Yale’s newest theater topic is 300 years old. Michael Leibenluft ’10 sought to change drama at Yale, so he applied for an independent study in the Theater Studies Department to explore “what happens when you take away the playwright,” and pursue something “more democratic and inclusive than a lot of theater at Yale,” he said last week.
From April 23rd through the 25th at the Whitney Theater, Leibenluft and 12 collaborators will premiere “The Student Body.” The collective has taken the semester to write and produce the show, which renders issues of gender and sexuality at Yale — throughout the University’s 300-year existence — in a series of 16 short vignettes.
Leibenluft launched the project with only the loose idea for a “‘performance collage’ that aims to examine issues of sexual identity and college life.” Writers scoured University archives for relevant artifacts, and the group improvised dialogues based on their findings. Sufficiently inspired by the dusty manuscripts researchers had collected, scenes began to come together.
“The Student Body” opens with a self-effacing edict from the 1774 “Laws of Yale College” and proceeds to leap back and forth across the University’s history. Addressed are the 1969 coeducation shift, gender-neutral housing, the joys and pitfalls of college dating, and freshmen sexual education.
“We talked a lot about what types of questions it’s supposed to pose, as a theater project and a collective critical exercise,” said theater studies professor Reginald Jackson. He advised Liebenluft on the project, regarding mostly conceptual and logistical issues.
While he was impressed by group’s resolve to create a show “entirely from scratch,” Jackson most appreciated how “the critical potential of the production vastly exceeds different productions in that it’s a dialogue with an archive that extends into the present.”
That the show, which got its name only last week, is still “in flux” does not bother Jackson. Leibenluft agreed, noting how the danger of last-minute assembly is par for the course, even with professional theater troupes.
Tuesday evening, a group of six actors met to workshop a scene at the Broadway Rehearsal Lofts. Dance professor Emily Coates ’06 was on-hand to help choreograph the piece. Various faculty members apart from Jackson have contributed their expertise to the project, in keeping with its origins as an independent study.
Coates watched as a group, which included Jacob Liberman ’10 and Cory Finley ’11, performed an energetic dance sequence to a mash-up of Ludacris and the Whiffenpoofs. “It’s terrific,” said Coates, but she suggested they try more improvisation and build “clusters,” groups of three or more dancers onstage.
The actors nodded and set to work. The dancer and the director stood off to a side of the room to chat as the group experimented with gendered street greetings, gendered hugs, gendered conversational poses and even gendered kisses.
After 300 years, is the idea of cultural progress a fallacy or an actuality? How much has changed in the administration’s relation to these issues of gender and human rights? According to Finley, the play “doesn’t so much offer a viewpoint as present several clusters of ideas and leave the audience free to pull what they will from it.” The result is a living, probing record of University history.
“The Student Body” runs April 23 through 25th at the Whitney Theater. Visit yaledramacoalition.org/thestudentbody for more information. Reservations are highly recommended.