They had already traveled from across the country, spent a night in New Haven and braved the Activities Fair, but for some dramatically inclined prefrosh, Tuesday afternoon’s theater information session, coordinated by the Yale Drama Coalition (YDC), was the Bulldog Days highlight. While future classmates lounged on Old Campus with bags of candy and pamphlets, the thespians of 2012 crowded into Linsly-Chittenden 101 to listen as over a dozen current students outlined the wonder and madness that is Yale theater.
The meeting was not exciting only for pre-frosh. It also marked an important step in the unification of undergraduate drama — the info session was the first of its kind to include all the major theater organizations on campus.
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Still, some prefrosh said they got a strange vibe. “It seemed really exclusive, like you couldn’t do anything else if you were in one of the groups,” one high-school drama kid said. “But maybe that’s just theater people.”
The prefrosh may be on to something. Yale’s theater set-up is distinctly different from those at many other colleges, where an academic department or central student-run body regulates what shows go up.
“I always see the theater scene as having three different sections: Dramat on one end, then experimental theater — Control Group, Sarah Holdren and all that — and then the people in between,” Bix Bettwy ’08, a veteran actor who has done both Dramat and Sudler shows, says over coffee at ABP.
For Bettwy, the Dramat (The Yale Dramatic Association) means a professional, clean product, “not necessarily the greatest artistically, but always solid.” The other options are more about “getting your hands dirty,” whether in a collaborative all-night show performed across campus by the Control Group, or in one of many independent, Sudler-funded projects ranging from “Othello” to “Office Space: The Musical.”
The major division in Yale’s undergraduate theater community, Bettwy says, lies between the Dramat and those who “disdain all the Dramat stands for.”
Those are tough words, but the tension is more complex: The theater scene is made up not of two warring groups but of a multitude of small parties with different philosophies and personalities. Each of those groups must compete for scarce resources, both physical and human. It just so happens that the Dramat has a lot of them, which makes its decisions the subject of intense scrutiny — last month’s formal petition against the organization’s choice of “The Full Monty” as fall Mainstage, for instance, generated heated discussion both in and outside the organization.
For prefrosh, and for current students, the challenge is to assess how the Dramat and the rest of the system works and what improvements can be made. With the huge volume of theater being done on campus (the YDC archives report 65 shows in the 2006-2007 academic year), resources and individuals are spread thin. On the one hand, students say, the current lack of supervision allows a high degree of artistic freedom; on the other, it weakens the bonds connecting the community and the overall quality of Yale’s theater. As undergraduate thespians struggle to look past their differences and find a way to share resources while maintaining artistic autonomy, they call on both the administration and the student body to work towards a more centralized and supportive theater scene.
A maze of bureaucracy
Its century-long past includes generous alumni and world-renowned celebrities like Cole Porter 1913 and Thornton Wilder 1920. It has a bigger budget, guaranteed rehearsal and building spaces and access to the Yale School of Drama’s costume and prop warehouse. And, perhaps most enviably, it is the only undergraduate organization allowed to use the University Theater.
The Dramat’s privileges stem from the organization’s rich history — and result in an obvious distinction between the nation’s second-oldest college theater association and the rest of Yale’s relatively rootless theater community.
Also unique are the Dramat’s concrete requirements for membership, which stipulate that candidates must work on three shows before they can sign the Dramat book, swear the oath of allegiance and drink a shot of Jack Daniel’s from the Cole Porter chalice. And unlike fleeting Sudler shows, Dramat productions come in a steady stream, seven a year. The two Mainstages, one each semester, are some of the only opportunities Yalies, both in and outside the Theater Studies Department, have to work with professional directors and designers on an actual show.
All this puts the organization in the spotlight.
“The Dramat has been around for a long time,” says former Dramat President Emmett Zackheim ’08, lounging on a bench on Cross Campus. “And because of that we kind of get labeled as ‘The Man.’ ”
Zackheim says he understands where some of the reputation comes from — with over 80 members and all those resources, the Dramat has the ability to do theater on a scale wholly different from that of other groups. But what Zackheim calls the “maze of bureaucracy” can initially be overwhelming.
Ying Sze Pek ’11, who worked as an assistant producer for the Dramat’s “Icarus” last fall, described the social scene in the Dramat’s University Theater offices as distinct — there was a palpable, if subtle, divide between “the kids who practically live in 222 York” and others, she said.
“It wasn’t like I felt like I was just a cog in the giant Dramat machine,” Pek said, “but the kids on the board are tighter, obviously. Not hostile or anything, but there is a divide of sorts.”
Zackheim says the organization is, like most Yale extracurriculars, as much a social group as anything else. But, he insists, it does not aim to exclude.
“In terms of picking favorites, I think that during my time on board we made a really a concerted effort to broaden and reach out,” he says.
The question of what or who exactly the Dramat is looking for when it chooses shows took center stage in March when the group selected “The Full Monty,” a musical with no female roles, as next year’s fall Experimental Show, or “Ex.” The ensuing debate reminded thespians that the lop-sided nature of the theater scene means that the organization’s decisions carry extra weight — musicals are costly and “Monty” may well be the only one on campus next fall.
Scott Chaloff ’08, who after directing two shows with the organization is a self-described Dramat fan, says he would like to see the Dramat pick shows with a little more variety, a little more relevance and a little more “literary merit.”
“The Dramat needs to foster an environment in which, in selecting proposals, it picks things that challenge the status quo a little more,” he says. Why not, he wonders, do a student-written piece or something controversial, something relevant to campus-wide or national issues? Bettwy agrees: This year’s line-up was “too safe.”
“ ‘The Importance of Being Earnest?’ My reaction was: What is this? We did this is high school, why do it in college?” Bettwy says when asked about the Dramat’s past season. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Into the Woods” prompt similar outbursts.
There are interesting, more experimental shows that Bettwy has enjoyed working on and seeing produced by the Dramat, but sometimes “they get burned when they try to be edgy,” he says, referring to the lukewarm reception for several unorthodox productions, such as “Icarus.”
Current Dramat President Ashley Rodbro ’09 declined to comment on the organization’s choice of shows, but Zackheim says he understands the complaints and has been frustrated for some of the same reasons in the past. The difficulty, he says, is evaluating all the different aspects — tech requirements, cast size and “perceived excitement,” to name a few — that go into each proposed show. Zackheim admits that this long, intensive process is at times necessarily “arbitrary” to cut the vast array of options down.
Despite philosophical differences, even the most unlikely suspects often show up to pay homage to the nation’s second-oldest college theater association. In her time at Yale, Su Ching Teh ’08 has orchestrated popular campus-wide theme parties such as “Gatsby” and “Blow Up.” Incorporating food, fashion, music and theater in unique ways, these events blur the lines between party and performance art. In Teh’s view, the Dramat’s definition of good drama is narrow.
“They’re more likely to produce Western-canon-centric theater,” she says.
Still, Teh worked sound crew on the spring Mainstage “Angels in America” in order to record her last Dramat credit and become a member before graduation.
“You get to follow the likes of Cole Porter and sign your name in the book,” she says, explaining the allure. “It’s a tradition, it’s very Yale, and after a few years of doing smaller Sudler productions and unconventional interdisciplinary projects — it’s an admission on my part — I still respect those old-white-male traditions.”
She shrugs her shoulders. “They’re hard to resist, you know?”
The Sudler factor
When Matthew George ’11 attended the YDC’s opening meeting during his first few days on campus, he expected to calmly sign his name on the audition lists of one or two shows. Instead, he was confronted with a Branford College common room chock-full of directors all calling for actors, techies and assistants. His strategy?
“Basically a shotgun approach — I tried out for a lot and was fortunate enough to get some parts,” he says.
His method is not atypical, although his self-imposed limit of two shows per semester certainly differs from the attitude of many of his peers who take on five or six simultaneously. Roles are, to say the least, unequally distributed — while plenty of freshmen bite off more than they can chew, others report repeated disappointment as audition after audition turns up nothing.
The confusion only increases for directors. To put up his show “Witness” in the fall, John Hansen-Brevetti ’08 had to mount the typical list of Sudler hurdles: securing funding, assembling a cast and crew, ensuring the show meets the Office of Undergraduate Productions’ safety regulations and handling inevitable last-minute crises.
Hansen-Brevetti says getting a Sudler was easy, but rentals and purchases of costumes, props and other necessities burned through the money quickly. Unlike with Dramat shows, producers of independent projects have to make, beg or borrow. This need exacerbates the already significant difference in budgets — Dramat’s Exes get almost twice as much as the maximum Sudler grant of $1,200.
Frugality is no artist’s favorite word, but great theater can happen with nothing but a few good actors on a bare stage. Or a bare common room? It’s been known to happen, as the campus-wide space crunch forces students to get creative.
“If anything stops shows from going up, it’s space,” Hansen-Brevetti says gravely over a pile of French fries in the Silliman College dining hall. The most popular Sudler venues — the Off-Broadway Theater, Saybrook Underbrook and the Pierson-Davenport Theater — are in high demand. Often, shows must book venues like Stiles Little Theater, Calhoun Cabaret or spaces not intended for theater at all.
“Those spaces are far from ideal,” he says. “Not many shows can go up there in a manner artistically satisfying to a design team or even a director.”
Which leads to another problem — with smaller budgets and less attractive spaces, Sudler productions hold much less appeal for theater technicians, who tend to gravitate to the Dramat’s superior resources and stick there to become board members. As a result, Hansen-Brevetti and other Sudler directors have found that there are seldom enough techies to go around.
Spud Weintraub ’11 is a case in point. She found herself drafted onto almost half the freshman show proposals as master electrician as soon as word got out she was competent. Unlike other tech-minded Yalies she knows who “can’t stand the limited resources of Sudler,” Weintraub is willing to branch out, although she says it means she often has to make last-minute set and lighting changes to adjust to restrictions in the space or budget, a nuisance Dramat techies have to grapple with much less.
If Sudler is such a hassle, why bother? For Bettwy and others, Sudler offers freedom and personal creativity that distinguish it from the superiorly endowed Dramat.
“Resources are just a side thing,” Bettwy says. “The difference is more about a philosophy, what they stand for or seem to stand for and what people want out of theater.”
Cutting back, building up
While resentment toward the Dramat generates a portion of the tension in the theater community, involved students point to deeper issues causing deeper, unnecessary rifts. Leaders of undergraduate theater organizations say a solution will require the cooperation of both the administration and the student body.
“I don’t think the system is broken, but I do think there is room for improvement,” Zackheim said, citing administrative disorganization as the main problem. Zackheim added that he thinks the YDC is the right vehicle for advocating change.
YDC president Mike Leibenluft ’10 agreed, saying his group’s primary goal is to facilitate discussion across different groups in order to make resources and support more available for all Yale thespians.
“We’re looking to encourage and support collaboration by helping people communicate with each other effectively, so they can produce good theater,” he says. “We’re really about making bridges.”
Especially with the Yale administration, which Leibenluft and others hope will take a more active role in supporting undergraduate theater. Given the independence of extracurricular theater from the academic department, students agree that some separate administrative organ needs to centralize and oversee the process of production.
While not everyone agrees about the precise path the administration should take, most students say the residential-college-based Sudler fund doesn’t cut it. Directors and producers must cater to individual college masters in their appeals for both space and funds — an approach that students say not only wastes energy but undermines natural cooperation between thespians who may not live in the same entryway.
The Office of Undergraduate Productions (OUP), a seemingly obvious candidate for an administrative support center, describes its main roles as insuring safety and providing training and support for student productions. But Zackheim and others say that while the Office is rigidly attentive to fire-safety regulation, it does little else, possibly because of a personnel shortage.
OUP Production Supervisor Jim Brewczynski was unavailable for comment.
Leibenluft said the administration should provide more space, personnel and support to undergraduates, perhaps in the form of an independent performing arts center, a dean of arts or an advisory committee of students, faculty members and administrators that could help manage funding and space.
A February report published by two committees investigating the impact on academics and student life of adding two new residential colleges noted the inadequacy of current theater space. In a recent News article (“Expansion may relieve rehearsal-space crunch,” 3/07), the committees recommended extensive construction of new theater facilities, although administrators said it was unclear whether a single arts complex would eventually replace the current smattering of small theaters.
But Leibenluft says there’s another fundamental problem, one that sounds strange coming from any drama-phile’s mouth: There is such a thing as too much theater. Over-extension detrimentally affects both the quality of individuals’ experience and the community’s ability to cohere into a productive whole.
Others agree, but that doesn’t mean they know how — or want — to cut back.
“There needs to be less Sudler, and it needs to be better supported,” says Bettwy. “It’s hard though — how do you select?”
The question of which shows deserve to go up will probably remain unanswered as long as money doesn’t run out. But by following the precedent set during the collaborative information session they attended during Bulldog Days, perhaps the class of 2012 can succeed in narrowing the gaps and alleviating the tensions in the theater community.
For now, most of them are just excited to do theater at a school where, as Bettwy says, “It does get to be a problem that anyone can get 1,200 bucks” — unbelievable as that may sound to the prefrosh in the front row.