Andre Harrington: New Designs In CSUSB Theatre
by Barbara Smith
“I didn’t choose the theatre; it chose me,” says Andre Harrington, who now serves as chair of Cal State University, San Bernardino’s Theatre Arts department. Harrington brings a wealth of experiences to the university, gleaned from a career fueled by creativity, a passion for the arts, and a love for costuming and design as a means for telling stories. His journey in the world of design began with an inkling of curiosity he had as a child, observing his grandparents’ clothing and jewelry. What stories did they hold? Then, as an undergraduate, he worked in costume shops creating fashion, and later designed fashion window display for a department store. Thinking about imagery and the intriguing stories held within became a thread that has sewn its way throughout his career.
Harrington is uniquely suited for his new position, combining leadership skills with a humanistic approach to his daily interactions with students, faculty and staff. His educational journey followed a rich and somewhat circuitous route to the career he is passionate about today. Before earning his MFA from the University of Iowa, he was a freelance designer in Philadelphia and amassed considerable experience designing costumes for numerous professional theatre companies including The Alliance Theatre, TheatreWorks USA, The Court Theatre, Theatre Virginia, Freedom Theatre, St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre, and Crossroads Theatre. He served as President of the Black Theatre Network, and notably attended the Surin International Folklore Festival at the Surindra Rajabat University, Thailand to present his research on Anne Lowe, the first African American to become a noted fashion designer.
The educator first came to CSUSB as a guest designer in 2001 and was invited back several more times before being hired full time in 2006. Now as department chair, he is keen on building on the strengths in the department while identifying needs for further growth. He speaks with energy and enthusiasm about the tasks that lie ahead. “I’m trying to analyze where our students and faculty are, where my staff is to get a sense of how to propel them and move them forward, give them opportunities to better represent the students in front of us.” Students today are questioning what is going on in our country and other parts of the world, where they see conflict, death, destruction, he observes. “In the arts, we can find some safety and resolve. The arts can stimulate and provide us with a level of connectivity.” As we re-emerge post-pandemic, he sees promise in building community. His mission embodies a sensitivity and humanity. “How can I support the students, motivate and nurture them, tap into what it means to be human? What will give them grace, peace, joy with a world so much in turmoil now?”
Retired theatre arts department chair Kathryn Ervin has high praise for Harrington. The two worked together as board members for the Black Theatre Network, where she observed the leadership and design skills that she knew would be an asset to the CSUSB theatre department. “When he joined our faculty, he brought ingenuity and resourcefulness to our collaborative team,” she offers. “He makes a great chair, because he has worked so closely with faculty and staff and has a clear understanding of the challenges and skills in the department. But his strength is in his heart for the students. Because he came to the university by a very non-traditional route, he understands many of the difficulties our students face.”
Harrington is among seven CSUSB faculty members appointed to the inaugural cohort of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Faculty fellows. A key responsibility is to bolster the college’s ability to advance DEI in faculty recruitment, evaluation and retention. “How can we help marginalized communities?” is a question guiding Harrington’s work. “CSUSB is a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). A lot of our faculty do not look like our students, and I am excited with the opportunity and the challenge to cultivate programming, pedagogy and artistic choices that represent the folks that are in the building,” he says, bringing new perspectives to the theatre department that the diverse student population relate to and that support the university’s DEI goals.
With the new year, the university community eagerly awaits the completion of a new Performing Arts Center, which will serve as a hub for theatre, music and other artistic ventures. For Harrington, this new venue offers increased opportunities for inclusion, bringing people together, so important particularly in this post pandemic period. “As we go back to convening in person, hearing and seeing stories out loud, hopefully we can heal and re-galvanize what we had prior. Storytelling in a communal experience can do that.”
Adding to the excitement, in February, theatre students will participate in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF), a prestigious showcase of outstanding student productions in a region spanning California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Hawaii and Guam. CSUSB will present “Anansi’s Carnival Adventure,” an enchanting theatrical experience with puppets, elaborate masks and set pieces, and African-inspired costumes and aesthetics. Harrington and professor emerita Ervin worked on this creative enterprise together and share great pride in the opportunities it will present for students to showcase their work.
As the theatre arts program at CSUSB continues to grow with new talent, structures and ideas, the university and Inland Empire have much to look forward to for robust and illuminating performing arts opportunities.