Theater gets pushed offstage

Wearing a red sequined dress, Jason Ray ’06 sang “My sex change operation got botched / My guardian angel fell asleep on the watch / Now all I’ve got is a Barbie doll crotch,” to an enthusiastic audience last April. But he was not performing at the Off-Broadway Theater, or the Saybrook Underbrook, or even the Whitney Humanities Center. Instead, Ray and his performance in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” had been relegated to the Yale Medical School Auditorium.

On a campus where productions like “Hedwig” scramble to find space, the announcement last week that the new Davenport-Pierson auditorium will be open for only two productions per semester was a blow to a theater community already suffering from the temporary loss of Nick Chapel due to the renovations in Trumbull College. And the announcement Thursday that the Yale Undergraduate Musical Theater Company and the Opera Theater — whose specific demands make finding appropriate space even harder — cannot use the Off-Broadway Theater has only added to the roar of students demanding more space.

No theater on campus that is not affiliated with the Dramat has an orchestra pit, students said, or a sufficiently large stage for a major musical or opera production. The OBT had served as the home of musical and opera productions on campus for several years, but YUMTC and the Opera Theatre learned Thursday that they would not be able to use the space for their fall shows because they have already been given access to the space for three consecutive semesters.

“Now we are frantically trying to look for appropriate spaces that can have a pit and an audience of more than fifty,” YUMTC outreach coordinator Michelle Arkow ’08 said.

Arkow, who was supposed to direct the YUMTC’s fall production of “Wild Party,” said plans for the show centered on staging the performance in the OBT.

“To be quite honest, we thought that because we were an established organization we might get some kind of priority,” she said. “But I agree that it’s only fair when you’re one theater space that’s shared among all Yale undergraduates, it is unfair to give it to the same people every time.”

Danielle Ryan ’06, the managing director of the Opera Theatre, said that because the company publicizes its schedule before the year starts, her show must go up somewhere — though she has no idea where. The OBT was not even her first choice to put up the show — Ryan had first asked to stage the performance in Silliman College.

The current space crunch in the OBT only highlights the lack of suitable spaces for musical theater and operas anywhere on campus. The largest theaters, the Yale Rep and University Theater, are not frequently opened to undergraduate productions that are not affiliated with the Dramat.

“We try to put up great musicals in spaces that aren’t meant for musicals,” Schneider said. “We would be able to greatly broaden the kind of musicals we do if there were more spaces available.”

Despite the ability of musicals to attract large student audiences — Office of Undergraduate Productions supervisor Jim Brewczynski said musical theater productions frequently fill the house — there is no suitably equipped space for musical productions that is consistently open to undergraduates. The OBT is the largest space that groups like YUMTC can apply for on a regular basis, and residential college theaters like the Davenport-Pierson Auditorium are even smaller.

“Musical theater and opera by nature are large shows, with big casts, many locales, lots of scenery, lots of props,” Brewczynski said. “It’s hard to put 10 pounds of stuff into an eight pound bag, or in this case, a black box.”

But Brewczynski said Yale does not have plans to build a new extracurricular undergraduate theater to cater to the needs of the musical theater and opera companies. Toni Dorfman, the director of undergraduate studies for the Theater Studies Program, said there has been some discussion of creating new space for undergraduate theater and added that she welcomes “discussion” of the topic.

The number of musical theater performances staged at Harvard is not far from the number put on by Yale students, but Harvard does offer more useful facilities, allowing the performances that do go up to be larger in scale. Jack Megan, the director of the Office for the Arts at Harvard, said Harvard’s Agassiz Theater is a very adaptable venue, able to accommodate a wide range of theater. Harvard students unaffiliated with the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, similar to Yale’s Dramat, can use the Agassiz, which has a small stage and its own shop and technical support.

At Yale, making it onto the OBT stage does not mean smooth sailing, but rather a logistical nightmare. To preserve the audience’s ability to see the stage, the orchestra must be placed either to the side of the stage or behind the actors and hidden by a screen, YUMTC music director John Hansen-Brevetti ’07 said. But this solution is barely adequate, Hansen-Brevetti emphasized, as it impedes the set design and how the cast moves around the stage, and also increases the cost of a production since the set-up requires more technical equipment.

Although they face a last-minute search for a venue to replace the OBT, the Opera Theater plans to stage their fall show — but without an orchestra. Instead, it will focus on the singers. The winter opera is the only one this year that will feature both an orchestra and full staging; the company is trying to book the School of Drama’s University Theater, which they have used twice before, for the performance.

A planned spring show will be presented in Battell Chapel, Ryan said, which, because of space constraints, will focus on the orchestra. To that end, the singers in the spring show will perform without staging, standing still in the style of so many PBS specials. But while PBS specials are designed to fit within the black box of a television screen, musicals and operas do not fit within the black boxes Yale provides.

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