March 29, 2010

Theatre, Film and Dance to Lay Off Three Staff Members

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The Theater, Film and Dance Department announced the elimination of four staff positions on March 18 after the University asked the department to reduce its non-professorial budget by one to two million dollars.

One of those positions was that of Brendan Komala, the Schwartz Center’s master carpenter — just one of the staffers “sorry” to part with Cornell.

Komala has worked in the woodshop for 10 years, and said he will miss the “family environment” of “everybody working toward a common goal.”

He said he has gotten to know students “beyond their schoolwork” over the years and has enjoyed teaching students who have gone into professional carpentry on Broadway and elsewhere.

Hannah Shafran ’06, who was taught by Komala and now works both as a carpentry teacher and part-time for shows, was dismayed by the news of the cuts.

“That’s so sad,” she said. She added that “it’s a real shame there’s a whole group of students who are going to miss [the] opportunity to work in the setting we used to have.”

Cutting non-tenured staff like Komala will “drastically change the experience of any theater major or anyone who likes to participate,” said Jeremy Flynn ’11, an ILR student who recently starred in the Schwartz Center’s Cabaret/Soiree.

Faculty and staff say the eliminated positions represent just an early trickle in an expected cascade of departures.

The departures will save the department an estimated $350,000 to 400,000 annually, according to Prof. Bruce Levitt, theater. Theater, Film and Dance is expected to cut at least another $600,000 to 650,000 before June 30, when the department will present its budget to the College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peter Lepage.

The expected cuts will increase the department’s annual savings to $1 million — though there are lingering worries that it will not be sufficient. “The dean can always come back and say this isn’t enough,” Levitt said.

Levitt said the remaining difference between the dean’s budget and the department’s current budget would also have to be made up through staff lay-offs. The cuts come on the heels of four eliminated positions last year.

In an e-mail, Lepage wrote, “The dean’s office hasn’t prescribed specific … budget savings,” emphasizing that “those decisions are being made by Theatre, Film and Dance leadership.”

Department Chair Amy Villarejo supported this sentiment, writing in an e-mail that the department “does have choices about how we propose to reduce our budget.”

Yet Levitt and others in the department object to the notion that they have much choice in the matter, and allege that the University is forcing their hand.

“The dean would like everyone to believe we have choices, but we … are under the gun,” Levitt said. “We can’t cut any teaching people because lecturers need a year’s notice. [The] only people we can cut is staff.”

In addition to the master carpenter position, the positions of box office manager, master electrician and stage manager were eliminated on Mar. 18. Last year the cutter/draper, audience services manager and scenic artist positions were cut, and the building manager position was reduced to a part time job.

Some, such as co-founder Rockwell Shah ’10, accuse the administration of disregarding the performance aspect of theater-studies.

“You can theorize about [acting], but you can’t actually do it. [That is] the message they are sending,” Shah said.

Still, Department Chair Villarejo responded in an e-mail that, “I can assure you that our department will continue to provide academic and performance experience. Six of ten members of our theater faculty teach in the areas of acting, directing and design; none of these areas will disappear from the curriculum.”

But Shah said the department may have difficulty putting on shows as a result of the cuts.

Already, Levitt has decided to scale back the number of productions from six to four for the next academic year.

Levitt worries, however, if even this reduced number of productions will be sustainable.

“You need at least seven to eight staff members … If [the] dean asks to go to $1.5 to 2 million, there’s no way we can put on a production; all we’ll have left is tenure-track people,” Levitt said.

Komala, the master carpenter, is not the only one whose plans have been shaken up by the changes. Resident Stage Manager Scott Kelly ’02 said that he was “hoping to stay [at Cornell] and teach undergraduates.”

“[It’s] a disappointment,” Kelly said, “but [I am] more disappointed for what the cuts mean for the students … The quality of education I received … will not be available to students.”

Through a guest column in The Sun, a piece in The Cornell Chronicle and elsewhere, Dean Lepage has stressed that cuts to the Theatre, Film and Dance department were intended to align it with the costs of other departments — not to single it out.

“A reduction of $1 million to 2 million would more closely align Theatre, Film and Dance expenditures with those of our other arts departments,” Lepage told The Chronicle in February.

But regardless of the numbers, members of the theater department still feel they have been slighted by the school — a feeling that will likely increase as further cuts come.

“There is an anti-theatrical prejudice,” Levitt said.

“We have a running joke in the theater department,” Komala said. “We’ve been ‘reimagined.’”

Correction: The original article, “Five Theatre Staff Laid Off After Budget Reductions,” incorrectly stated the number of eliminated staff positions. In fact, three positions have been eliminated through layoffs that will take effect by July 1, and additional personnel savings will be achieved through attrition. The story’s headline has been changed accordingly. In addition, the article incorrectly stated the date by which future budget cuts are expected. In fact, the Department of Theatre, Film and Dance will achieve cuts totaling $1-2 million by July 1, 2011. The Sun regrets the errors.

Original Author: Jeff Stein