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The Play’s Still the Thing
It was early autumn in New Haven, and the only things brighter than the leaves on the maple trees lining York Street were the dayglow fliers that, under a steady fall breeze, flashed like neon deertails from doorways and information kiosks.
“AUDITION!!”; “DON’T AUDITION, CAST YOURSELF INSTEAD!”; “WANTED: PRODUCER”; “LOOKING FOR PLAYWRIGHTS,” they called out to passersby.
New Haven has long had a nationwide reputation for theater, one that is well out of proportion to the size of the city. It is home to three of the country’s best regional theaters: Long Wharf, the Shubert, and the Yale Repertory Theatre, which is affiliated with the Yale School of Drama. But the professional productions put on by these organizations tend to obscure the extraordinary level of undergraduate theatrics on campus, to which all those York Street fliers are but a small testament. As many as 120 amateur productions take place at Yale each year—the majority produced, directed, designed, performed, and sometimes written, by students. There are at least 20 student theater groups, among them the Yale Cabaret and the Yale Dramatic Association—better known as the Dramat, to which should be added the Dramat’s Children’s Theater, which teaches playwriting to more than 1,300 New Haven fifth-graders. Each of the 12 residential colleges has its own theater group, and there are dozens of small student-run theater groups like the Heritage Theater Ensemble, Purple Crayon, and Exit Players. “There’s this huge energy that won’t go away and needs expressing in theatrical performance,” says Murray Biggs, adjunct associate professor of English and theater studies. “No matter what, the students find a way to do it.”
Indeed, they do. As usual this year, the fall semester had only just begun when the scramble got under way for actors, directors, producers, playwrights, designers, and technicians for the scores of performances being planned for stages across the campus. It’s the stages that are in especially short supply. There are only two fully equipped theaters on campus, the Rep and the University Theatre, but the Rep stage is reserved almost entirely for Drama School and professional productions, and the University Theatre is heavily booked by the Dramat.
As a result, most student performances take place in residential-college dining halls and courtyards, in basements and attics—leading to a remarkably innovative way of doing theater. “I remember wanting to do Twelfth Night in Pierson,” says Rob de los Reyes ’95. “We rehearsed there for three weeks, and at the last minute they said we couldn’t use the space. This was in the spring when there were 40 other shows going on. I had to go from college to college, begging to use some space. I finally got someone to let me use their courtyard, but they said if it rained it would turn into a mud pit. It did rain, and we had to move the show inside to the dining hall. But things like that force people to be creative.”
Jefferson Mays ’87 is a professional actor with an Obie award for a New York production of Orestes to his credit, and he is now used to first-class facilities. But as a Yale undergraduate Mays performed in two plays that for lack of a proper stage had to be put on in college squash courts; another was consigned to the loading dock of the Architecture School. “We were so strapped for resources that we learned how to be very shrewd,” he recalls. (The main, but limited, source of student-theater financing is the University’s Sudler Fund, which promotes the arts in the residential colleges.) “I remember lugging, under cover of darkness, certain props that we needed for an evening and sneaking them back before they were discovered.”
Mays credits such unorthodox training for a portion of his success as a professional. “Figuring out how to make a play work in a squash court gives you a great sense of perspective, not to mention humor,” he says. “When things go wrong I’ve always been more relaxed than many people who came out of professional programs.”
While aspiring undergraduate actors may indulge their theatrical instincts in extracurricular ways, those with a more academic bent are likely to focus on the Theater Studies Program. A Special Divisional Major that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this spring, the program now accepts up to 30 students a year. They must take a minimum of 18 courses, making the major one of the most rigorous in the College. Many of the faculty are shared with other departments, especially English, and many also have professional stage lives of their own.
The course load and prospect of a financially tenuous adult life as an artist can make a student’s decision to major in theater studies a difficult one. Accordingly, most choose to combine the program with a related liberal arts major, to develop another skill, “just in case,” as many put it. “It’s a scary choice to major in theater studies, or in any art,” says Elizabeth Himelfarb ’97, who plans a combined major in theater and religion. “There’s a feeling that maybe you’re sacrificing some other part of your brain that your parents are spending $26,000 a year to nurture. Maybe we should also have a course in how to carry a tray.”
Since its inception, the Theater Studies Program has been cast as an exploration of the theater in the context of the liberal arts. It has always had strong requirements in literature, theory, and languages, with the intent that theater be understood, as the catalog says, “as a part of the intellectual life of the culture it interprets and reflects.” In fact, some students have criticized the program for being too theoretical. “We learn how to do shows, but we don’t actually do them,” Himelfarb says. To compensate, many such students also look to extracurricular theater, or, eventually, graduate school to develop specific acting, directing, writing, or technical skills.
The tension between theory and practice periodically causes the Theater Studies Program some self-examination. This winter, three separate reviews of the program are under way. One is a regular evaluation by Yale College; the second is being conducted by Theater Studies faculty and administrators; and the third is being done by an outside panel of theater academics and professionals selected by the program’s executive committee.
Meanwhile, James DePaul, Theater Studies’ full-time director, and his department colleague Marc Robinson, have also been addressing the program’s short-term needs, as well as its longer-term direction. Over the past year, they have secured a slightly larger budget for the program, and begun an experimental collaboration with the Drama School. They have also increased the number of guest artists who visit campus, formed a partnership with the Long Wharf Theater, and added six courses to the curriculum.
All of which seems to be playing well to their most important audience, the students. “Before DePaul arrived, you walked into the building, did your business, and went out,” says Sara Wolverson ’96, who is majoring in English and theater. “Now there’s a sense of a department that embraces its students. It’s more alive and more vigorous.”
The current Theater Studies Program coalesced out of a cluster of drama courses offered at Yale in the early 1970s, the most popular and enduring of which was a directing class taught by the late Nikos Psacharopolous. In an effort to create a more solid undergraduate program, Yale in 1975 formalized the major, hired Bart Teush as an assistant professor of acting, and also made him director. Teush assembled a major revolving around six required courses, three of which were offered by the new program itself; the rest were conducted by other Yale College departments or the Drama School.
At the time, the dean of the Drama School was Robert Brustein, an innovative director who was known for his stage successes, but became embroiled in some highly public disputes with then-President A. Bartlett Giamatti over policy matters, including the degree to which the Drama School was willing to support the undergraduate program. “It was essentially being supervised and tutored by Drama School students,” recalls Brustein. “Much as I loved my students, I didn’t think they were qualified to be teaching undergraduates.” (Brustein left Yale in 1979 to become head of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge.)
Michael Earley replaced Teush in 1982, by which time the program had grown to include two production seminars and an acting class. Earley added the program’s first playwrighting course, strengthened performance classes, and created new courses in acting and scene study, British drama, and contemporary American theater. He and Psacharopolous did nearly all of the teaching, with help from part-time faculty members, most of whom were theater professionals who came in from New York one day a week.
By the end of 1985, Earley was teaching four classes in addition to running the program. Overwhelmed and angered by what he felt was a lack of administrative support, he quit, leaving behind a scathing letter that questioned the seriousness of Yale’s commitment to undergraduate theater. David DeRose, an academic with a diverse background in dramatic literature, criticism, stage directing, and play development, succeeded Earley in 1985 and devoted himself over the next eight years to fortifying the program.
DeRose’s most important task, as he saw it, was boosting the image and credibility of Theater Studies among students, faculty, and administrators. “When I got there the program consisted of some courses and a few outstanding teachers,” DeRose says. “Nikos was the star. The students in the program were predominantly people who wanted to study with him and who wanted to study acting.”
By 1989 DeRose had built a program that offered 13 courses, including an expanded schedule of production seminars and strong classes in directing, playwrighting, dramatic literature, and history. Current faculty members credit DeRose for turning Theater Studies around. “DeRose put the program on the map,” says Murray Biggs. Adds Thomas Whitaker, a professor of English and theater studies: “For the first time we had somebody who had major training and interest in both history and dramatic literature, and performance.”
DeRose himself left in 1993. “The position was designed to burn people out every four years, and it was clear that to Yale seeing the program grow was not a priority,” he says. Ironically, the Theater Studies Program’s executive committee soon made a decision to split DeRose’s former job into two positions.
The search for people to fill the new slots turned up DePaul, an aggressive young acting and directing teacher from Southern Methodist University, and Robinson, who had been a visiting professor of theater at Amherst College, an editor at American Theater magazine, and a drama critic with New York’s Village Voice. Robinson also had been a student in the Drama School and a teaching assistant to DeRose in the undergraduate program.
DePaul, as director of Undergraduate Theater Studies, now works full-time in the program, teaching three classes, administering the major, advising students, and overseeing senior projects. Robinson, as director of Theater Studies, splits his time equally between the Drama School and the undergraduate program, concentrating on the curriculum, long-range planning, budgeting, and hiring faculty. He also teaches two undergraduate courses.
In addition to his teaching and administrative work, DePaul audits the first- and third-year acting classes in the Drama School and keeps up a busy professional life outside the school. Last year alone he taught acting classes at the Southern Repertory Theater in New Orleans and the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco; conducted workshops at the National Theater of Prague, the Sorbonne in Paris and the National School of Theater in Amsterdam; and directed a full-length play in New Orleans and four one-act plays in San Francisco. “In a college setting, it’s too easy to be in the bubble,” he says. “This is what I bring back to the students—doing my craft and coming back all charged up about what I love to do.”
Robinson, too, continues his outside work in theater criticism and dramaturgy, and recently published a book about 20th-century playwrights.
To DePaul and Robinson, theater education is much more than training in technique or exposure to history and theory. It’s about the power of the theater to force society to look at and transform itself. “Theater is not just about commercial success,” says DePaul. “It’s about a process of communication. It’s about giving someone on the stage and in the audience access to a form of self-expression that can change their lives.”
Among the new classes DePaul and Robinson have developed are one in voice and speech, and another that takes a performance-oriented approach to script analysis. “Theater Now” addresses concepts and trends in contemporary theater; and “Performance Studio” gives student actors, directors, and writers a chance to stage complete productions workshop-style in a classroom setting.
This kind of project is a high priority for DePaul and Robinson, who hope to create a bridge between students’ classroom learning and their prolific extracurricular work. “Very little work outside the classroom is talked about afterwards with the faculty,” said Robinson. “We’d love to have a way for the faculty to critique student work more, to function as a sounding board in a laboratory situation. The extracurricular work and the classroom work can feed each other.”
Another top priority of the new directors is to address the program’s lack of a dedicated theater space, which for years has frustrated administrators and students, especially because, in combination with other budgetary constraints, it restricts the number of production courses that can be offered.
“We’re a program without the main laboratory,” said Robinson. “It’s like trying to teach a chemistry major to do experiments without a laboratory, or like offering an art major without a studio.” Or, he might add, producing Shakespeare in a squash court. But the lack of facilities hardly seems to daunt him. “James and I have a good kind of ignorance of the way things are done at Yale,” says Robinson. “We have a fresh eye and a willingness to say, ”‘What do you mean that’s the way it’s always been?’”
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