Music Theatre students infuse leadership learnings into Grand Night 2024

Chris Leupold, the Isabella Cannon Professor of Leadership and professor of psychology, is collaborating with Elon Music Theatre to create a seven-session program to prepare students to participate in high-level leadership activities in preparation for Grand Night 2024.

Over the years, Elon’s nationally recognized Music Theatre program has produced many outstanding student performers who have found career success on Broadway, film, television, and tours around the world. While students at Elon, these music theatre majors hone their crafts of singing, dancing and acting through academic coursework and by directly experiencing the real challenges of auditions, rehearsals and live performances that will later meet them in their industry.

A hallmark of Elon’s Music Theatre program is Grand Night for which majors propose numbers that are student-directed, choreographed, music-directed and arranged in preparation for a performance for the community in the spring.

While leadership education is not generally linked with music theatre, the great demands placed on student leaders so early in their Elon careers inspired Assistant Professor Courtney Liu and Associate Professor Brian Kremer, coordinator of the Music Theatre program, to infuse leadership education into the preparation for Grand Night 2024, to be held April 5-6.

Liu, a 2023-24 Leadership Education Faculty Scholar, approached Isabella Cannon Professor of Leadership and Professor of Psychology Chris Leupold to talk about ways leadership might be infused into Elon Music Theatre’s Fall 2023 Professional Practices course (MTE 1000). MTE 1000, a course that the entire cohort of music theater majors take together every semester, is a required weekly course during which students practice their skills, participate in community building, and engage in various professional development opportunities such as auditions and guest speakers. Based on her own experience, Liu shared that it would be great to create a space for students to learn some of the ‘other’ skills that contribute to career success and satisfaction in the arts such as fostering collaboration and leading in a participative way.

“We are asking our students to participate in high-level leadership activities as first-years and sophomores,” Liu said. “Student directors schedule rehearsals around busy schedules, develop a creative vision for their number, inspire their peers to aspire towards this vision and coordinate with the music director, choreographer, musicians and co-faculty directors to ensure all the music and dances are taught and perfected. It is important to provide our students with leadership education to prepare them for these roles that might involve challenges with peers, conflict resolution and healthy artistic disagreement.”

After multiple in-depth discussions about the role of leadership and collaboration in music theater, Liu and Leupold designed a seven-hour special-topics curriculum to infuse into the MTE 1000 course. The interactive workshops presented and directly linked leadership topics to students’ practical preparation for Grand Night. Topics that Liu, Leupold, and Kremer covered included the Relational Leadership Model, students’ identification of personal values and their alignment with those of Elon and the Performing Arts Department, strategies to influence others, understanding and developing emotional intelligence, and elements of high-performance teams. Other experts were invited as well, including Assistant Dean of Students Whitney Gregory, who led a workshop on conflict management and Assistant Professor of Psychology Adam Kim, who led a session on diversity, inclusion and leadership. All sessions included an introduction to key terms as well as self-reflection and integrated discussion.

The final session covered the process of how students would prepare their proposals for Grand Night. Proposals from previous years described students’ ideas on more technical aspects such as their pieces, casting and choreography. Proposals this year also required students to discuss strategies they would employ to manage disagreements, to ensure inclusivity, to inspire others, to regulate their own stress and to manage group processes.

“The responses from students were impressively thoughtful,” Liu said. “It was heartening to see that students connected to the topics covered, were able to reflect on them in the context of their own personal experience, and aspired to become great leaders through practice during Grand Night.”

Kremer, Liu, Leupold and guest speakers were extremely pleased with the students’ efforts and receptivity to this additional education, and repeatedly reminded of how important these topics were to their future careers in entertainment and in general.

An organizational consultant and member of the editorial advisory board for the Journal of Leadership Education, Leupold said this collaboration is a great example of showing how leadership can be seamlessly incorporated into academic disciplines, and how valuable it is to do so for students’ education and preparation for life.

“Our music theater students come to Elon already among the most very talented young performers in the country, and our faculty have always helped them further hone their craft for their careers,” Leupold said. “Now, these students are even better prepared for their careers because they understand how important effective leadership, team development, and relationship management are to ensuring that an ensemble’s performance is optimized.”

Grand Night 2024 will showcase the hard work and talents of Elon Music Theatre Students at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Friday, April 5, and Saturday, April 6, in Roberts Studio Theatre.