Courtesy of Nina Goodheart

This is a small fraction of a story, a story of how people navigate the tumultuous worlds of mental health and theater while being Yale students. Mental health in undergraduate theatre productions is too often linked to dedication; it’s a realm of campus often witnessed yet seldom experienced by the campus at large. To tell the entire story would be impossible, because there are hundreds of students that participate in theater at Yale every year, each with different drives, interests, relationships to theater and ways of approaching the craft. In putting together this article, I’ve tried to interview as many people as possible, and to find a wide expanse of perspectives. It still pales in comparison to the truth. I cannot speak to the objective reality. I do hope, however, that this article may shed some light.

Curtains open.

“If you let me spend 14 hours working in a theater I will,” says Simon Rabinowitz ’22, prospective economics and theater studies double major specializing in theatrical producing. This is a common sentiment among many theater makers, especially people who work in the technical side of theater when we find ourselves in tech week. Tech week is the culminating part of any rehearsal process, the Sunday through Wednesday leading up to a Thursday opening night. Tech week consists of many parts: the load-in into the theater; the hanging and the focusing of lights, assuring the actors can be seen as beautifully as possible; the cue-to-cue, where designers have the actors walk through the play bit-by-bit, as slow as necessary to get everything in the right place at the right time. Occasionally tech week is actually tech weeks, largely in the case of Dramat Mainstages and theater studies senior theses.

It is during these tech weeks that many students and performers on the backstage side of the equation will devote hours and hours to coiling wires and climbing ladders — whatever the production requires. For some students, this is balanced, and involves meal breaks and time off to get whatever work could not be done in advance of tech week.

Yale Undergraduate Production, or UP, the organization charged with helping undergraduates set up performances theatrical and otherwise,“recommends that no student work for more than 4 hours before taking a break of at least 30 minutes, [and] that no work call total more than 9 hours, including breaks.”

However, UP can often provide limited oversight to students without us directly asking for it, and many students do not abide by these guidelines. I have one friend who was one of the only lights crew for a show he was performing in. After tech runs, he would stay late into the night hanging lights, getting home at 5 a.m., sleeping for a respectable seven hours before getting up to return to tech in the theater before other actors came in for rehearsal. This, of course, meant missing his classes for the entire week.

All activity is on a spectrum in tech, and most people are not that extreme — though it is rare to see a theater vacant by midnight despite the “firm curfew” that is required by UP. Many performers and backstage personnel sacrifice large portions of their life to tech, especially those with high-demand technical skills. Some people find themselves designing for four or more shows a semester. In some ways it is addictive, that kind of work ethic, perhaps attractive to many of us Yale students who devoted ourselves all consumingly to various pursuits in high school and now have avenues of even greater masochism opened up to us.

As Branson Rideaux ’20, who recently completed his tenure as President of the Yale Dramat put it, “Most people have a toxic relationship to theater, it hurts, can be traumatic, but in your heart it calls you back.”

For some such people, the point of being at Yale is the theater. I admit that I personally chose Yale because of the level of extracurricular theater available here compared to many other top schools. About 25 shows are offered a semester at Yale according to the Yale Drama Coalition website, plus a cappella, improv, and much more. Being anywhere else feels wrong. No matter the stress or fury that tech week brings.

“Even at my most frustrated, there’s nothing that’s made me reconsider or think I don’t want to do this,” Rabinowitz said at the end of his interview. “I just get irritated when school gets in the way.”

This lifestyle, of course, becomes difficult to sustain in the long run. Especially given that Yale is, surprisingly, a liberal arts institution and not a conservatory or bachelor’s in fine arts program. That is a fact that can take a while for really hardcore theater people to learn, and some never do.

“Your job at Yale is to be a student,” Rideaux said. “Yale doesn’t give us credit for doing these shows. It matters a lot less than you think.”

When asked about how she balanced being a Yale student in theater, Lina Kapp ’20 — a stage manager and director — responded, “I get skills from theater but I don’t go into a particular show thinking my professional future is at stake. And I must do my homework.”

A student’s mental health during the show process develops largely based on the environment of the production — whether it encourages people to take care of themselves or to sacrifice their lives at the stage’s altar. There is very limited overhead to get a show started thanks to UP funding. At Yale, the theater studies classes are not really related to theatrical practice or teaching directors how to work with actors or run a show. But at other schools, theater is much more curricular and the activity of students is much more bound. Even within Yale, the experience is variable.

Since joining the School of Drama, Chantal Rodriguez, the school’s associate dean, has seen a greater communal awareness develop surrounding mental health at the Drama School.

“I believe that mental health is being discussed more openly at YSD,” Rodriguez said. “There have been broad efforts at the School over many years to address and destigmatize mental health concerns, and I have observed the development of greater awareness and more open conversations about mental health throughout my first three years on campus.”

While there is no one looking over an undergraduate’s shoulder to see if they are doing too much and no faculty advisor constantly checking in on the UP process, graduate students have to petition their departments to sign on to any production. Drama School Dean’s Forums also give students the opportunity to air out concerns, which are then taken into consideration by the administration. While graduate students devote even more of their lives to theater in a way that is not logistically possible for undergrads, there are a lot of boundaries set up that theoretically keep them and their directors in check.

Things are very different within Yale College.

“There’s this Wild West infrastructure that people can get nostalgic for, but actor experiences can be bad,” said Nina Goodheart ’19. 

This not only includes actors being overworked but also contains the production environment itself being destabilizing, with directors asking for too much or using methods that actors find uncomfortable. This fact was highlighted during the Dramat’s production of “Wild Party” two years ago, a show shrouded in controversy surrounding initial casting, aspects of the rehearsal process and its staging of sexual violence.

Many students find themselves working with directors with wildly different approaches to theatrical work, a fact that becomes salient for an actor’s wellbeing especially when the material is about mental health itself. Aïssa Guindo ’21, an actor and a director, has performed in two productions that dealt heavily with these issues in the last year and a half. In “Dreamgirls,” she says, “the process used method acting techniques to generate the emotion needed to perform. In “And I Am Telling You” — an anguished number during which her character, Effie, has a meltdown — “the play was adjusted to reflect ideas of colourism, so a lot of the themes that drove Effie to her breaking point hit a little too close to home.”

“‘The Effect’ had a better balance of delivering a good performance and highlighting the mental health of actors,” Guindo said. “There’s one monologue in the play where Dr. James [her character, who experiences chronic depressive episodes] essentially has her world cave in on her. It was extremely delicate and tiring material, and there would be rehearsals where, instead of just running the monologue and tapping into that negative space continually, Nina Goodheart [the director] and I would sit and discuss whatever I felt like discussing about the monologue.”

There is something of a sea change, or at least we hope we are seeing one, in directors’ and productions’ approaches to this material. After “Wild Party,” the Dramat institutionalized rehearsal standards based upon the Drama School’s approach to intimate material in the rehearsal room, designed to assure the safety of actors. The Drama School’s rehearsal protocol defines this safety in the same way that educational institutions are raising their standards in all intimate, vulnerable areas of our life, with “all collaborators’ full confidence that sexual content and sexual touching, including in depictions of sexual assault, will only be rehearsed or performed with the ongoing affirmative consent of all actors.”

We can see a parallel of this evolution in theater at large, with the rise of Intimacy Direction as a new dimension of performer protection in Hollywood and on Broadway when staging scenes related to sexuality and sexual violence. Intimacy Directors International, or IDI argues, “The choreography of these scenes must accurately tell the characters’ stories, as intended by the writer through the interpretation of the director and the actors involved, while respecting the physical and psychological safety of all involved.” IDI’s Claire Warden has come to the Drama School multiple times to work on sensitive productions in recent years.

Many Yale undergrad shows are likewise shifting towards an active prioritization of mental health over end product. “Filling Basins,” the first Dramat Fall Ex this year written and co-produced by a.k. Payne ’19, and directed by Anita Norman ’19, wrote on its Yale Drama Coalition page that the “production team [was] deeply committed to priortizing self-care for everyone involved in our process.”

In an interview, co-producer Alexus Coney ’20, describes this “ethics of care” as coming from the fact that “people’s bodies and minds and experiences are totally subsumed by productions… we’ve come from very draining experiences and put them towards making a healthy environment for the actors.”

Coney, who also assistant directed the Dramat Spring Mainstage “Fucking A” after the conclusion of her tenure as Vice President of the Dramat, found that process much less burdensome than previous Mainstages she’s worked on.

“Adrian [the director] let people out early on tech days, staggering calls so people weren’t in rooms for as long as possible. We didn’t start legitimate six to 12 rehearsals till we entered the space on that weekend before the show and it wasn’t stressful. I think it’s a testament to how The Dramat is progressing in terms of selecting directors who are good for working with students.” Both of these productions also prominently featured performers of color and storylines related to POC experiences, another dimension by which mental health is strained, especially for actors coming from vulnerable communities.

Rideaux, who also starred in “We Are Proud to Present…”, the 2017 Dramat Spring Mainstage examining the Herero genocide, noted that “People of color and being the only person [of color] in a cast can be an especially difficult experience, the brunt force for a lot of those things. A lot of black roles are mean to black actors. They take a toll.”

When asked for advice on how they go about making productions, people had a lot to say.  “Each day is it’s own thing, you adjust with the people and energy,” said Kapp when discussing how she approached directing her first play, an adaptation of “The Seagull” called “Stupid Fucking Bird,” last fall. “From the start, we prioritized fun over productivity and doing what we want over a grand vision.” Rideaux had a similar feeling towards the vision that many directors approach their work with, and his question for the theater community as a whole was “How do we shift from scale to creating communities?” For him, doing smaller shows with friends ends up being much more fulfilling.

And a lot of this progress isn’t particular to theater, but just part of the general movement much of the Yale community is taking towards frank, open and non-judgmental discussions of mental health. Goodheart, for instance, tries to talk about her therapy appointments like any other meeting, encouraging cast members not to think it is strange or out of the ordinary for them to seek help and schedule around it. Goodheart also includes cool down exercises after her rehearsals, which helps people decompress after what is often a difficult and emotionally taxing hour or two. She likened a rehearsal without cool down to an old expression from a theater maker we couldn’t trace, “It’s like sending you back out into the world without your skin back on.” And when reached for comment, many theater makers on campus emphasized the value they place on checking in with other cast members. Some, however, found that this progress still had lags to it.

Payson Whitwell ’20 often thought of this checking as a “performative routine” and noted that it is “easy for these interactions to take on shallow tones that place the blame for strained mental health on the individual rather than considering how they are affected by the work climate in Yale theater.”

But whatever peculiarities and anxieties abound in Yale theater, this is not a unique experience. Laura Chapman, a junior physics major at Harvard, found a similarly mercurial relationship to theater, often feeling used and unfulfilled by the amount of work she was putting in.

“During shows I often ended up working unreasonable hours and skipping meals because the costume shop wasn’t near any of the dining halls and I needed to be there to do the work,” Chapman said. “This was certainly not good for my physical health and it was probably bad for my mental health too, although I enjoyed getting to work on the costume projects for long periods of time. I felt the most stressed out and overburdened with all the last-minute adjustments and additions that would invariable come up.”

Chapman has stepped away from theater for now, and spends her free time going to the gym, playing the guitar and reading for fun. Theater is often all-consuming, and college is an especially vulnerable time where our insecurities and drive can get all mixed up in the worst of ways.

Adrianne Owings ’20 speaks to this first hand, “I already have a lot of anxiety, so auditioning for some productions can heighten that anxiety,” she said. “I’ve definitely had friends in theater who have become more self conscious because of their involvement in theater. Oftentimes, some productions will ask to be a large priority in a performer’s life, so those performers can easily forget to take care of themselves and find balance, especially if they are also considering pursuing theater professionally.”

There are many other avenues of performing, theatrical and otherwise, that present a significantly lower burden on a person’s mental health than a Mainstage or a senior project. Many people involved with the Yale Children’s Theater discuss how much fun and simple joy they get out of the experience. Improv presents a mentally recuperative avenue for some, though unfortunately the auditions process for most groups makes it inaccessible to many. Rabinowitz, who is also a member of Just Add Water, discussed how the “ephemerality” of improv makes it difficult to dwell on bad experiences.

Kapp, who is a member of Lux Improvitas, loves the egalitarianism of the improv space as a balance to the constant hassles of stage management. “We’re all on the same level and owe each other the same level of responsibility, which is really important,” Kapp added.

Zak Rosen | zachary.rosen@yale.edu .