Venue costs burden performers

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When Vassar College students rented out Powerhouse Theater, a campus performance space, to stage “The Illusion” in mid-October, the only fees they incurred were those necessary for the production of the show itself.

But when Yale students staged Richard III this fall, their costs included not just sets and costumes, but renting the Saybrook Underbrook.

“People at Vassar think it’s a crazy concept that [Yale students] have to pay rental fees,” Vassar freshman Alex Milne, said.

Although Yale has a reputation for excellence in the arts, both Yale students and faculty said the University’s rental policies and fees make it difficult for undergraduates to stage productions. While several other universities’ performance spaces have rental fees, and in some cases require students to reserve spaces far in advance, students from those schools said Yale’s policies seem like an excessive burden for students to bear.

“I know in the past Yale has really prided itself on how many performances went up each weekend and how students were free to create whenever and whatever they wanted,” said Jocelyn Ranne ’07, who is a member of comedy groups The Viola Question and The Fifth Humor and involved in theater productions. “This has become a falsehood.”

Some students said they think that in recent years, residential colleges — which have traditionally been popular undergraduate performance spaces because of their manageable size and accessibility — have started to charge rental fees and have reduced the number of performances they allow each semester.

Mollie Farber ’06, director of the improv comedy group Sphincter Troupe said these new costs have made the spaces inaccessible because groups lose money by performing.

“At first, things were easy,” Farber said. “I remember when students were only expected to clean up and move furniture back into place after a performance.”

But Carolyne Davidson GRD ’09, a graduate fellow at Saybrook College and manager of the Underbrook, said that as far she knows, Saybrook has charged a $50 rental fee since its renovation in 2001. The fee is used to cover incidental expenses, such as paint and tape, Davidson said.

In addition to regular Saybrook Orchestra rehearsals, a few dance classes and movie showings, Davidson said the college allows two large productions that require an extensive set and rehearsal time per semester. This leaves time slots only for a few smaller shows, which is not enough to satisfy the demand, she said.

“The main problem we have is balancing Saybrook College demands … with wider University-level demands for space for various events and productions,” Davidson said. “It’s fairly clear that there simply aren’t enough venues of the standards of Underbrook.”

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said he also thinks there is a need for more — and more accessible — performance spaces on campus.

“We want undergraduates to have opportunities to express their creativity in spaces that are safe and appropriate,” he said. “But as these new spaces come available, policies will have to be developed for their use that maximize fairness and appropriate sharing of these sometimes scarce resources.”

The Underbrook space is reserved for productions in which Saybrook students have a major role, and the policy of granting preference to college residents is not unique to Saybrook. Some students who belong to groups with University-wide membership said they are frustrated by these policies.

“Why should someone be punished if Yale assigned him to a college that won’t let him use the spaces that belong to him or wants to charge him … when other students are assigned to colleges that don’t mind?” Ranne said.

Some student organizations, such as the dance group Groove, choose to move their performances off campus. In the past, Groove has used Toad’s Place for its dance performances. Sarah Woo, a member of the group, said Toad’s took a percentage of the ticket sales as payment in lieu of charging a rental fee.

Prices for renting out spaces on campus vary according to the venue’s size. While residential colleges cost less than $100 to rent, University Theater, Green Hall and Yale Repertory Theater charge $800 per day, and Woolsey Hall rental fees range from $500 to $1,000 depending on admission prices.

Michael Morand, associate vice president for the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, which manages the rental of Woolsey Hall, said these fees are reasonable given that the organizations that need 2,700 seats for a performance are large enough to afford it. Morand said the income from rental fees is not enough to cover the upkeep of the building.

“We lose money every year on operations,” he said.

Still, Yale’s policies are more restrictive than those at some other universities.

At Columbia University, students are expected to pay janitorial and technical fees to rent out performance space, but these costs are often covered by the school’s student council.

“Basically, it’s as if it’s free,” Columbia junior Michelle Rappaport said.

A cappella groups at Georgetown University are required to meet an annual quota for ticket sales. If they succeed, the school’s “Program in the Performing Arts” allows them free access to all performance spaces on campus.

Some other schools also face a higher demand for performance spaces than they can accommodate.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology does not charge fees for performance space, but a low supply of available locations has forced student groups to reserve them up to four years in advance, members of the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble said.

At Yale, the upkeep of rental spaces is dependent on rental fees, and some college administrators said they hold the right to restrict performances in the name of protecting their property. But some theater administrators, including Supervisor of Undergraduate Productions and Special Events Jim Brewczynski, said Yale’s lack of space is “an embarrassment.”

Bill Reynolds, operations manager at the Yale School of Drama, said the cost of renting the University Theater, Green Hall and the Yale Repertory Theater at $800 per day is beyond the budget of most student-run productions. Coupled with the facilities’ already packed schedules, the cost makes undergraduate productions in these venues exceedingly rare, Reynolds said.

To Brewczynski, the solution to the performance space dilemma is clear.

“We need a new kind of space — an undergraduate performing arts center,” Brewczynski said. “The programming we have necessitates a facility, and the facility will augment new programming.”

Yale President Richard Levin said he recognizes the need for more space and plans to take action.

“We are definitely looking at possibilities for more performance space,” Levin said. “It might not be in the next year or two, but down the road.”

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