Bard-ville: Staunton becomes Shakespeare mecca

Former Joliet, Illinois, resident Rick Blunt did not expect to find a program in the country where he could intensively study Shakespeare–and just Shakespeare– much less find it at a woman's college in a little western Virginia city like Staunton.

"And I surely didn't expect to see a $3 million Shakespeare theater in the middle of this town," Blunt added, referring to the Blackfriars Playhouse on Market Street.

Blunt moved to Staunton to start a master's degree at Mary Baldwin College in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature in Performance, and he was not the only one who applied. While the college retains its liberal arts focus and still has fewer than 900 undergraduate students, the school's master's programs in teaching and fine arts are making a name for themselves.

For the second consecutive year, U.S. News and World Report listed Mary Baldwin in the top 25 of master's-level universities in the South, a region that includes more than 570 schools. The established strength of the Master of Arts in Teaching track, which is entering its 11th year, and the innovation of the Master of Literature and Master of Fine Arts program have caused people to notice Mary Baldwin as more than a regional school.

"I was getting frustrated looking on the Web for a school where I could study Shakespeare, and then I found this. This is the premier place in the country to study his work, as far as I'm concerned,'' said Blunt, his visor turned backward during an orientation activity August 28 for students who are serious about the Elizabethan playwright.

Twenty-three students were selected from an application pool of about 50 this year. The program has almost reached its capacity after being introduced just two years ago, according to program director Frank Southerington.

"I'm sure this will become the best center for Shakespeare studies in the nation; we already have national recognition,'' Southerington said, pointing out the students in this year's class are from 19 states.

The graduate program in teaching also will record its largest number of students this year, with 124 pursuing degrees. The program continues to grow through word-of-mouth recommendations, according to director Carole Grove. She regularly fields calls from local principals asking for recent graduates to fill open slots at their schools, she said.

"Teacher education is getting a lot of attention right now, and we see a lot of people who didn't think about teaching at first, but are reconsidering,'' Grove said.

With campuses in Charlottesville, Roanoke, and Richmond in addition to the home site in Staunton, Grove said the program has the resources to serve many more students. In her inaugural state of the college address last week, new Mary Baldwin President Pamela Fox said expanding master's programs are part of her long-term plan.


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