I came to Yale largely because of its illustrious theater reputation. As a critic, I’ve had the chance to review Yale theater ranging from Sudler shows to professional productions at the Yale Repertory Theater, and I’ve concluded that theater here definitely doesn’t rest on its laurels.
Talking to other students here made me realize that I was not alone in choosing Yale based on its theater reputation.
“Absolutely, theater was definitely the deciding factor,” Eyad Houssami ’07 said. “I perceived Yale as the Ivy League school for theater — when I arrived on campus on a college visit, it was overwhelming to see that what I had heard was actually a reality.”
But while many Yalies may be aware of the Yale Rep’s tradition of good theater, they may not know about its trophy-laden history and connection to the Yale School of Drama.
The Yale Rep was founded in 1966 by Drama School Dean Rob Brustein expressly to give professional experience to students at the Drama School. A little Web investigation revealed that since its inception, the Yale Rep has hosted over 90 world premieres and has sent 10 productions to Broadway. I was surprised to discover that productions spawned from the stage of the Yale Rep have garnered nine Tony awards and a whopping 37 Tony nominations. In 1991, the Yale Rep itself won a special recognition Tony, the Outstanding Regional Theater award.
The Yale Rep has six productions throughout the course of the year, and those six productions feature a mix of professional non-Yale folk, faculty, and students from the Drama School. In addition to those six productions, three School of Drama public productions that are entirely student-directed, acted and designed take place on the Yale Repertory stage.
Clearly, the division between the two institutions is not a distinct separation. Which made me wonder: Is it a risk to have graduate students involved in such a prestigious professional theater?
James Bundy DRA ’95, the dean of the Drama School and artistic director of the Yale Rep, claims that giving graduate students a crack at professional theater opportunities early on is not a risk at all.
“Given our mission, it’s not really risk-taking at all — it’s just what we do. Because we exist to provide experience,” Bundy said.
Remy Auberjonois, DRA ’01, recently on-stage at the Yale Rep in “The Incredible Design of Jenny Chow,” thinks it speaks volumes about the Drama School.
“It’s a testament to the relationship between the Rep and the Drama School; it’s putting faith into the program. James Bundy is saying, ‘I’m putting my money where my mouth is,'” Auberjonois said.
The professional experience afforded to students at the Drama School creates a special caliber of theater graduate. According to Bundy, the Drama School receives 1,200 applications each year to fill a mere 50 or so openings across eight fields of study.
“There is no other program that offers graduate professional training in every discipline of the theater,” Bundy said.
For Christopher Sanderson DRA ’05, the multidisciplinary perspective has been key to his development as a director.
“I’ve been lifted up and shown a broader view of what everyone’s doing,” Sanderson said. “The Yale School of Drama produces a special few, and we’re the seed — no matter where we’re ‘planted;’ we understand that it’s our job to make the standards higher.”
Many of the Drama School graduates I spoke to credited relationships made at Yale as having been key to their successes. For Rolin Jones DRA ’04, connections at the Drama School made all the difference.
“Early on, a faculty member read one of the plays I had written and made a phone call to a friend on my behalf. It totally launched my career. I owe everything to this school,” Jones said.
Jones himself will be connecting with another burgeoning playwright, Eli Clark ’07, as her mentor for the Dramat Spring Playwrighting Festival.
“It’s a really exciting way for undergrads and graduate school people to interact. I’m nervous, but I think it’s an incredible opportunity,” said Clark of the upcoming liaison with Jones.
Some undergraduates, however, don’t feel a connection to either the Drama School or the Yale Rep.
“It’s a practically isolated institution, and I feel that it’s very minimally involved with undergraduates’ lives,” Houssami said. “I think that the undergraduate theater community is so energized in itself, so motivated already with such a strong sense of professionalism within it, that I have yet to feel the urgency to access that next level of professionalism [at the Yale Rep].”
I had the opportunity to sit in on a dress rehearsal of “Ladies of the Camellias” a few weeks ago. This production is unique in that it features many of the Drama School faculty; the show is directed by Bundy and almost all of its technical and design aspects are the work of professors in the School of Drama.
“It’s like being in a six-to-eight-hour class every day,” said Sanderson, who is serving as Bundy’s assistant director for the show.
Hierarchies of any kind don’t seem to extend onto the stage. Actor Mikelle Johnson DRA ’05, shares the stage with professional Dean Nolen DRA ’00, while stage manager Sarah Bierenbaum ’99 DRA ’05 calls the shots and gives prompts with professional clarity. Even though most of the people in the room have probably seen the show several dozen times before, there is still hearty laughter during comic moments.
I asked Sanderson if he felt there was added pressure on the faculty because their own work was on display, or if the graduate students felt particularly nervous working with their professors.
“That’s grad school,” said Sanderson. “That’s how it is in classes. We accept professionals. It is a team — we’re like junior colleagues, and the faculty are senior colleagues.”
Overall, my investigation to understand the Drama School’s theater reputation revealed a singular relationship between the Yale Rep and the Drama School, characterized by a teaching program that combines professional experience with education. Hopefully, the liaison between Jones and Clark will be representative of the burgeoning relationship between undergrads and the Yale professional theater world.