VCUarts freshmen finish their first semester

For the majority of students at VCU, finals consist of fairly straightforward exams in essay, short answer or multiple-choice format. 

For students in VCUarts, however, testing methods are not as direct or obvious, and the accumulation of knowledge cannot be demonstrated in a basic 50-question structure. While the execution may be different, the overall intent remains much the same.

The CT has been following five VCUarts freshmen through their first year as a part of the series “Yearlong Audition.”  Their finals range from visual projects that must be constructed to performance based finals with faculty judges. 

“I think maybe on the surface it does look very different from an academic course where… it seems very obvious that you’re seeing a summary of everything you’ve learned throughout the semester,” said Elissa Armstrong, head of the art foundation program (AFO), in which both Andrew Kearns and Brooke Marsh are currently enrolled. 

“In an art class, what we’re trying to see, in all the different manifestations of a final, is… the same sort of thing: what have you learned throughout the semester?” 

In this sense, final projects – whether a physically constructed object or a form of performance – often become the embodiment of the student’s progress over the course of the semester. 

Dance major Rex Kenendy, theater major Tricia Wiles and voice major Kate Rancka, will perform for their respective faculty.


Kate Rancka

Despite needing to memorize four songs in seventeenth and eighteenth century English and Italian for her finals, Kate Rancka is confident in her abilities to do well.

“I probably need to manage my time better when it comes to memorizing my music,” Rancka said.

For finals, voice majors perform in what are called juries.  Juries occur at the end of each semester and are divided into eight different levels. For each jury, voice majors must perform songs for a small audience of faculty members and will be graded on their performance.

As a first semester freshman, Rancka is currently preparing for her level one jury. Part teacher-assigned and part student-selected, jury songs are chosen at the beginning of each semester, giving students the full term to perfect them.

Kate Rancka will sing for a small audience for her finals in a process called juries. Photo by Amber-Lynn Taber.

Since not all jury members will know all voice students, students open their jury performance with their strongest piece. Jury members then request an additional one to two songs from the student’s selection. Beyond memorization and performance of each song, students are required to know background information about the composer, song content, terms and translations.

In regards to her other finals, Rancka anticipates that keyboarding will be her most difficult exam. Keyboarding counts as Rancka’s secondary instrument, of which three semesters practice are required for all vocal performance majors.

“Keyboarding is probably the only thing I’m worried about because it’s my secondary instrument. I don’t practice it as much as I practice singing obviously,” Rancka said. “If I get nervous when I’m singing, I know how to cover it. But if I get nervous when I’m playing an instrument, it shows just because I’m not as experienced with it.”

Vocal performance majors like Rancka must also take eight semesters of large ensembles and three semesters of small ensembles. The Commonwealth Singers, a university choir in which Rancka performs counts as one of her large ensemble requirements, with the Nov. 30 final concert counting as her final exam of the class.

The Women’s Choir which Rancka is also involved in counts as one of her small ensemble requirements. While these classes are required of vocal performance majors, they remain open to other students.

In retrospect, Rancka confesses that while her first semester demands did not overwhelm her, it did surprise her in comparison to her high school workload.

“Before college, I was used to coasting… And now, being here where pretty much everyone is at (the same) level,” Rancka said. “I think that’s the hard part I’m going to have to work on for next semester. I wasn’t expecting to whip myself into shape.” 

–Michael Todd 

Rex Kennedy



Dance major Rex Kennedy isn’t nervous for his finals and said the semester flew by him.

For dance majors, finals are class evaluations called juries.  Although they share the same name as voice majors’ finals, dance juries are a bit different. For Kennedy’s ballet and modern technique classes, other professors will sit in on a normal class and individually grade each of the dancers. Students are graded on their personal growth and technical ability.

Kennedy is most enthusiastic for his modern dance class jury.

“I’ve been working really hard and it’s really been paying off,” Kennedy said.

VCUarts students like dance major Rex Kennedy are graded on their accumulation of knowledge by either physically constructed pieces or performance based exams. Photo by Steven Casanova.

For the upcoming spring semester, Kennedy will be taking most of his classes in the dance department. His dance classes include modern, ballet, dance history, music and dance forms and a freshman repertory course. Focused Inquiry, which is required of all students, will be his only non-dance class.

Of his dance courses, Kennedy said that he is most excited for freshman repertory. Freshman repertory is a performance based class specifically for freshman in the dance department. Students will meet three times a week and perform a piece as a class in May. “It’ll be fun working with the rest of my class,” Kennedy said.

Throughout the fall semester, Kennedy has been rehearsing for “VCU Dance Now” as an understudy in a duet choreographed by VCU dance faculty member Courtney Harris. The performances will take place at Grace Street Theater on Feb. 21, 22 and 23.

Despite not being homesick and living off-campus, Kennedy will be returning home for 10 days during the winter break. Kennedy says that he is ready for the time off from school and to see the his friends from his home in Colorado for the first time since the fall semester began.

“I really miss seeing my friends from home all the time,” he said.  

–Samantha Foster

Tricia Wiles
Theatre Performance 

For Tricia Wiles, no class is technically more important than the other. As a performance major, however, it is her Acting I class for which Wiles feels the most investment.

“Because I’m a performance major, (Acting I) is my favorite class,” Wiles said. “It’s what I feel I’m best at.”

While different professors may execute finals differently, all Acting I finals will have a performance aspect, whether through monologues or scenes from shows. As with other majors, these performances are meant to demonstrate the amount of knowledge accumulated from kinetic exercises practiced over the course of the semester.

For her Acting I final, Wiles recited a monologue on Dec. 5 from Tennessee William’s “Summer and Smoke.”

There are no set requirements for these monologues, which were selected with assistance from Wiles’ professors, graduate students Alison Brooke Turner and Terry Hardcastle. Because of this freedom, a broad range of monologues was presented.

To prepare for her monologue, Wiles practiced first in private and later with friends. Additionally, students performed their monologues in class to obtain critique from Hardcastle and Turner.

In addition to Acting I, Wiles will take a cumulative exam for her Introduction to Drama class. This class, which has a heavier academic aspect, consisted of quizzes and papers on the 15 plays that students read over the course of the semester.

Besides information about the playwright and time period, students have to know more than the objective action that occurs in each play. Students must also be aware of character personalities and motivations, among other various elements that influence the overall work.

Wiles’ Introduction to Stagecraft class will also include a cumulative final based on the class’s weekly lectures, which covered concepts such as set construction and lighting. In addition to these lectures, students were required to complete an additional four hours of shop work per week.

Besides her final exams, Wiles is currently busy with the musical “Children of Eden.” Wiles plays servant girl Yonah.

Next semester, Wiles will continue on with her Acting II and Introduction to Drama classes. However, Introduction to Costuming will replace Introduction to Set Design.

“I’m actually excited (for costuming) because I had to do a little bit of costuming with my job,” Wiles said. “I think I’ll have more fun with that… because I know you get to make one of your own creations at the end of the course.” Wiles has been working as a production intern with CYT for her work study job.  

–Michael Todd 

Andrew Kearns
AFO – French

For Andrew Kearns, this round of AFO finals will actually be his first and last.  Kearns will be withdrawing from the AFO program with the intention to switch majors from graphic design to French.

Kearns studied in France during his senior year of high school and is hoping to study abroad in France during his future semesters at VCU.

Currently, Kearns is enrolled in Drawing Studio and Space Research for his AFO studio classes.  For his Drawing Studio, the final project was a free assignment for which Kearns will be making a photo collage on wood.

“Drawing was a real learning experience, but I was really lucky in that I had a teacher that was a lot more relaxed in the workload and expectations in the class,” he said.

Kearns’ Space Research final will be constructed using the wood shop, which is available to all AFO students in a Space Research class in Bowe Street.

“I guess that the final that is the most difficult for me is my Space final in the woodshop,” Kearns said. “In high school I did some minor construction for sets for our scenery, so I’ve at least used drills and saws before, but I have next to no experience in designing something to be constructed out of wood.”

Despite his apprehensions concerning the assignment, Kearns is excited for his project to be realized.

“What I’m attempting to make is a sort of museum-style case for a French flag that all my friends on my exchange program signed for me,” Kearns said.

In addition to his AFO classes, Kearns will have final exams for his art history and Focused Inquiry classes, neither of which are of much concern to Kearns.

“Art History came extremely easily to me, so that was never a problem,” Kearns said. “I would say that Focused Inquiry is my favorite course, as my professor is my favorite because she is so bubbly and enthusiastic and really gets me excited about doing the work.”

For Kearns’ Focused Inquiry final, he must give a five minute presentation about the topic on which he wrote his final paper. Kearns wrote his paper on foreign language education in schools.

Since Kearns will not be enrolled in AFO next semester, he will begin taking language classes in accordance with his new French major.  Kearns took a placement test for French, so he will be able to start in 300-level courses.

“Next semester I will be taking French 301, which I am really excited for because I want to get back into taking language classes,” Kearns said.

Over winter break, Kearns will return home since freshman dorms close for the season, but he said he is not homesick.

“I think being away on the exchange program last year really helped me … so this semester hasn’t been bad at all in terms of me missing my parents and my hometown,” Kearns said. “I am definitely really excited for the holidays to begin.”

–Samantha Foster

Brooke Marsh

While her peers are studying for tests and editing final papers, art foundations freshman Brooke Marsh is looking to finish her semester before most students begin their finals.

Marsh, who plans to pursue a degree in photography, has managed to finish her projects quickly all semester and her final projects are no exception.

Marsh has one traditional final for her Energy! Class. Her finals for her art classes started early when she had her final critique for her Time Studio class on Nov. 28. It was a performance piece that Marsh said didn’t take long to execute, but it took a lot of time to plan.

Brooke Marsh works on a painting about the Byrd Theatre being haunted for her Surface Research class. Photo by Audry Dubon.

Her next final will be a self-directed project based on a painting from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for her Surface Research class. She’ll be creating a painting about rumors that Byrd Theatre is haunted, based off Anselm Keifer’s “Landscape With Wing,” which explores urban legends.

“(I’m) not sure how I’m feeling about it,” she said. “The idea was better in my head. Maybe if I had more skill in painting, it would be coming out better, but I’m definitely not finished.” The project is due Dec. 7, which will officially wrap up Marsh’s first semester in VCUarts.

After her last final, Marsh will be heading home to Maryland to spend winter break with her friends and family, who she said she’s missed a lot throughout the semester.

“I love being around my friends all of the time and that is totally different here. I miss being around them as much as I am when I am home,” she said.

Marsh had some trouble in the semester finding a social circle and a group of friends in Richmond and once she started her work study job in the photography and film office, she had even less time to dedicate to socializing.

“I have friends, but not a lot,” she said. “I don’t go out with people a lot, I normally go somewhere with my classes or I chill out alone. It’s just me, I’m kind of independent, but it’s also my schedule possibly preventing some of it. Since I’m busy I can’t really afford to lose time for some project I’m working on.”

Academically, Marsh was anxious about fitting in at the No. 1 public arts school in the country. She never took Advanced Placement art classes in high school and was concerned with how well her ability would match up with her peers’.

Her expectations and her actual first semester experience, however, were the opposites of what she was expecting.

“VCU is not necessarily what I thought it would be. Academically, I feel it’s a lot harder than I expected, which I’m excited about,” she said. “I like a challenge and I like having to push myself to achieve good grades. ”

Next semester, Marsh will be taking Drawing Studio and Space Research to complete the AFO program.

“I’m actually excited for all of my classes next semester,” Marsh said. “I’ve never worked with three dimensional design so I’m thinking it’s going to be a nice challenge.”



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