Yalies struggle to sustain new art, theater groups

An amateur thespian looking to join a performance group at Yale can pick from among 26 possibilities, according to the Official List of Registered Undergraduate Organizations. A budding artist can choose from a palette of 24 different options.

But for some students looking to start their own performance or art group, things might be getting a little crowded.

Even with 218 organizations registered with the University and many more that are not officially recognized, some students are still struggling to find a niche in existing groups.

The strain is particularly acute for music, theater and sketch-comedy groups, where the intense competition involved in auditions deters some undergraduates from joining established groups, driving them to found their own organizations.

But leaders of these new groups said they are struggling to stay afloat in an overwhelming sea of artsy extracurricular activities and are trying to develop strategies to distinguish themselves from their more popular counterparts.

In early September, Paul Wainer ’11 auditioned for a saxophone part in the Yale Jazz Ensemble, an 18-piece big band directed by professional conductor David M. Brandenburg.

Wainer, along with many others, did not make the cut.

“I saw a lot of talented players that couldn’t get in because of space,” Wainer said. “Some people have been auditioning for two or three years and still wanted to play jazz but couldn’t.”

Sam Tepper ’10 said he auditioned for the Yale Jazz Ensemble in his freshman year but was rejected. He said a student who wants to play jazz on campus has to be very proactive. Tepper said he could not find any other jazz groups, and today he plays by himself and occasionally at small parties.

Still, the Yale tendency is often to lead, not follow.

Wainer created a new group, called The Jazz Collective, as a place for students like Tepper, as well as serious musicians seeking extra practice. The group hopes to attract a range of talents from students who are “simply into jazz,” Wainer said.

Elizabeth Sutton-Stone ’10, a student director, said she developed her theater group with a similar purpose. This year, she revived the Yale Undergraduate Shakespeare Company, which had been lying dormant for several years, she said.

Shakespeare fans are already well-represented in Yale’s groups and extracurricular activities. But unlike the Elizabethan Club, whose members discuss the Bard over tea, or student Shakespeare productions where students memorize pages of verse, Sutton’s group will be neither exclusive nor demanding.

“Whoever is interested in scene reading can come read,” she said.

Her uncapped group will mainstream Shakespeare for theater rookies and veterans without the audition lists and call-backs, she said. With wine, cheese and good company, Sutton said, she hopes students — even those whose favorite classes are on Science Hill — will enjoy reading Shakespeare in a quick, fun and free discussion.

Sutton-Stone and Wainer both said they are not concerned with their groups’ sacrificing quality in their efforts to be inclusive. They said they are not interested in outdoing other groups in terms of talent.

“They are so set in stone,” Wainer said. “No one can compete with these established groups that took years to become legitimate.”

Wainer said he hopes the Jazz Collective will complement its predecessors. He said his group will look for mentorship and assistance from the Yale Jazz Ensemble. Ideally, Wainer said, members of the Jazz Collective will be ready to join more rigorous groups once they have had enough practice.

Both leaders said they are not worried about the possibility of little or no student interest in their new groups. Wainer said as few as eight people can be divided into two small but successful jazz groups. Sutton-Stone said she will be satisfied if only an intimate group of friends attends her first Shakespeare sessions.

While these groups are emerging in a crowded field, they both add something new to the campus arts scene. Wainer’s group is the first student-run jazz group on campus, and Sutton-Stone’s Shakespeare Company caters to more casual fans of the Bard than do established Shakespeare clubs.

Many students interviewed said the array of extracurricular activities available to undergraduates can be overwhelming. But Joshua Tan ’09, chair of the Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee, said the number of existing arts and performance groups is “just enough.”

Increases are generally balanced by decreases as groups become defunct, he said. In any case, Tan said, the plethora of such groups is an indication of large demand for the arts from the student body.

But some groups, such as the Jonathan Edwards Chamber Players, led by Isaac Selya ’08, have run into difficulty finding enough student interest to sustain themselves. The JE Chamber Players share a niche in the music scene with similar groups, such as the Berkeley College Orchestra, the Saybrook College Orchestra, the Ezra Stiles College Wind Ensemble and Davenport Pops.

Seyla said he was disconcerted when all the auditioners for his group dropped out on the last day of auditions this year because they were “pulled” by the other college orchestras. Since the many orchestral groups on campus are so similar, he said, some “bashing” — slandering other groups to prop up one’s own — occurs among them.

He said such rumors often affect the decisions of incoming musicians, and they are especially frustrating when directed by professionally conducted orchestras towards student-conducted counterparts.

“If you’re in the same class, then yes, you need to distinguish your orchestra,” he said. “But why do you have to bash others if you’re in a completely different class?”

Seyla, also a member of Yale Symphony Orchestra, said he acknowledges that the YSO exists in a realm of its own. Likewise, he said he thinks the Saybrook College Orchestra — with its own professional conductor — should not compete with other student-conducted orchestras.

“If you’re trying to be YSO, then compete with YSO,” Seyla said. “But don’t compete with these little people.”

But some student leaders trying to found new groups said they are ready to challenge their better-established counterparts. Max Lanman ’10, who founded Signs of Laughter, said his new “super comedy group” will bring sketch comedy to “a whole new level.”

Modeled after Saturday Night Live, Signs of Laughter will air on YTV with a combination of live sketches, videos and music.

Lanman said he and his leading team of performers — Chris Mejia ’10, The Fifth Humor member Streeter Phillips ’10 and Just Add Water’s Allison Williams ’10 — hope to launch a large-scale production that might make the jump from the student-run television station to a wider audience online.

“The Yale comedy scene needs something new, and we’re going to change that,” Lanman said. “I feel the best form of stage comedy is the form that SNL does.”

Lanman said his group holds to the philosophy of “one of every kind,” suggesting that each student adds a new kind of diversity and different dynamic to the whole team.

With a wide variety of performers encompassing mediums from theater to live music, Phillips said he expects an enthusiastic audience response.

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