Undergraduate theater groups at Yale — some over a century old — are changing long-standing practices and creating new spaces for BIPOC students. And as existing groups reckon with their past and chart a path forward, students are founding new organizations to create a place for BIPOC students in the theater world.
“A lot of theater on campus can be very circulated around not only pleasing white audiences but in promoting white performers and creators,” said KG Montes ’22, a Yale theater-maker and a former Yale Dramatic Association outreach coordinator. “We can’t reasonably expect to have more diverse theater if we’re not making the accommodations necessary to invite POC, to invite non-cis gendered people, to invite LGBTQ people into these spaces.”
An exclusive past
For years, theater at Yale has been dominated by two chief organizations: the Yale Drama Coalition, an umbrella organization for undergraduate theater that runs the casting cycle process, and the Yale Dramatic Association, a theater company and the largest undergraduate theater organization at Yale.
But students — some at the heart of Yale’s theater institutions and some at the fringes — are now voicing concerns about institutional issues that preclude female, non-white, non-cisgender and LGBTQ-identifying students from participating in theater at Yale.
Eliza MacGilvray ’23, the president of the YDC, has been involved in theater for 12 years. MacGilvray, who is white, said she believes there are several factors that prevent BIPOC students from participating in the theater community with the same ease as white students. For example, students — usually white — that are involved in theater prior to Yale interact in the same social circles and thus cast each other in shows, according to MacGilvray.
Ale Campillo ’22, the vice president of the Dramat, said the group has experienced the exclusionary effects of the theater community firsthand. According to Campillo, actors are often precast or cast unofficially, through “under-the-table” casting decisions. Precasting, or the extension of a role to someone who has not auditioned for it, is allowed by the YDC Casting Cycle Policy under specific guidelines. This results in the same group of students, usually not BIPOC or low-income, casting demographically similar friends and thus reinforcing casting exclusion.
“[Casting decisions] make BIPOC students feel a little bit like they’re not in the in-crowd,” Campillo, who is Latinx, said. “I’ve definitely felt it before.”
Former YDC President Jacob Yoder-Schrock ’22 described the theater community as “super cliquey.” Yoder-Schrock said that last year, it was primarily students from these cliques — and not newcomers to theater — that attended the YDC’s community events. The YDC does not incorporate newcomers into its social fabric well, he said.
The timing of the YDC’s casting cycles is problematic according to Montes, MacGilvray, Campillo and Yoder-Schrock, as most casting for the semester occurs within the first couple months. This makes it difficult for first years who are still unsure whether they want to audition for productions. Yet, the YDC has attempted to spread out the casting cycle period in past years, Yoder-Schrock and Campillo said.
Board members of the Opera Theatre of Yale College, or OTYC, also cited barriers to entry. Assistant Artistic Director Nikhil Harle ’22 noted that in addition to the exclusivity of popular repertoire, aspects of programming opera like intense time commitments and demanding audition requirements make it harder for low-income students, students of color and those without prior experience to participate.
But for Yoder-Schrock, the problem extends deeper than social circles to the very format of auditions. He said that auditions follow traditional structures, with scarce instructions that dictate “read a monologue” or “rehearse your lines.” These traditional audition forms — an issue with the theater world at large, according to Yoder-Schrock — do not reveal much about an actor’s talents. He said this “increases nepotism in a big way.”
“There are a vast range of performance abilities that people have from singing to dancing to just different modes of storytelling that the formal process of auditioning devalues,” Yoder-Schrock said. “That, I think, results in a kind of white supremacist form of casting.”
Montes explained that she does not think anyone actively attempts to be racist while casting actors. But she said that in failing to take into account “what makes someone a better auditioner,” or refusing to explore novel ways to understand an actor’s talents without relying on “somewhat antiquated ideas” of acting and form, casting directors will inevitably alienate a large part of the community.
In addition to logistical and social issues, Montes noted that Yale theater’s programming is not representative of its student body. Even shows that are supposed to speak to the experience of the “everyman” — like many works by Chekhov — do not speak to her experiences.
“I am not a middle-aged Russian man,” Montes said.
As a first-time producer this year, Montes has attempted to conduct casting more equitably. But she said she wishes she had more support.
“There was not a set way to go about [casting],” Montes said. “A lot of the things I had to bank off my own experience not only as an outreach coordinator, but as a queer Black woman on campus. … What do I want to see for my theater? How would I make theater appeal to me and people like me? What can I do to make this really inclusive space?”
The changing ethos of Yale theater
Students are beginning to confront the exclusionary nature of Yale theater. While some are attempting to change institutions that have existed at Yale for decades, others have chosen to create new organizations to support BIPOC students interested in theater.
“People don’t want to engage with politically charged work because it makes them uncomfortable,” said Nyeda Sam ’22. “It makes for a very frustrating experience as a Black artist.”
Sam, who struggles with this phenomenon as a Black artist, created the Neo Collective — Yale’s first Black arts collective — last fall together with Tobi Makinde ’23 and Sonnet Carter ’23 to create a space for Black artists. The collective welcomes artists from both Yale and New Haven. Sam said the collective provides a space for her work to be understood and accepted, but also grow.
The Heritage Theater Ensemble, an organization devoted to Black theater, also aims to foster the development of Black — and minority — arts within the Yale-New Haven community. Among the ensemble’s primary goals are promoting intersectionality, critical thinking about access and a recognition of members’ “personhood before and in tandem with [their] artistry,” Sam said. Sam, herself a member of the ensemble, described it as an “amazing community.”
The YDC and Dramat are also reexamining structural issues in attempts to make theater at Yale more inclusive.
Over the summer, the Dramat launched the BIPOC Theatremaker Series, an open call to theater-related work generated by the BIPOC community. Through TikTok performance series or traditional pieces, the Dramat has committed to supporting BIPOC students’ theater efforts through providing guidance and a monetary sum of $500.
“[The series] is something that we’re concretely doing right now that we hope will inspire people of color to write their own stories or write stories that they find interesting and to bring those voices into the writing room,” Campillo said.
Meanwhile, YDC board members are in the process of rewriting the Casting Cycle Policy and are taking input from the wider community. The group is holding regular town halls to discuss proposed changes and plans to release a new policy by spring 2021.
The YDC aims to introduce more equitable audition practices in its policy. Yoder-Schrock said the organization is considering increasing the number of casting cycles to give students more audition opportunities. He added that he hopes the revised policy will contain a “casting best-practices” section for producers.
According to Yoder-Schrock, YDC boards in the past two years have pushed back against the organization’s purely supervisory role for theater groups at Yale. This year, board members are exploring less time-intensive activities — such as readings, cabaret-style social events and mixed-cast galas — to actively engage with the theater community and welcome newer theater-makers.
In his three years at Yale, Yoder-Schrock has observed a number of positive changes within the theater community. For instance, producers are more open to “holistic audition processes” that go beyond testing actors’ imitation abilities, while directors have begun to introduce audition workshops to help less experienced actors prepare.
Since the YDC is an umbrella organization that encapsulates Yale theater, Campillo said that changes made by the YDC push smaller organizations and individual shows to reexamine their inclusivity.
OTYC board members are attempting to reform their own organization. Board members attended an anti-racist theater practices workshop with anti-racist theater artist and activist Nicole Brewer. The board is also working on a manual of best practices to formalize the OTYC’s internal platform and address the inaccessibility of opera at Yale. Under the new platform, students will be able to report interpersonal conflicts within the organization, lower barriers to entry, provide the community with more resources and use the community more as a source for repertoire.
Artistic Director Emery Kerekes ’21 said the OTYC has established two new board member positions — a community liaison and an equity, diversity and inclusion coordinator. The board also appointed a committee to search for opera repertoire created by underrepresented artists.
“So much of that stuff is so far below the surface, so to speak,” Kerekes said. “We’ve appointed a committee that’s sort of responsible for doing these deep dives and bringing up the gems that have been forgotten.”
When Yoder-Schrock came to Yale in 2017, he observed how a few first years at the beginning of the year established themselves as “stars,” going on to play lead roles in most big productions. This effect is now less pronounced, Yoder-Schrock reflected. But he thinks true reform, in eliminating certain students’ unfair advantage, will be very difficult.
Both Yoder-Schrock and OTYC board members noted the difficulty of instituting long-lasting changes to undergraduate organizations like the YDC or OTYC due to high turnover rates in governance.
Instead of hosting conversations about more intangible approaches to reforms, Yoder-Schrock and OTYC board member Lena Goldstein ’23 highlighted the importance of focusing on an organization’s policies and structure.
“It comes down to what we’re able to do that’s actionable as opposed to theorized,” Goldstein said.
The Yale Dramat is the oldest continuously producing undergraduate theater organization in the country.
Annie Radillo | firstname.lastname@example.org