The first production in Rogue Community College's newly completed Medford theater next month could also be the last, as budget cuts threaten theater arts courses at the school.

The first production in Rogue Community College's newly completed Medford theater next month could also be the last, as budget cuts threaten theater arts courses at the school.

The school administration has proposed cutting all the course offerings in theater to help bridge a budget deficit of at least $1.5 million for the upcoming year, but students and teachers in the department say they aren't going down without a fight.

"The arts are always the first thing on the chopping block," said Ron Danko, a theater arts instructor directing the school's musical, "Working," which opens May 11.

Danko said 25 students and another 10 nonstudents are involved with the production, and the benefits of having a theater community at RCC extend beyond what any budget document could show.

"Theater gives people an experience they can't get elsewhere," said Danko, adding students are more likely to stick around campus and feel like they are part of the school when they become involved in a program such as theater.

"Here, all of a sudden they get together, and it's a community, it's a college," said Danko.

"Working" will be staged at the school's new "C" building, at the corner of Eighth and Front streets, which opened in the fall, and boasts space for music and physical education in addition to a black box theater and dressing rooms.

The construction was funded through a bond measure approved in 2004 by Jackson County voters.

By dropping theater, RCC could save between $80,000 and $100,000 a year, in part by not extending one theater instructor's contract.

The administration hasn't nailed down other cuts to the theater courses, according to Margaret Bradford, communication director for the college.

"Things are still up in the air," said Bradford.

Local theater advocate Burt Eikleberry has met with RCC administration to learn more about the cuts, and said the reductions just don't make sense.

Eikleberry said he personally calculated how much the university made this year in tuition strictly from theater courses, coming up with a figure of just under $78,000.

"The tuition alone almost covers it — and they are proposing to raise the tuition by $2 (per credit hour) next year," said Eikleberry, who is a retired English and drama teacher from Grants Pass High School.

As part of the proposed budget, RCC plans to raise tuition from $85 to $87 per credit hour, helping to offset a projected enrollment decrease of 4 percent per year for the next five years.

In a presentation to the community college's board last week,` Eikleberry shared that enrollment has remained steady in the theater department over the last four years, with 170 students taking theater courses during the 2011-12 school year.

Students at both the Riverside campus in Medford and the Redwood campus in Grants Pass have petitions circulating in support of saving the program, and students have created a "Save the RCC Theater Program" Facebook page to spread the news.

"I'm not happy about the idea," said Paige Moran, an RCC student with a role in "Working."

Moran began circulating the petition, which now has about 500 signatures, and has plans to gather more support before the budget committee makes a decision.

Moran, 50, had taken only one acting class at the school when she was walking across campus singing to herself earlier this year.

Danko asked Moran to follow him to the theater where he offered her a role in the play as Maggie Holmes, the cleaning lady.

"I used to be shy and didn't have any confidence," said Moran. "After musical theater, I came out of my shell — my excitement has risen."

Moran and other students in the musical agree that the benefits of the theater program extend beyond budget figures and enrollment numbers.

Eikleberry said school administrators told him one reason they might discontinue classes was because the courses didn't work toward a specific degree that RCC offers.

Criminology student Dan Mata said even though he doesn't plan to major in theater, the experience will still be useful to him as he pursues another career.

"It's therapeutic and relaxing," said Mata, 30, who hopes to be a juvenile counselor.

Mata said the social skills learned while participating in theater would be beneficial to pass on to children in his future job.

"I've gotten to meet a lot of different people," said Mata. "For me, I did it for the experience."

Mata said that cutting the program would cut many of RCC's ties with the community at the same time.

Danko said that as students and staff wait for a decision, they will continue to work on the current production, knowing it could be their last at the college.

"It's the inaugural performance," said Danko. "And it may be the finale."

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@gmail.com.