Staff problem imperils shows

Senior theater studies majors are facing uncertainty at the beginning of their next-to-last semester at Yale as the Whitney Theater — the traditional performance space for senior projects in the major — may not be open for productions this semester.

The theater may not be open because the University has not allocated funds for a technical director to supervise senior projects, which Toni Dorfman, the Theater Studies Program’s director of undergraduate studies, said is required for students’ safety. But Jim Brewczynski, the supervisor at the Office of Undergraduate Productions, said his office is prepared to conduct the supervision required under official guidelines.

Still, the Theater Studies Program requested last spring that the provost’s office allocate funds for a permanent technical director for the black-box theater in the Whitney Humanities Center on Wall Street. Until those funds are supplied, seniors will not be able to use the theater for their senior projects and will have to compete with other undergraduates for space at other campus venues.

“It would be irresponsible for us to publish a production schedule [for senior projects] unless we know that productions can occur there,” Dorfman said. “Certainly, we hope and intend that it will be used for public presentations.”

Brewczynski said he has asked the Theater Studies Program three times to produce a performance schedule for the Whitney Theater.

“I’m ready at this point to supervise productions at the Whitney Theater, providing they are commensurate with the level of production that the department can produce,” he said.

Lloyd Suttle, the deputy provost for undergraduate and graduate programs, was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Last year, the Office of Environmental Health and Safety paid for technical advisers to work on a freelance basis to supervise theater studies students working on senior projects in the Whitney Theater, Dorfman said. An adviser was present at load-in and strike for each production, during which technical equipment is set up and removed, she said.

“The height of the lighting grid in the theater is too high to focus lights without being on a tall rolling scaffold, and there is danger in putting those lights in without professional technical direction,” Dorfman said.

Theater studies major Gia Marotta ’06 said she expected to stage a performance of Harold Pinter’s play “Betrayal” in the Whitney Theater this semester for her joint senior project with Chloe Bass ’06. Dorfman suggested that she look for alternative spaces, Marotta said, in case the Whitney is unavailable.

“Aside from the Dramat spaces, the space that’s open to undergrads is pretty minimal,” she said. “Basically, the [Off-Broadway Theater] would be the only other option really, which is a problem because the OBT is already incredibly competitive.”

Marotta said Dorfman and Brewczynski have been helpful in the past and she is planning to meet with them to discuss the status of the Whitney Theater and alternatives if the space will actually be closed for the semester.

“If it is totally not available, I’ll find a way to make it work,” Marotta said.

The guidelines for theater production, prepared in January by the Office of Undergraduate Productions, the Office of the Fire Marshal and the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, define three categories of theatrical activity. “Category A” activities, which include constructing platforms, using some hand and stationary power tools, and working with ladders, scaffolding and genie equipment over 25 feet high, must be supervised by a University staff member. All other activity can be done either independently or under the supervision of a qualified student.

A permanent, full-time technical director for the Whitney Theater would give students more time to complete category A tasks, but that level and duration of supervision is not required by the guidelines.

“That was an additional request by Toni Dorfman to provide an additional level of supervision, above and beyond that of every other production on campus,” Brewczynski said.

Dorfman said the request for a technical adviser was made after students last year brought an electric saw — a Category A piece of equipment — into the Whitney Theater space without a undergraduate production office supervisor. At a meeting, the theater studies faculty decided a higher level of supervision was needed than the office could provide.

“When this was discovered and reported to theater faculty by Jim [Brewczynski], the theater faculty unanimously agreed that we could not allow this to continue,” Dorfman said. “The beauty, the size, the flexibility of the Whitney space is not automatically safe, as we found, so it just seems terribly irresponsible.”

In the past, student productions were supervised by representatives of the undergraduate production office during both load-in and strike. Because Brewczynski is responsible for supervising both the Off-Broadway Theater and the Whitney Theater, he had to be present at two strikes when shows were performed at both theaters in the same weekend.

“How can I do that on a Saturday night?” he said. “We have to limit the strike to a short period of time that would allow me to be at one strike for two hours and to be at the other strike for two hours.”

Brewczynski said the additional supervised time provided by a technical adviser would affect the scale of productions, although not necessarily the quality of students’ work.

“I’ve seen some productions take forever and you get schlock,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not the matter of how much supervision you’re getting, it’s a matter of how well you use the time. But certainly the scale you can work in is different.”

The administration created the Office of Undergraduate Productions in 2000 to prevent accidents on theatrical sets in response to dangerous incidents in 1995, 1998 and 2000, Brewczynski said.

“In the last five years we’ve only had two reportable accidents, none involving serious injury,” he said. “That will continue. We will not have any serious accidents.”

The major theaters open to non-Dramat undergraduate performances are the Off-Broadway Theater, the Saybrook Underbrook and the new Davenport-Pierson auditorium, said Eyad Houssami ’07, president of the Yale Drama Coalition. Both the Saybrook and Davenport-Pierson spaces also restrict the number of performances per semester, so Houssami said he expects only two shows to go up in each of those theaters this semester.

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