Theater policies move toward centralization

This past Monday, for the first time in recent memory, representatives from every administrative office concerned with undergraduate theater production at Yale came together to allocate residential college theater spaces and arts funding for shows hoping to go up between now and the beginning of Spring Break.

Spring semester meetings between students in the performing arts community and Susan Cahan, associate dean for the arts, had revealed that the unclear theater allocation system was “one of the biggest — maybe even the biggest — concerns” for undergraduates in the performing arts scene, said Irene Casey ’14, the president of the Yale Drama Coalition.

“Basically, the system [was] fairly chaotic,” Casey said. “Before, we worked on all kinds of levels and all the theaters functioned almost independently of each other. It would be difficult for a show to juggle all of those different theaters, and you could be halfway through rehearsals and have a set design already and then find out that you didn’t have the theater you wanted to have.” After Cahan and Kathryn Krier DRA ’07, the head of Undergraduate Production at Yale College, presented student concerns about the allocation of theater spaces to the Council of Masters last spring, the Council’s Arts and Awards Committee introduced a new, more integrated application system for theater venues this fall. Students were encouraged to submit venue and funding applications for any shows planned to go up before spring break by Sept. 17, Cahan said, in order to receive a response a week later. Administrators and students said the new policy would enable greater advanced planning into the spring semester and reduce uncertainty among those seeking to put up productions while meeting the various deadlines for different college theaters.

Calhoun Cabaret manager Meredith Davis ’13, who serves as president of the Yale Dramatic Association and was also among the group Cahan consulted, said the previous system left students applying to multiple residential college theaters for fear of not getting a booking at any, and even, on occasion, failing to cancel one booking after they had already received another venue.

“You end up not knowing who really needs it or who already has three other theaters they could potentially go up in,” she added.

On Tuesday night, the Arts and Awards committee informed applicants which venue their show had been assigned and whether it had received a Creative and Performing Arts award.

Eighty-two percent of those who requested spaces for a theater show received their first or second choice theater, Cahan said in an email.

Prior to this first-of-its-kind meeting, she added, administrators supporting theater production on campus “had no idea how many students received their preferred theater choice or how many needed to scurry around searching for back up options.”

“We felt strongly that it was important to try to address a problem that had come to our attention thanks to students, Dean Cahan and the concerns of the masters’ offices: the processes across the colleges, as well as that of the Off-Broadway Theatre, were not as well-integrated,” said Stephen Pitti, the master of Ezra Stilles college and current chair of the Committee. “It was a lot more work for everybody, students and those of us reading applications … [this] is a common deadline for applications and notifications to rationalize the process somewhat.”

Ethan Karetsky ’14, the producer for this semester’s staging of “Spring Awakening” and a member of the group of students that worked with Cahan on her presentation to the Council, said that enabling shows to find out about their venue and funding earlier will enable an expansion of Yale students’ production timelines, thus permitting a “smoother” production process.

Karetsky said he saw the system as “backwards,” in that students applied to colleges for venue bookings and funding months after they began working on their productions. He added that students often had to make purchases of props and other design elementsout of pocket before even knowing whether they would receive a CPA award.

Cahan said she became increasingly aware of such complaints when students directly approached her regarding them during the last academic year, during which she became more involved in Undergraduate Production (previously the Office of Undergraduate Productions) after the head of the office left his post in the fall. The dean then convened a meeting, she said, to bring together thirty leaders in theater and other performance arts, including opera and dance, to discuss issues facing students dealing with the OUP and the venue allocation system.

The largest question on their minds was clear, she said.

“Before the meeting, I sent out a questionnaire in which I asked students to evaluate the theater situation on campus,” Cahan said. “The single most frequently cited complaint was difficulty in finding theater venues.”

Davis said her experience dealing with requests for bookings as a residential college theater manager left her hoping that the Council of Masters could better define and “mainstream” the application process, so that all theater managers were aware of the shows asking for space in various colleges and could better coordinate how to place each in a venue that suited its needs.

The new application for Creative and Performing Arts Awards funding asks students to clearly define their top choices for weekends during which to stage their shows and venues in which to house them.

“In working with the OUP and the new leadership there and thinking about the different possibilities that we could tap into with an online system of application registration, it became clear that it would be possible to coordinate rankings of desires for certain spaces, and if that were collected in a database, it would be easy to allocate [venues],” said Jonathan Holloway, the master of Calhoun College and current chair of the Council.

Holloway added that he believes a “tension” exists between residential colleges’ attempt to control their performance spaces and the theater community’s desire to allot spaces more centrally.

Stuart Teal ’14, the manager of the Saybrook Underbrook and a board member for the Yale Drama Coalition, said he understands that college masters need to be the advocates of the view that colleges must be respected as separate entities, but said he believes centralization and uniformity are still essential.

“From the theater community’s point of view, it’s a little unfair,” Casey said. “There are colleges that don’t have theaters … if someone is in Berkeley, you have no college space to apply to [and] it’s important to remember that these theaters are very different and they’re not all equal by any means: it’s not just that different kinds of productions should go up in different theaters — there are theaters that are better quality than others, based on when they were built.”

Karetsky said the theater venues on campus could be divided into three styles: the largest, such as the Off-Broadway Theatre, the Whitney space, and the Morse/Stiles Crescent Theatre; medium-sized venues, such as the Saybrook Underbrook and the Calhoun Cabaret; and the smallest, which would include the Davenport/Pierson theater, the Jonathan Edwards theater and the Nick Chapel space in Trumbull College.

“I think that now, with more communication between the colleges, [the Council] will be able to better allocate theaters within these ranges so that shows will get what they desire and what they deserve,” Karetsky said.

Krier said that the allocation process this fall included considerations about qualities of particular theaters that specific shows might need.

Pitti added that he believes Krier’s presence at the meeting, in her new role as head of Undergraduate Production, facilitated the process as she served “as a resource across these colleges.”

That office “used to be seen as a police force when it was the OUP,” Karetsky said. “It’s changed to become a supporting organization, a nurturing organization … I think the difference is that [Krier] is just such a warm person … she wants to enable creativity.”

Four students involved in theater at Yale said they believe Krier has managed to further boost Undergraduate Production’s image as more of a resource for students than a limiting force.

Krier said one of her priorities is to encourage advance planning among students seeking to stage productions, so that UP staff can be available to help them plan much earlier in their process.

One new change that will encourage such thinking, she said, is that the venue and CPA awards granted on Tuesday will be valid all the way up to spring break, as opposed to the previous system of their only being available during the semester in which they were awarded. Krier said this policy means that more students will be able to plan productions for the first two months of the spring semester while being certain that they will have institutional funding.

“Allow[ing] CPA awards and theater awards to go all the way to spring break was done in the hope that we’ll see more arts programming in January and February, which are fallow periods in the arts,” Pitti said.

He added that the Council is “very likely” to introduce another CPA funding deadline in late March or April to enable students to plan for shows in another ‘fallow period’: the beginning of the fall semester.

Teal said, though, that he hopes that the Council will sit down to hold collaborative talks with students before enacting any new policies.

“I don’t think everyone is involved in the conversation that should be,” he said. “It is more than just a bilateral problem … all the students can meet with Cahan all they want, and who she talks to is the Council … it’s sort of one to one to one, and there’s never been a point where everybody involved has sat down and talked to one another.”

Pitti said the Council will prioritize being responsive to students as it continues to make decisions in the coming months.

“I think this is a great step forward and I think that having all of the people who allocate the theater spaces come together at the end of the process talk is key but I do think that it would be great to take an even larger step forward to look at — I think it’d be great to have more clarity about why certain shows will be given theaters, for instance,” Casey said.

Cahan said one of her main goals during the process of developing these policies is to engage with students more collaboratively while reducing anxiety they have had about putting up shows.

Still, she added, “There will be enough residual chaos to please even the most chaos-loving Yale College student,” she added. “Even if the chaos is only the chaos of the creative process.”

Yale’s campus is home nine primary venues for performance arts shows and rehearsals, according to the Undergraduate Prodcutions website.

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