Theater studies professor Joseph Roach will take the stage in an April production of “Our Town,” a casting decision that has drawn fire from some in the undergraduate theater community.
Fellow professor Toni Dorfman, who is directing the show for the Dramat, cast Roach in a major role for the Yale Dramatic Association’s spring mainstage, which began rehearsals last week. But several students in the theater community have questioned the choice of a professor for a major part in what is meant to be an undergraduate production.
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Roach, who has played the part of the “Stage Manager” in the play several times before, was cast before auditions began. Dorfman — the director of undergraduate studies for the Theater Studies Program — said she made the decision based on her experience working with him on a show last year. Although the spring mainstage is always directed by a professional, the cast has typically been entirely undergraduates.
Dramat Vice President Bryan Hunter ’08 said the Dramat board has heard complaints from some of its membership about the casting decision.
“I think it’s a strange decision that Joe … was just handed the role,” Hunter said. “But from time to time, these things do happen, and the people on the show are very excited to be working with both of them.”
At the suggestion of the Dramat, Dorfman cast a student to play the stage manager in half of the performances. Roach will split the role with Josh Brody ’07.
Dramat President Emmett Zackheim ’08 said Dorfman had told last semester’s board of her preliminary plan to cast Roach in the role.
“The proposal came in a really preliminary form that just had some of her ideas, some of which were more concrete than others,” he said. “We definitely talked about how to make it work, and we did feel more comfortable leaving the role open to a student as well.”
Since funding and performance spaces for undergraduates are limited, students said, the number of plays produced does not allow for every interested student to get a part.
One student, who requested anonymity because she takes classes in the Theater Studies Program, said that she did not mind the casting herself because as a woman, she was not eligible for the part. But if it were reversed, she said, she would have been frustrated.
“[If] I felt like I’d given a great audition but was put aside for a professor without warning, I’d be upset,” she said.
Hunter, who was elected to the board after casting for “Our Town” was completed, said he understands why some Dramat members felt “blindsided” by the decision, which was not announced before the list of parts available for audition was released last semester.
“It definitely wasn’t handled the best way possible,” he said.
Brody said working with Roach will be helpful to developing the part of the stage manager.
“There’s a lot I can learn from Professor Roach, and it takes a lot of the pressure off,” Brody said.
Dorfman said as an older actor, Roach’s presence in the show will add another dimension to the meaning of the play. She said growing older has allowed her to realize the transient nature of life and to see “Our Town” as more than just a piece of nostalgia.
“I was watching auditions for Theater Studies 210 [“Introduction to Performance Concepts”], and a student did a speech by Emily from ‘Our Town’ which I have often seen, but her audition twisted my heart, and I burst into tears,” she said. “I thought, ‘Dorfman, you’ve lived so much of your life that the poignancy hit you so hard.’”
Zackheim said the show provides a unique opportunity to work with professors both on and off the stage. He said students usually only have the opportunity to be directed by Dorfman in her classes, which are capped. By allowing her to direct a Dramat show, Zackheim said, a wider portion of the theater community can have the chance to learn from her.
Dorfman said she was not expecting the Dramat to accept her proposal to direct the play.
“I have great respect for the Dramat,” she said. “I was surprised when my proposal was accepted — I’m the first faculty director in over 50 years.”
Dorfman is offering a class, “Actor & Text: Thornton Wilder,” in conjunction with the production. Auditions for the show took place last semester, Hunter said, and students who were cast had the opportunity to enroll in the course and receive credit for their work on the show.
“Our Town” will run April 18 through April 21 in the University Theater.