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Eckerd College awards its first Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre

By Robbyn Hopewell
Published June 1, 2023
Categories: About Eckerd, Academics, Alumni, Musical Theatre, Students, Theatre

Senior Abiageal Mangum prepares to walk across the graduation stage at this year’s Commencement ceremony. Photo by Penh Alicandro ’22

On a regular day, Abiageal Mangum arrives at the Circle in the Square Theatre School’s rehearsal spaces at 8 a.m. and heads home to her New York City apartment at 6 p.m.

In between, the newly minted Eckerd College theatre graduate from Durham, North Carolina, takes classes training her for the life of a performer and eats a 30-minute lunch.

“It’s worth it to me, personally,” says Abiageal. “It’s a commitment. This program is full of people committed to being actors and the craft of acting.”

Her dedication to the craft earned her Eckerd’s first-ever Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre degree in the College’s 60th Commencement ceremony on May 21.

Beginning in Fall 2019, students interested in earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theatre or musical theatre could apply to be admitted to the 2+2 BFA program and spend two years getting a liberal arts education at Eckerd and two years receiving conservatory training at New York City’s Circle in the Square—the only conservatory program housed in a Broadway theatre.

Applicants can start at either institution but must meet the admission and audition requirements of each. The program came into being through the work of Eckerd’s Associate Dean of Faculty (then–Theatre Professor) Jessica Thonen and Circle faculty member Sara Louise Lazarus.

Abiageal had already been at Eckerd a year when the program launched. She’d selected the College after attending a Colleges That Change Lives meeting and falling in love with the pet-friendly, 188-acre campus by the water.

“I toured and it was absolutely beautiful,” she recalls. “The atmosphere and all the nature brought even into the classrooms. It was remarkable.”

She dove headfirst into theatre with a double major in human development. Starring in on-campus productions of She Kills Monsters, Metamorphoses and As It Is in Heaven made her certain of her path.

The hitch was she wouldn’t be eligible to start the BFA program at Circle until Fall 2021—technically her senior year. She did it anyway.

Abiageal Mangum (right) in the campus production of Scenes from Metamorphoses

“Since I was 2 years old, I loved watching Singing in the Rain and the old MGM musicals,” Abiageal says. “It was then that I decided that is what I wanted to do.”

The most jarring change was moving from sunny St. Petersburg, Florida, to the towering concrete of New York, she says.

After a period of adjustment, she fell into the rhythm of long days and longer nights. Classes begat rehearsals, and sandwiched in between were part-time jobs to supplement the cost of living in a big city. She also relied heavily on her Eckerd faculty mentor, Professor of Theatre Cynthia Totten, Ph.D., to keep her on track for graduation.

“She was there the second I needed her,” Abiageal says. “She was always so supportive.”

In her first semester, the students performed a night of acts where Abiageal was cast in The Children’s Hour as Mary Tilford. She had been prepared to learn how to act but was pleasantly surprised to find part of the curriculum focused on how to separate yourself from the work, so you don’t relive trauma for others’ entertainment.

Being the first Eckerd theatre BFA graduate, she swells with pride at how quickly the program is growing. Four students currently attend the conservatory, and she says the 12 spots allotted for next fall have already filled up.

“I would say, if you truly love theatre and want to make it your life, this is 100% a wonderful program,” Abiageal says. “Learning general education at Eckerd is a great way to get your mind expanded and prepared for the acting intensive. It takes commitment. You are going to learn what acting is. Because it is not what you think.”

To close her experience, Abiageal returned to Circle in the Square after graduation to complete rehearsals and graduate repertory series performances of As You Like It, where she’ll play Oliver, and Small Mouth Sounds, where she’ll play Ned.

“There is only one male-identifying person in my year,” Abiageal explains. But she loves the roles. “It is always fun to play with gender.”

“As a whole, the vulnerability you have to have as an actor to try things and fail and explore is amazing. They talk often about bringing yourself to the role. It can be a little scary—but exhilarating—to put on the character.”