In 17th century France, the Catholic Church excommunicated actors and playwrights for their ties to the all-too-profane stage, yet Moliere trudged on. Indeed, for thousands of years, in the face of spiritual, political, social and economic obstacles, and across a multitude of cultures, theater has remained an imperative.
Still, it surprises me that theater thrives today at Yale.
Our university is well known for its predilection for the art; over the years, Yale has inexplicably become synonymous with theater.
For sure, the Drama School is world famous. But the undergraduate theater program is likewise revered.
Why? The program is just a program, and under-funded at that. There are no real, proscenium houses in which the majority of undergraduates can perform. And the dean’s office would rather not support theater; it views plays and musicals as potential legal nightmares. (One member of the provost’s office recently echoed this opinion, threatening that it might be better if undergraduate productions were performed without scenery, only props.)
This certainly ain’t Broadway. This ain’t even community theater.
Nevertheless, students are somehow under the impression that Yale is a theatrical Mecca and, every year, freshmen arrive to find their hopes dashed. Performing “Aida” in a squash court is never an “aesthetic choice.”
So, disappointed but not beaten, these students attempt to make Yale’s myth a reality. They apply for funding, find that squash court, cast their show, build their set, rehearse it, market it and present it. They do this five times a week, one hundred different plays a year. They do this all by themselves.
These students are very impressive indeed. Yet, with no support or comprehensive training program, it is little surprise that this avalanche of theater largely succumbs to a single aesthetic: canonical texts or the newest Broadway fare, performed in a naturalistic manner.
There is no instruction or encouragement outside of this narrow way of performing and staging plays. Theater Studies has its hands full with dramatic literature classes, the Drama School is uninterested, and school newspaper reviewers seem baffled if actors don’t talk the same way their roommates do.
Who are our role models?
The Drama School was once a source of inspiration for undergraduates. Dean and cultural critic Robert Brustein challenged audiences with a political and intellectual theater informed by the principle of artistic utility. His successor, Lloyd Richards, took a very different but similarly noteworthy road, turning the Yale Rep into a launching pad for Broadway. But since Richards’ exit, the theater’s identity has changed, and the Rep’s work has gradually become irrelevant to today’s undergraduate community for the first time since its inception.
When undergraduates are routinely bettering their role models, where do they turn? When administrators are telling them to go away, why do they continue?
For the same reason Moliere did: the need to create is more insurmountable than a temporary injunction — or damnation.
Undergraduates today are merely members of a long, much-maligned line. In the 1980s, Dean Richards barricaded the door to the undergraduate theater company, the Dramat. Yalies will withstand greater affronts well into the future.
My fellow undergraduates who suffer these affronts: absorb them, turn them into challenges, and then create even more brilliantly within these arbitrarily given boundaries, are my role models. These people are proof that the imperative thrives, and these are the people who remind me of how important my responsibility is to continue pursuing theater after graduation.
Alex Timbers is a graduating senior in Ezra Stiles College. He was President of the Dramat in 2000.