularly valuable as a collaborator, and he also manages somehow to be quite likeable while knowing a lot about everything—an even more unique trait. I can’t wait to see what the world looks like once he takes over.” 

While world domination doesn’t seem to be part of his agenda, Gan hopes eventually to follow in the footsteps of those who have inspired him most: his theatre professors. “I want to expose as many people as possible to theatre,” he says. “I believe in its power, and I want to help build a sustainable consumer base for the arts.”