Last fall, the Theater Studies program underwent a thorough curriculum review in which every part of the program was “scrutinized and assessed,” said Toni Dorfman, director of undergraduate studies for the program.
In doing so, the program reaffirmed what it sees as a defining characteristic of theater instruction at Yale. In Dorfman’s words: “This is not vocational training. We don’t see it that way.”
Instead, the program will uphold its view of theater “as a branch of the humanities and as a complex cultural practice [that] claims a rich history and literature and an equally rich repertoire of embodied knowledge and theory,” as the Blue Book states.
Yale’s promise to students of a liberal arts education is very different from what they might receive at more career-focused conservatory programs.
According to Sarah Lovely, director of college counseling at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Mass., a conservatory education provides a “very high level of training at least five days per week, with the option of acting or singing or dancing in a lot of performances in between.”
The Yale program is a far cry from that practice-oriented structure. Majoring in theater studies, students said, is not enough to learn the skills that are integral to a career in the field.
“As far as getting the best training, you really need to participate in Theater Studies, but not just stay there. You absolutely need to do extracurricular theater,” said Timmia Hearn Feldman ’12, who will go into professional theater after she graduates this May. “It’s a combination. One without the other is useless.”
For these students, preparing for a career in the theater while at Yale means navigating a complicated tangle of theater studies teaching and involvement in student-produced shows in their free time.
Olivia Scicolone ’14, a theater studies major who starred in “Sweeney Todd,” last fall’s mainstage production for the Yale Dramatic Association, said she plans to pursue a career in the theater. For her, as for other majors in the program, having to seek out opportunities in the field after graduation seems daunting.
“I worry about post-graduation,” Scicolone said.
And not all alumni can assuage her fears. A number of graduates said they found the preparation provided by the Theater Studies program and Yale-funded student productions did not ready them for the challenges of the field.
“My main complaint is that it doesn’t prepare you for the real world,” said Allison Goldberg ’06, who now runs a production company in New York. “It’s a very theoretical education that talks a lot about art, but not as much about marketing yourself as a performer… the program is not about the business side, it’s about making art, which is lovely, but doesn’t really prepare you.”
NOT A CONSERVATORY
Irene Casey ’14, the president of the Yale Drama Coalition and a theater studies major, said she believes the Theater Studies program was upfront about its focus when she considered Yale during her college selection process.
“The strength of the program is on the academic side, and they make it clear,” Casey said. “It must have been said to me 10,000 times.”
Dorfman said the program is about the study of theater as a branch of the humanities, one that suggests broader lenses through which to approach human civilization.
“Theater is not just about the theater. We don’t want to ‘theater everything down,’ because what theater is about in distillation is what it is to be human,” she said, citing studies in literature, art, history and the physical sciences as key to a student’s understanding of what theater can bring to the world.
The structure of the theater studies curriculum reflects a holistic approach grounded in a liberal arts education: all theater studies majors must enroll in a year-long survey on the history of drama and the range of aesthetic theories. Following this prerequisite, students are required to enroll in at least four more courses in dramatic history or literature, resulting in a split of six courses in theory and six courses in practice that add up to the 12-credit major, Dorfman said.
David DeRose, who served as director of undergraduate studies for the Theater Studies program from 1985 to 1993, said he is not familiar with the program’s operation today, but expressed ideals similar to Dorfman’s.
“My vision of the program was always that we were exposing students to the many possibilities of the theater as a means of artistic and personal expression,” DeRose said. “I refused to see the major as a ‘training program’ in any specific discipline of theater — either acting, directing, what have you.”
Several students interviewed said they believe the program’s academic focus has definite merit, although it does not focus as heavily as conservatories on practical work.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”1566″ ]
“[The prerequisite] Theater Studies 110 is kind of a pain, but I needed it,” said theater studies major Mary Bolt ’14, who acted in last weekend’s “Glass Act” and will perform in the Dramat’s 2012 Commencement musical, “Hair.” Bolt chose to attend Yale instead of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, a leading conservatory, because, she said, she “couldn’t really pass Yale up.”
Because she attended a public high school and not a specialized arts school, Bolt said she did not have experience reading plays rapidly or recognizing different periods in the development of theater, as students who attended arts-oriented high schools might.
“I know as I approach theater today that having a solid understanding of history enriches my understanding of how I can create theater,” Scicolone said. “With [Theater Studies 110], I wasn’t feeling it; I had a chip on my shoulder. But then I realized how beneficial a class like this can be: it is very, very helpful to have a knowledge of theory and history and that kind of stuff, and that’s lacking in programs where studies [are] secondary to vocational training.”
Theater studies professor Deb Margolin, an OBIE award-winning playwright, said she “feels very passionate” about the way theater is approached in the classroom at Yale.
“The informed actor, the experienced actor, is the talented actor,” Margolin said, adding that she distrusts actors without defining real-life experiences outside theatrical training.
Margolin said her experiences teaching at conservatories left her disillusioned about the environment of such programs, questioning whether they are conducive to producing a broad-minded student.
“You may be able to sing ‘Oklahoma’ in pitch or something, but if you cannot create an eloquent English sentence, that is a major drawback,” Margolin said.
Lisa Siciliano ’05, who currently works as an education manager for the Emerald City Theatre Company in Chicago, said she counts Dorfman and Margolin among her mentors to this day, and credits them with shaping her approach to theater.
“They taught me that the love of the theater is not just being a star on Broadway,” Siciliano said.
ENTERING THE REAL WORLD
But Siciliano said that once she entered the professional world, she found her Yale preparation lacking.
“In terms of learning how to get work, I was clueless,” she said. “I was asking, ‘If I get a headshot, what do I do with it?’ I didn’t know how to attach a headshot to a resume.”
Theater studies major Scicolone, who chose Yale over the theater conservatory program at Carnegie Mellon University and has close friends at other conservatory programs, said she believes Yale theater students do not have the sort of vocational skills in their repertoire that their competitors from other educational backgrounds may have.
She added that she became increasingly concerned about that deficiency last year, after speaking with a professional actor from New York who came to New Haven to talk about the musical theater field.
“She expressed concern about how theater studies students here perceived their abilities,” Scicolone said, adding that the speaker said Yale students are not aware that their skill sets may prove lacking in the real world.
Hearn Feldman said she believes “a community of congratulation” in the undergraduate theater scene causes some in the Yale theater community to stop being critical and pushing themselves to work harder.
“There’s the ability to think you’re really good as a Yale undergrad,” she said. “If you come into Yale as a pretty talented actor, you can get snapped up by a show, get cast again and again and graduate thinking you’re the best — and not be.”
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”1564″ ]
According to Allison Goldberg ’06, co-artistic director of Lively Productions in New York, one of the skills Yalies may lack is a certain savoir-faire when entering cities with large theater scenes such as New York.
“I really recall feeling, when I was new to the city, that NYU students knew what was up, because they were taught about the business and about headshots, which photographers to go to and who’s trying to rip you off,” said Goldberg, who originally moved to the city to pursue acting.
Goldberg said that she chose to enroll at Yale because she sought a university with strength in both theater training and academics as a whole. But this education was something of a disappointment once she graduated, she said.
Dorfman said she believes students will have time to receive the skills a conservatory can provide after they receive a thorough liberal arts education. DeRose agreed, referring to an instance from his time at Yale when Earle Gister, former chair of the acting program at the School of Drama, warned theater studies majors against specializing too early.
“Both Gister and Judith Malina (the artistic director of the legendary Living Theatre) spoke to the undergrads and strongly, strongly urged our students to get a good liberal arts education, spend a few years working in the theater after graduation, and then, once they were sure this was what they absolutely had to do with their lives, go back and get the advanced training,” DeRose wrote in an email to the News.
For Kate Pitt ’12, a former president of the Yale Drama Coalition, the fact that a Yale degree offers her options if she chooses not do theater is a key benefit of the program here.
But for those completely certain that they want to go into theater after graduating, the opportunities they receive at the undergraduate level are critical. And time may be of the essence.
“Youth sells,” Scicolone said. “And if you’re graduating [from graduate school] at 26, you lose some of the prime years of your life as far as if you want to ‘make it.’”
One benefit of a conservatory program that Yale theater students do not receive is a showcase in which students travel to New York or Los Angeles to perform before and network with agents and casting directors, said Michael Knowles ’12. This lack of exposure to real-world players, who may sign students to their agencies on the spot, has been a sticking point in the Yale theater community for years, Knowles added.
Knowles, who plans to be an actor, said he majored in Italian literature and history rather than theater studies because Yale provides “endless theater opportunities outside of the [theater] program.” At the same time, he added, his liberal arts education is different from the conservatory acting training he received during his senior year of high school at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, which he said he found “very limiting.”
Still, Knowles noted that “the top agents, if they are hiring in this economy, are going to be seeing the CMU, Juilliard and NYU showcases.”
Jamie Biondi ’12, a theater studies and English double major who plans to go into publishing, said Yale’s theater preparation often ends up producing smart actors as opposed to “good” ones.
“The program is like ‘Do your theory credits and do your practice credits,’” Biondi added. “There isn’t that step in between that takes you from knowing what exactly Shakespeare means in that speech to translating that into your body.”
Such differences in training may affect Yale graduates competing with conservatory alumni for scarce jobs in the field.
Lovely, the college counselor at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, said the students she advises generally believe that training at liberal arts schools is not “as high-caliber as at a conservatory.” She added that while she works to combat this misconception, it is a consequence of the knowledge that conservatory students spend over 75 percent of their time developing their craft.
Corey Cott, a senior at Carnegie Mellon, did not mince words: “You can really tell the difference between conservatory-trained actors and non-conservatory-trained actors.”
“Usually, I feel like the conservatory-trained actors have a little bit more of a grasp on what they’re doing,” he said.
LEARNING OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”1565″ ]
A large part of the practical training Yale theater students receive comes from their work in what Dorfman, the DUS for the Theater Studies program, called Yale’s “distinctive student-initiated curricular theater season,” largely funded by Creative and Performing Arts awards distributed by the residential colleges.
“Something I constantly hear is that Theater Studies takes care of a lot of the theoretical, academic and intellectual [aspects] and that it’s really through the opportunities provided through the Dramat and CPA funds that people get to apply what they’re learning in their classes,” said Meredith Davis ’13, president of the Dramat.
That distinction soon became very clear to Jessica Miller ’15, who starred in “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” the Dramat’s freshman show for this year, and attended the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.
“It’s very different from an arts program,” Miller said. “One of the first things that’s difficult to navigate is that the director is a student.”
Miller said working with students leads to a more relaxed environment than she was previously used, one that is more open and conducive to discussions.
“I very much believed a teacher would tell me what is right, when it would be right, which is the complete opposite of how I feel now. There isn’t a single right thing; you’re always trying new things, and that’s what great about being an undergrad at Yale,” Miller said.
But being “laid-back,” she added, can affect the process and the quality of the productions that go up.
Andrew Freeburg ’13, a board member for the Yale Drama Coalition and a student interested in acting and design, said the extracurricular scene lacks rigor.
“It’s awesome that so much stuff happens, but it’s good by coincidence,” Freeburg said. “It’s good because of the people, not because it’s well-organized.”
Hearn Feldman said she has faced challenges directing because she has had to work with individuals who are not as serious about her productions as she would like them to be.
Jokingly referring to herself as “the meanest director on campus,” she cited the example of one actor she worked with who often arrived late to rehearsals without having learned their lines. When Hearn Feldman told the actor the production was suffering due to his or her behavior, the response she said she received was, “This is just the haphazard way we do theater.”
“A lot of directors say to their actors that shows won’t be a huge time commitment,” Hearn Feldman said. “I say it’s going to be a massive time commitment.”
When considering the shows going up in any given semester, students who most want to engage in a professional environment tend to select those shows with the most serious production teams, six students interviewed said.
“I’m definitely selective in what I audition for,” said Scicolone, adding that she feels a need to supplement her theater studies classes with theater on campus that can be of varying quality.
“Sometimes great stuff happens, other times not-so-great stuff happens and it turns out to be not worth the time and energy, and you don’t grow,” Scicolone added.
As a freshman, Miller said she is still attempting to identify individuals with whom she enjoys working. A key factor, she added, is “to find people who take things seriously.”
Davis said she believes some students feel more comfortable doing shows with the Dramat, run like a production company with a seven-show season, because of the structure it offers.
“There is this board that is there as a support and safety net; the director doesn’t have to worry about the set being built,” Davis said. “People can really focus on exactly what they’re going to be doing, and don’t have to focus on aspects of the show that are not under their jurisdiction.”
Pitt, the graduating senior and former YDC president, said the Dramat is integral to a theater education at Yale because it provides students with the experience of working in a professional environment.
“It’s nice doing a Dramat show because of the professional factor and because of the commitment it requires from everyone involved,” Scicolone said.
Knowles, who plans to go into film acting once he graduates, said Dramat productions are known to be the most selective on campus, partly because of their large budget and access to theater spaces such as the Yale Repertory Theatre.
“The Dramat is an invaluable resource,” Knowles said.
But Davis admitted that not all students want to be involved with Dramat shows and their structure.
“Some people don’t like thinking of a group of people choosing shows,” Davis said. “Or they want to rehearse at weird hours, or think of things that are maybe a little riskier than what we do.”
In terms of CPA-funded shows, Knowles said, the quality of the experience varies with the student director involved.
“I don’t try and expect a lot from anyone I’m working with,” Miller said. “There are varying levels of commitment, which is something you just have to realize going in. Not everyone wants to be an actor.”
Freeburg said the number of activities Yalies try to balance alongside their schoolwork, such as theater shows and comedy troupes, results in students often giving short shrift to their extracurricular productions.
“The fact that everything is last-minute means awesome crunch-preparation skills, but it’s horrible for production values, professionalism, and your sanity,” Freeburg added.
To those like Hearn Feldman, the solution lies in students being involved in fewer productions.
“If we don’t do too many shows per semester, we would have much better theater at Yale,” Hearn Feldman said.
REINING IN THE CPA SCENE
The job of coordinating non-Dramat extracurricular theater falls to the Yale Drama Coalition, which helps publicize CPA-funded shows and holds theater training workshops. Casey, the coalition’s current president, said she sees her job as helping students “make” undergraduate theater, adding that she is aware of the recent debate over the number of shows being produced.
“This semester, there has been some talk about having too much theater and not enough quality control, and that people should be stricter about who gets to put up shows,” Casey said. “While it may cause some problems and may stretch designers thin, to limit the theater would be mistake.”
Speaking as both a student director and YDC president, Casey said she believes the fact that undergraduates have the opportunity to put on shows of their choice and “take chances” is a strength of Yale theater.
Miller, a freshman actor, said the “vibrant,” student-based Yale theater scene makes exploration and pushing boundaries possible.
“After I directed my second show [‘A Streetcar Named Desire’], I suddenly thought that there was nowhere else I could have directed ‘Streetcar,’ ” Hearn Feldman said. “I realized I would never had this much freedom at a conservatory.”
Casey, who considered conservatory programs during her college application process, said she could not think of another program that enables a volume of theater comparable to Yale’s.
Yet quantity may not mean quality, a number of students said.
Student actor Biondi said more productions may simply result in fewer shows having strong teams.
“Because the Yale extracurricular world is so filled with people who do [theater] for fun, for those of us who want to do it professionally, the options are really limited,” Hearn Feldman said.
Davis, who manages the Calhoun Cabaret theater space, said there would be benefits to having each show run for two weeks as opposed to the current norm of one.
“The tech week, one weekend thing is great, because a lot of people get to use the spaces, but what frustrates me is that spaces don’t get used to the best of their ability,” Davis added. More time spent in the theater means that production teams have more time to develop and perfect set and lighting designs, she said.
But considering the limited number of venues for undergraduate theater, Davis said that would involve limiting the number of shows. Obtaining CPA funding would therefore have to become significantly more difficult than it is currently.
Faculty involvement in extracurricular theater may be another way to boost the quality of productions, said Bolt, who plans to go into musical theater. She added that at present she does not feel that her Yale experience gives her a chance to understand what the professional theater world looks like, which could change with the presence of instructors active in the field.
“I’m looking for guidance,” Bolt said. “I’m not ready to go out into the world and be like ‘I feel I’ve had the experience to be in a Broadway show,’ and the faculty are the people I’m looking to.”
Yet the division between the extracurricular scene and the Theater Studies program leaves Bolt confused: “I don’t know if they’re available.”
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”1563″ ]
Playwright and professor Margolin said she is “always glad to support a student production,” if she’s invited to do so.
“I only want to involve myself in a student’s project if they want me,” she added. “If they just want to stand up and paint the town red, well, the theater is a place of possibility.”
Margolin cited the senior project, for which theater studies majors are provided a faculty advisor, as a good example of student-faculty cooperation on shows.
But, Davis said, faculty involvement even before the senior project could be very useful.
“It’s kind of silly that it isn’t until your senior year that the faculty is seeing your skills in a full-blown show,” she said. “When you have someone like [professor] Daniel Larlham or [professor Robert] Woodruff look what you’re directing, that’s how you’re going to learn.”
Still, the spirit of the undergraduate theater scene could be lost with increased faculty involvement, Miller said.
“I like that the undergrad theater scene and the college side are two distinct worlds for me, because theater doesn’t become an academic thing. It’s still something you’re pushing yourself to explore, and it’s a kind of an escape to just do what you love to do and not have to worry about being graded on it.”
Another option, students said, may be attempting to get support from the School of Drama.
James Bundy, dean of the School of Drama, said, “The School of Drama, Yale Rep and Yale College together certainly comprise the most complete creative community of professional practice and training, scholarship and extracurricular theatre in the English speaking world.”
But Freeburg, who has been involved in projects with YSD students before, said it takes effort to access the School’s resources, and students interested in doing so must make it a priority.
“You can take YSD classes if you smile right,” Hearn Feldman said. “If you want to do it, there’s nothing stopping you, but you have to fight for it.”
Alumna Siciliano said she found a different attitude at the School of Drama when she asked professors there to teach workshops to students in the early 2000s.
She added that she thinks asking School of Drama students to mentor undergraduates could be helpful to students looking for assistance in fine-tuning resumes or audition pieces.
Casey, the YDC president, said establishing such a program is a priority for the coalition, as part of its mission to help students.
“We look at what the gaps are,” Casey added.
MAKING CONNECTIONS FOR TOMORROW
One way the YDC is trying to plug those gaps is by working with the seven-year-old Creative Yale Alumni Network and Undergraduate Career Services.
“If you go to a conservatory, it’s basically a hotbed of networking and practical advice and connections to existing industries,” said Timothy Cooper ’02, head of CYAN. “We formed CYAN when we realized that if alumni from our own school don’t [help us network], no one will.”
Associate Dean Allyson Moore, director of UCS, said CYAN and UCS first collaborated in 2010, and are looking to further develop their relationship through career panels and internship opportunities for students interested in going into theater.
Casey said speaking with individuals in CYAN has convinced her that graduating from Yale leaves one in “a pretty good place.”
“It is true that you may not have that intensive training, but I have to admit that I haven’t heard any people from CYAN say there was a huge deficit in their education,” she added.
Cooper said the alumni hope to give students a real-world perspective that leaves out any illusions while remaining positive. He added that a common response has been surprise, with students coming up to him and other alumni and talking about all the myths their advice debunked.
Still, a future in the field poses unique challenges after graduation from Yale, alumni and students said.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”1562″ ]
“I didn’t feel as prepared as someone coming out of a BFA program, who was connected with people in cities already,” Siciliano said. “At my first audition, I was like ‘what the heck is this?’ because I was not prepared to sit for hours.”
Young professionals in the real world are in a very different position from students in Yale’s funded extracurricular theater scene, Cooper said.
“There’s no real-world Sudler,” he said, referring to the former name of the Creative and Performing Arts fund. “You find out pretty quickly after you graduate that the amount of free money you get at Yale does not exist in the real world.”
Goldberg, who graduated a year after Siciliano, said she has found that the Yale name helps her in specific situations, such as when people confuse her undergraduate degree with one from the School of Drama or when she looks for influential backers for productions put up by her company, Lively Productions.
In general, Cooper said, the Ivy League prestige does not guarantee a great deal in the world of theater.
“It makes you seem credible,” he added. “The hundreds of thousands of dollars you paid give you a brief moment of credibility in a potential employers’ eyes.”
But even as career services and the YDC strive to enhance students’ preparation for employment in the theater world, Scicolone said her peers must be realistic in their expectations.
“Theater Studies is pretty explicit. They stress that they’re not vocational,” she said. “A lot of us want to struggle against that, but we have no basis to think that [they should be] because they don’t pitch it to us as that. It’s us wanting to be here, and we can’t blame Theater Studies.”
DeRose, the former director of undergraduate studies for the Theater Studies program, stressed that Yale undergraduates should not expect to receive the same kind of preparation as that found in conservatories.
“You don’t go to Yale College as an undergraduate if all you want to do is receive ‘training,’” DeRose said. Referring to his time at Yale, he added, “I wanted to create ‘theatre artists,’ people who wanted to explore artistic expression through creating theatre, not people who wanted to have a ‘job’ as actors.”
But for a number of undergraduates, that latter path is the goal.
Asked what she thinks Yale students can do to best prepare themselves for the field, Scicolone said she would recommend pragmatism.
“There comes a point in your theater studies education where you accept that you can’t expect to have great vocational training as an actor here,” she said. “Accepting that and not struggling against it is a big part of being a grounded theater studies major here, and then you do everything extracurricularly that you can to fill the void.”