Before Sarah Bay-Cheng, chair and professor of theater and dance, leaves Bowdoin to become the dean of the School of Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University in Toronto, she’s making herself available for lunch dates and coffee chats.
“I’m a super easy person to book for lunch because I enjoy the free food of our dining halls, but I also really like those one-to-one experiences with students,” said Bay-Cheng in her office, gesturing towards an assortment of espresso blends and gingerbread cookies that she shares with visitors.
Bay-Cheng arrived at Bowdoin after a long career of teaching literature and theater at campuses both in the United States and internationally. She took a break from teaching to study at Utrecht University in the Netherlands as a Fulbright scholar, focuing on theater and its intersection with media.
In 2015, Bay-Cheng began transitioning to Bowdoin while still finishing her work from Utrecht, and she officially arrived in Brunswick later in the fall.
“There’s a play by Tom Stoppard called ‘The Real Inspector Hound,’ and in it, one of the characters says, ‘You can’t begin with a pause.’ And I kind of did. I started my Bowdoin career on leave,” said Bay-Cheng.
Once she did arrive on campus, Bay-Cheng got right to work. She became chair of the department in 2016, pushing for the addition of a performance arts major in 2017. She credits her colleagues and the department as a whole for the success of the project.
“We were really invested in creating not a standalone theater major or dance major, but creating a major that would allow students to have an appreciation for the ways in which theater and dance historically go together,” she said.
Bay-Cheng, now in her fourth year at Bowdoin, explains that she feels like a member of the graduating class. She looks back at her “senior” year with pride and excitement about how the department has grown and evolved.
“This last year has been about seeing the projects we’ve collectively been working on come to fruition—graduating the first fully declared class, [signing] new students up for the major and seeing the way in which our classes are getting more people involved,” said Bay-Cheng.
Bay-Cheng says introducing a variety of Bowdoin students to the beauty of theater and dance was one of her main focuses. Witnessing the process of discovery for students who had no previous experience in the performing arts has been a highlight.
“There’s a place for just about anybody,” she said. “Extroverts, introverts, people who are good with their hands, people who like moving, people who like being on stage, people who never want to be on stage—there is actually a place for everybody in this space.”
Bay-Cheng directed “Love and Information” last spring, which was her only directorial work at Bowdoin. Laden with references to social media and technology, this show perfectly played off of Bay-Cheng’s research on the overlap between performance and media.
Like many professors, Bay-Cheng feels that working with students has been the most important part of her Bowdoin career. She sees her role as a facilitator of learning opportunities, which to her is more important than that of professor.
“I love creating opportunities for students to teach each other and teach themselves. What I teach you, you’ll forget. What you teach yourself, you will value and keep with you much longer,” Bay-Cheng said.
While she may be leaving the college and the country, Bay-Cheng will very much remain in spirit. She was once told in college that “mentorship is a lifetime of commitment,” and Bay-Cheng plans to act on that advice.
“I will continue to follow the careers of folks as they move up through Bowdoin and will continue to be whatever resource I can be—you will not be rid of me this easily,” she said.
She admits the transition will be a tough one, noting Bowdoin’s mascot and school colors are especially hard to rival. But most of all, Bay-Cheng will miss the dynamic students and faculty as well as the opportunity to work with the community.
“I’m excited to go to York [University]. I am not excited to leave Bowdoin,” she said. “I really will miss the students, and I’m just incredibly grateful for the opportunity.”