April 21, 2004

Students Bring Drama to Campus

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“The dramatic spirit is strong in the college man,” proclaimed Earl Hewes Kelsey 1905, in Cornell’s literary magazine, The Era. Now, 100 years later, that spirit still carries on today in over half-a-dozen full student-run theater groups. Besides groups which provide full-length productions, there are a number of sketch and skit oriented organizations. With performances ranging from Spanish theater to Shakespeare, student theater groups provide both entertainment and forums of artistic expression for students.

Many students involved in these groups see theater as playing a unique role in student life.

“Acting in general is the story of life,” said Kimberly Rice ’06, in Gateway Theater. “I really feel like it can touch people in a way nothing else can.”

Likewise, Dean of Students Kent Hubbell ’67 said that all students should have an opportunity to experience live theater, whether through student groups or the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.

“It’s a work of artistry that enriches your life,” he said. “Theater communicates truth in its own way.”

However, student groups play a particular role in the Cornell theater community, apart from the Schwartz Center. Unlike student-run groups, the Schwartz Center’s performances are directed, produced, and run by professionals in the field. To match these standards, student actors involved in these shows must invest numerous hours on stage.

“I think that unlike some of the other student groups, we have this more professional model,” said Jen Nelson, stage manager for the Schwartz Center. “It really runs more like a small regional theater.”

Although they are not as structured, student-run theater groups offer more flexibility and opportunities for participation than a Schwartz Center play.

Actors in student-run plays have somewhat less of a time commitment and have more chances to try out for larger roles. Also, students can gain experience in stage design, costume-making and directing in student groups. Because the Schwartz Center has a professional backstage staff, there are a very limited number of these positions available. In student-run theater, students are responsible for all aspects of a production, not just the acting.

“Students feel the joy of being autonomous at Risley,” said Kent Goetz, chair of the department of theater, film and dance, citing it as an example of student-run theater.

Working with a student-run group provides opportunities for social connections and just having fun.

“It allows people to have connections that they wouldn’t normally have,” said Elizabeth Bailey ’05, general manager for Risley Theater. “It allows people to broaden their horizons.”

Many of the students don’t see their productions as competing with the Schwartz Center for audience members or actors. In fact, some of the groups’ leaders said that some of their actors have performed in shows at the Schwartz Center and then returned back to the student group.

“I actually think by being here, it gives them more confidence to be involved in more theater,” said Claudia Han ’06, president of Asian American Playhouse.

The two venues also offer different experiences for audiences. “They might go to a student production not to see the polish and production values, but to be part of the energy, the excitement [of] grassroots [theater],” Goetz said.

However, some students would like the Schwartz Center to provide more support for student-run theater.

“I often see them at odds with each other,” said Ben Mauk ’07, who is in Gateway Theater. “They often have a problem helping student groups.”

Although Han did not think there was animosity between the organizations, she expressed an interest in putting on a joint production or perhaps having advice from the directors.

Goetz said that the department has helped some groups with costumes and props. He added that the department does have to be “protective” of their equipment, since it is stored off-campus and requires upkeep.

Many student groups specialize in a specific area, whether focusing on a culture or choosing their shows from an era of theater.

Teatrotaller, or “theater-workshop” in Spanish, only performs plays in Spanish and “Spanglish,” a mix of Spanish and English.

“It’s mostly to create a closer community of Spanish speaking people and have some fun,” said Katia Yurguis ’03, director of the group.

Despite the language barrier, she said that they do not exclude non-Spanish speakers. Actors in their plays have had varying levels of fluency and are of many different cultural backgrounds. In terms of the audience, she said non-Spanish speakers can understand the story through summaries in English and the expressive acting.

“A lot of our audience is non-Spanish speaking,” Yurguis said. “We try to focus on acting and directing [to] transmit emotion without relying on the language.”

Unlike most student theater groups, Teatrotaller has direct academic ties to the university. By signing up for Spanish Literature 301, students can gain credit for participating in the play, reading other Spanish theater, and writing a final paper.

The Asian American Playhouse also attempts to diversify the Cornell theater community and challenge it in issues of race and culture.

Despite its focus, the group is not limited to Asian American actors or audiences.

“We have a really diverse acting group,” Han said. “The race question never comes in.”

Rather, she said the name and focus on Asian Americans often draws out people in that community who might not otherwise consider acting. She said it eliminates actors’ fear of being stereotyped or discriminated against.

“I think we do bring out a lot of closet Asian American actors,” Han said.

Likewise, Black Theater Productions works to promote cultural awareness of African American theater through shows and workshops.

Some groups appeal to specific, long-lasting audiences by the type of shows they perform.

The Savoyards, one of Cornell’s longest lasting groups, traditionally performed Gilbert and Sullivan operas. However, since there are only 13 Gilbert and Sullivan shows and the group has existed since 1953, they eventually expanded into presenting other musicals and light operas as well. This semester, they are producing a double bill of The True Story of Cinderella and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, both shorter plays.

Producing non-traditional interpretations of Shakespearean and other Renaissance plays, the Red Bull Players also appeal to a niche audience.

“We’re kind of an acquired taste,” said director Stephen Ponton grad. “We have a smaller, but more devoted audience.”

In addition to conventional indoor shows, the group also typically performs an outdoor Shakespeare show at the Cornell Plantations.

Although Gateway Theater does not concentrate on a specific theme, their status as free theater makes them unique among groups on campus.

“I think Gateway is really important because we’re the only free [theater],” said Laura Paiz ’04, Gateway general manager. “That’s huge in our charter. We want people to come and just enjoy a night of guilt-free theater.”

In an attempt to link all of these groups together, Group Effort Theater: Cornell Association of Student Theaters (GETCAST), provides announcements through its listserve and generally promotes student theater on campus.

Along with specific theater groups, Risley Theater provides a chance for students to act on-stage. It supplies space to student theater groups, but also produces and supports “in-house” productions by Risley residents. These in-house productions have preference for obtaining space on the Risley schedule, and also have financial support from the theater.

“An in-house group means they get more personal attention because they don’t have a company to do it for them,” Bailey said. She said that the theater makes an effort to encourage innovative theater. For example, last semester, two students did a concert reading of their original play Godot, a version of Waiting for Godot rewritten as a rock opera.

rrently, Risley Theater is the only theater open to all student groups on campus to use. Although Teatrotaller uses the Law Auditorium in the College of Veterinary Medicine, most groups are not allowed to use this space. As a result of the limited room, there is constant competition for performance area.

However, this problem is not a new issue. In 1904, The Era lamented the fact that the dramatic clubs had nowhere to meet or perform.

“It is to be hoped that the near future will see quarters to a drama club secured, where the very atmosphere will suggest Hamlet’s ghost,” Kelsey said.

This problem was solved for the first time in 1925 when the University Theater in the Straight opened. Although a theater was not originally included in the plans for the student union, Prof. Alexander M. Drummond convinced the administration and architects to include one in the building’s plans. Eventually, the space became the home for the Theater Arts Department, which moved to the Schwartz Center in 1989. Since then, the University Theater has been closed to student productions and is the home of Cornell Cinema.

“Many of us have fond memories of when it was used as a theater,” Hubbell said.

The Risley Theater was originally meant to supplement the Drummond Theater, according to the Risley Theater website. It opened in 1974 and has served as a place for student theater ever since.

Other spaces, such as Statler Auditorium and Barnes Hall, are both too expensive and not conducive to theater, according to Nancy Munkenbeck Ph.D ’88, who participates in the Savoyards. The administration has looked into this issue in the recent past, with the establishment of the Performance Space Task Force. In 1999, the Student Assembly issued a resolution saying that the university should take this lack of performance space into consideration when evaluating building projects.

Lack of space was one contributing factor to the fairly recent demise of two student theater groups, Brand X Musical Theater and Upstage Left.

Daniel Fischer ’02, who participated in both groups, said that after Brand X could no longer use the Law Auditorium, they had a great deal of trouble finding a place to perform. He said that at that point, the Risley Theater selection committee would not accept plays not produced in-house.

“There became bad blood between Risley and the other groups,” he said.

In particular, Brand X’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was postponed by an entire semester because they could not obtain performance space. “We were literally rehearsing for two months without knowing where or when we were going to be,” he said.

He said the space limitations prevented these groups from putting on shows for a few seasons, during which they could not attract new members.

Despite the dissolution of both of these groups, most of the leaders think student theater is not in decline. Rather, they see these issues as part of the ebb and flow of theater, a time and energy-consuming activity.

“It’s just part of groups rising and groups dying,” Han said. “Dynamics change … and theater takes a lot of your time.” Most groups reported a steady or increasing number of students auditioning over the past few years.

“There’s a lot of interest,” Paiz said. “People are still looking for outlets, there just aren’t that many left.”

However, some groups have suffered historic declines. Muckenbeck said that the Savoyards has had fewer people audition than they did in the 1970s, partly because of the increased competition over the years.

Some groups attract more people to auditions because they are open to the larger community, not just students. Teatrotaller, the Savoyards, and the Red Bull Players all welcome actors from outside of the university. Teatrotaller also attempts to reach out to the Ithaca community and beyond through readings, downtown benefits , and participation in Latino Heritage Month.

From the Masque, established in 1890 as the first student drama club to the current day, student theater remains alive at Cornell.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher
Sun Senior Writer