Space to breathe

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Theater, a cappella, classical music, folk rock, dance, slam poetry, improv comedy: it seems as though every art form under the sun is included under the aegis of Yale College. And they all have to be housed somewhere.

Yale advertises its extensive performing arts facilities proudly. There are 33 spaces available to undergraduates interested in performing art pieces, ranging from the 30-seat Davenport College Common room to the gargantuan Woolsey Hall, which can accommodate 2250 people. There are spaces available in most colleges, and — barring limitations like cost and scheduling constraints — with a creative mind (and possibly a budget to match), practically all the world could be your stage.

But of course, behind even the most transcendent artistic experience at Yale is the brute logistical force and long man-hours that go into planning every such event on campus.

Gaining access to one of Yale’s spaces is an arduous process. To schedule a meeting in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, you need to submit a form to the Registrar’s Office. To use the Stiles-Morse Crescent Theater, you need to make a visit to the dean’s assistants. To use the Law School Auditorium, which, according to the Office of Undergraduate Productions (OUP), is fair game for undergraduate productions … the process is a bit unclear. You can find a document on the website of the OUP called the “Guidelines for Undergraduate Theatrical Productions and Special Events” that will tell you everything you need to know about how to properly reserve a theater at Yale. But be prepared to spend some time reading — the document is about 48 pages long.

Art forms like theater and dance have recognized student organizations to help them navigate the bureaucratic minefield of Yale spaces. But live music is different. The decentralized nature of talent and the preponderance of ill-suited spaces make it difficult for students to utilize the theaters promised in the college prospectus. The question of space is a fundamental one for student musicians, especially for numerous independent Yale bands that lack easily accessible performance venues. Combined with limited areas where they can interact with each other and with other artists, this has caused a creative bottleneck for many looking for adequate means to express themselves.

OUT FROM UNDER THE RADAR

When Yale students plan to go to the Saybrook Underbrook, there’s a certain protocol they have to follow. First, they must swipe in to the basement; if they aren’t in Saybrook, they might need to mill around outside until someone can let them in. They are probably there to see a play; they probably reserved their tickets on the Yale Dramatic Coalition website beforehand. They file into their seats and the lights dim.

But starting later this month, that routine will be suspended two Saturday nights a month by the Underbrook Coffeehouse. Each session, two bands — one from Yale and one from New Haven or elsewhere — will receive a small sum of money to play for an hour or so. The space will be comfortably decorated and sell coffee and other snacks to concertgoers.

The endeavor is the creation of collaboration between Oliver Hill ’12, a member of student folk band Plume Giant, and Susan Cahan, associate dean for the arts.

“I was thinking of bottom-up and top-down ways to generate excitement in student music,” he explained. “So I got into contact with Dean Cahan and she was super-responsive.”

Hill noted that he drew inspiration for the coffeehouse from a long-running student venue at Columbia University.

“The coffeehouse is based on a thing at Columbia called Postcrypt. It happens every Friday and Saturday. It has its own space and it can hold about 40 people.”

Postcrypt is a room where students gather to hear acoustic music in the basement of St. Paul’s Chapel, a venue for religious events on campus. Founded by a campus chaplain in 1964, the space has built a dedicated following despite its small size.

“People have grown to trust the bookers, and it’s a job that passes from friend to friend,” Hill said.

After once playing a show in the space, Hill was inspired to recreate it at Yale, though he also drew some inspiration from previous attempts to foster a more vibrant community for music at Yale.

“I was a part of a group called Yale Music Scene, and it had similar goals to mine in starting Underbrook Coffeehouse. My room is where we hosted a few open mics, and it was an incredible experience. We had people pulling out their acoustic guitars and playing songs that they had written earlier that day and [others] playing for the first time in public; it was warm and fuzzy.”

But he soon noticed that the energy started to drag and Yalies began to lose interest.

“We discovered then that the Yale student body, making generalizations, doesn’t respond to warm and fuzzy but to seriousness,” he added.

Underbrook Coffeehouse reflects the seriousness with which Hill takes his aspirations as a musician, a passion exemplified by his work with Plume Giant, a prolific Yale folk group that is constantly playing shows and recording new material.

Despite being one of the most well-known musical acts on campus, even Plume Giant runs into challenges when trying to find spaces in which to perform. In November 2010, they threw an album release show in the Dwight Hall Chapel with the support of WYBC, but despite the event’s considerable success — the event was packed, hot apple cider was served, and plenty of students were singing along — the logistical aspects were still a nightmare for Hill and the rest of Plume Giant.

“The Dwight Chapel show was a pain in the ass. We [finally] said we’d bite the bullet and pay 300 bucks out of pocket,” he said.

“Hopefully, a serious effort will be inspiring and people will start new bands. It’s not just about the music, it’s about being a place that people see as reliable,” Hill said of the new project.

When asked about the permanence of the space, Hill explained, “This is a pilot semester. The Underbrook will be free and funded by the University. There isn’t going to be any revenue, besides the couple dollars we’ll make selling coffee. This semester we need to convince them that it’s a worthwhile expense, and if it becomes a notable place, we’ll have accomplished that.”

Hill is partly motivated by a sense of service to the Yale community in the endeavor, noting that he hopes the Coffeehouse might be his legacy.

“Everyone in their junior and senior years is groping for some legacy. Yale has everything for everyone, and all different cultures, but to be lacking something this simple,” meaning a University-supported space for enjoying small-scale student music, “[is] an appalling and exciting [oversight].”

Hill mentioned that he understands the success of the space depends on something harder to control than funding and furniture: the spark that happens when Yale students coalesce and realize that they’re experiencing something truly special.

He said, “I have no question that the space will be beautiful, but I don’t know if it’s going to have that magic that makes it a lasting effort.”

LEAVING NO SPACE UNTOUCHED

The Moth at Yale, another group that’s had difficulty in the past finding appropriate space, is a strange beast. The nation’s first college offshoot of the renowned storytelling competition is associated with NPR, sponsored by professors, and funded by Yale, yet it retains a certain ramshackle charm. It’s a little less formal than similar performances and readings while still maintaining an ethos of serious consideration. Some of this charm is due to shrewd decisions on behalf of its organizers (the first event took place on Halloween, so the participants cutely regaled tales of their best disguises while in costume), but much of the ambiance from the event is due to its location in the grand (and aging) Saint Anthony Hall.

Brandon Jackson ’13, one of the coordinators of the Moth and a member of Saint Anthony Hall, thinks that the nature of St. A’s makes it an ideal space for non-traditional events.

“We’re in the unique position of being in a space that is maintained but doesn’t necessarily have a full roster of events going on,” he said.

He added that there is a whole host of venues like St. A’s — multipurpose spaces cared for by groups that are willing and able to open them up for an evening — “but the system is too decentralized. There’s nobody devoted to keeping some sort of database, so there’s a tremendous disconnect between the people who have the space and the people who need it.”

Jackson also emphasized the great impact that institutional support can have on a fledgling idea at Yale.

“The Moth benefited from having a direct faculty connection in the English department with funding to provide for and support student events.”

St. A’s large public room has also proven useful when other student groups have needed an unconventional space to host an event. ControlSIC, the moniker given to the collaboration between the Control Group, an experimental theater troupe, and SIC INC, an experimental classical music ensemble, utilized the space in February for a widely-attended show that combined the strengths of both groups.

Josh Evans ’12, a member of the Control Group, described the experience as a “great example of the creativity that happens with collaboration in an interesting space.”

St. A’s was a natural choice for the show, he said, because the Control Group tries to avoid using the theaters in residential colleges, “so we usually don’t use Yale venues,” he said. He noted that this was born out of a desire to be experimental in a way that is not really accommodated or encouraged in most Yale-sanctioned spaces.

And using these spaces are creatively fruitful, he added, “because we like to design site-specific pieces and take advantage of unconventional spaces.”

A versatile and accessible space can spur artistic collaboration between students. Without that space, that collaboration is much harder to achieve.

“Spaces play a pivotal role in this kind of community building, the creative cross-pollination,” Evans said. “You need a hive or a meadow for it to happen, or whatever the bee metaphor is.”

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SCRIM

Meanwhile, a cursory scan of any Yale student’s Facebook event invites once the semester is in swing proves that theater is a fundamental part of the undergraduate performing arts.

Rachel London ’12, a former production officer of the Yale Dramatic Association, affirms the student body’s strong reputation in theater, saying that theater is one of the most represented arts in the performance spaces around Yale.

“I came to Yale partly for theater,” she said.

She noted the Dramat’s long history of shaping theater at Yale, and added that “being with the Dramat is the one way that people can avoid not having spaces on campus.”

Charlie Croom ’12, president of the YDC and a former photography editor at the News, also emphasizes the importance of organizations like the Office of Undergraduate Productions, the Registrar’s Office and the Off-Broadway Student Selection Committee in the allocation of spaces for theater at Yale.

“Now there’s plenty of availability, especially with the new Stiles-Morse Theater,” he added.

Dance has less representation in the use of on-campus performance spaces.

Emily Yin ’13, the president of student dance group DanceWorks, notes that “the selection of space [to choose from] is limited.”

“The process itself of getting performance spaces isn’t difficult,” she said, “but you don’t have as many options as you would like to.”

But the support of institutions like the Alliance of Dance at Yale has helped change the situation for dance groups, she said. The ECA Theater at 55 Audubon St. is a performance space off-campus where Yaledancers often performs. The comfortable and roomy hall is now being subsidized for other Yale dance troupes.

“It’s really nice because a lot of dance groups wouldn’t normally be able to perform there,” Yin said.

MUSC 101: HOW NOT TO THROW A SHOW

If anyone knows the difficulties that come from lacking that kind of infrastructure, it’s probably Carl Chen ’13, the current general manager of WYBC (Note: the author is a former WYBC board member). He previously served as the station’s events director and has had his hands in two successful years of Battles of the Bands, Anti-Flings and numerous smaller shows on campus in the basement of 216 Dwight, the de facto space for shows sponsored by the radio station.

Chen acknowledges that the utility of the space is definitely amplified by the radio station’s sponsorship.

“We equipped 216 Dwight with a sound system, a drum set and a bass amp so that traveling bands could use the space,” he said. “A good sound system is a barrier [to creating more spaces like 216 Dwight].”

Though the expensive equipment is something of a limiting factor, when asked if there were any insurmountable logistical barriers to turning any off-campus basement or living room into a temporary concert venue, Chen responded with an emphatic no.

It turns out, though, that the challenges to DIY venues are more social than anything else.

“Most people are not open to giving out their homes for the night,” Chen explained. “Noise is a huge restriction, because so many potential spaces are right under where people live. We weren’t allowed to do battle of the Bands on Old Campus during Bulldog Days out of concern for distracting people who might be studying.”

He offered one reason why the expansion of performing arts space for undergraduates didn’t necessarily spur great innovation in music on campus: “Most spaces at Yale are geared toward theater, with fixed chairs for example, which is hard when finding a space big enough is really a challenge. People want to move around when they go to a concert, they don’t want to sit in chairs.”

Chen cites the relative lack of infrastructure as a big difference between the developed state of theater and the developing state of live music at Yale.

“Usually bands at Yale have to organize their own shows, and that’s hard,” he said. “You’re stuck having to fill out paperwork when all you really want to do is practice. You’re stuck following fire code while you’re trying to play.”

Chen noted that while theater groups can depend on developed systems and hierarchies to ensure that that show goes on — what he calls the “roots” of the community — the same systems don’t exist with musicians concerned with popular music at Yale.

“There are no formal ranks to rise up. There is no panlist for all musicians,” he said.

But instead of advocating more institutions devoted to building the live music scene — a “top-down” solution, to use Hill’s words — he identifies a much simpler problem that a well-funded organization cannot necessarily fix. This problem highlights the fact that so many of Yale’s theaters, and so many of Yale’s undergraduate spaces for that matter, are determined or defined by residential college affiliation, not by shared tastes or interests.

“There’s just no hang-out space for musicians.”

Sad tales of practice spaces loved and lost are a dime a dozen at Yale, but Katherine Seggerman ’13, the former drummer of the band BOY who is now playing with New Haven residents in the rock outfit Prisms, certainly has one of the saddest.

“From the very founding of BOY in September of last year, practice space was a huge, very annoying issue,” she said. “Although many residential colleges have practice rooms, few allow drum sets or amplified music, though it is not strictly banned until you actually ask the master. For a while, we covertly practiced in a little known Silliman art room, which was a really hilarious and fun space, mostly because of the anonymous, colorful art and the secrecy of it all. Unfortunately, we were found out and asked to leave.”

Unlike artistic pursuits like theater, dance, and even comedy at Yale, there are no formal groups with auditions, no institutional pathways to meeting your creative soulmates. Musicians like Seggerman have to rely on some combination of randomness and luck to form working partnerships.

Seggerman recounted how she met her band mates through the community of the Yale music scene.

“We found each other at a show at 216 Dwight called “FemYale” that featured female musicians — an oddly rare subset,” she said. “We started playing together less than a month later.”

However, Seggerman said that she found more musical success once she left the insular Yale community and looked for collaboration off campus.

She said, “This past year, eager to find more playing opportunities, I actually responded to a ‘Drummer Wanted’ poster and joined a New Haven band. “

Prisms has since played shows around New England, including a late-August date at Neverending Books, a venue far off the Yale campus.

Seggerman said, “Because our guitarist’s landlord is most likely the coolest landlord ever, we are able to practice in his sixth floor apartment, making this non-Yale band the least complicated music project I have pursued while at Yale.”

THE GREEN LIGHT

In his description of how Underbrook Coffeehouse will work, Hill mentions one radical aspect of the plan: for those two hours of the Coffeehouse, every Yale student will be able to swipe into the basement of Saybrook.

“The basement is going to be on green light,” he said. “For Yale students, accessing the coffeehouse will be universal.”

Still, it is not immediately clear how important this move is to the future of live music and other performance on campus. Resources at Yale are cordoned off; you need to be a member of a college to reserve its theater. But if it catches on, Underbrook Coffeehouse stands poised to be a rare gem: a genuinely egalitarian space on campus.

Alison Griswold and Jordi Gassó contributed reporting.

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