Grad students seek more chances to perform

“the river don’t flow by itself no more” was staged last weekend at Trum- bull College’s Nick Chapel theater.
“the river don’t flow by itself no more” was staged last weekend at Trum- bull College’s Nick Chapel theater. Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

Last weekend, Trumbull College’s Nick Chapel theater was host to an unusual collaboration: “the river don’t flow by itself no more,” written and directed by Klara Wojtkowska GRD ’13.

Unlike most shows on campus, “river” brought together graduate and undergraduate students, as well as an actor from Quinnipiac University. Wojtkowska said her project initially ran into obstacles, from recruiting actors to finding a performance space. The experience made her realize how limited the performance resources available to graduate students are, she explained.

“I became frustrated because I realized grad school wasn’t a place people came to put on plays and collaborate,” Wojtkowska said.

Undergraduate student Cosima Cabrera ’14 auditioned for the show after seeing it posted on the Yale Drama Coalition website, and then took on the role of producer. Cabrera was able to help get the production off the ground, from booking a residential college theater to working with past contacts in the undergraduate theater community to recruit a sound and lighting designer.

Wojtkowska said many of her fellow students feel unable to participate in artistic extracurricular activities due to the academic and emotional demands of graduate school. She found she could not assemble a full cast without turning elsewhere.

“Extracurricular activities are different in grad school because people are so singularly focused on research,” Elizabeth Wiet GRD ’17 said. “They’re things you really have to go out of your way to pursue.”

While the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences does not have a Ph.D. program in theater or performance studies, Lucian Ghita GRD ’13, a student in the Comparative Literature Department, said he has found an intellectual home in the Performance Studies Working Group. Established by a 2003 Mellon Grant to promote the discipline at Yale, the seminar unites graduate students from various schools and departments who all study theater. But six graduate students interviewed who are focusing their research on the performing arts said they would welcome more readily available opportunities for practical involvement.

Xavier Buxton GRD ’13, a visiting student in the English Department who acted in “river,” said he has found practical experience helpful to his theoretical understanding of authors like Sappho and Shakespeare.

“There’s a big space for performance as research,” Buxton said. “It gives you a sense of what it is to be inside the play, to get inside the language of the play in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.”

Wiet, who is studying 20th century American theater through the English Department, said she has yet to get practical experience in the field, despite her involvement in the Performance Studies Working Group.

Danielle Bainbridge GRD ’18, an African American Studies Department student who studies theater, said she got involved in “river” by happenstance, but that she would welcome more opportunities for direct involvement in productions — whether through the Yale Cabaret or other paths. Nevertheless, Buxton said the Graduate School does not have the same culture of theater involvement as the College, adding that the opportunities that do exist may not be apparent to many.

Ghita said that by taking on an intellectual, research-focused role, many graduate students may feel divorced from any practical role in theater. He added that the Graduate School does not offer any performance or practice-oriented courses in theater. “I’d say the impetus is clearly theory,” Ghita said.

Lila Ann Dodge GRD ’14, who also participated in “river,” said practicing dance helps her better approach research on dance in the Council on African Studies. But while Dodge participates in the primarily undergraduate Yale Dance Theater and the off-campus Elm City Dance Collective, she said finding a studio rehearsal space to practice on her own remains an obstacle since graduate students are not allotted specific studio spaces.

Wojtkowska said that while “river” does not directly relate to her research on African theater, having creative outlets is something that can help her process the information she confronts as a graduate student.

“You learn about things that hurt,” Wojtkowska said, citing a course on South African post-apartheid as an example. “I need a space to deal with it, and I don’t think that’s a classroom.”

There are currently 11 graduate students in the African Studies Department.

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