Student theatre’s production teams push for inclusivity

Pictured above is the Susan Stein Shiva Theater, the site of many Vassar student theatre shows, which face the challenge of overworked and underappreciated production teams. / Courtesy of Madeline Zappala via Shiva Theater

Behind every great actor, there are even greater designers and a stage manager that miraculously gets it all done in time.

Currently at Vassar, student theatre is facing a lack of designers and stage managers within the community. As a result, many of the staple members of theatre production have taken on numerous projects. While this may give them plenty of experience, it can also lead to students taking on too many projects because of the demand.

Whitney Brady ’18 has been one of the main lighting designers in both student theatre and Drama Department productions during the last three years, in addition to being a sound designer.

Brady commented on the disposition of a designer’s schedule: “I think I’ve always felt overworked when I’m involved in student theatre, but that almost seems to be the nature of the beast. One of the most important things that I’ve learned in my time is that we as a community need to be very aware of people being overworked and exhausted—it’s so, so easy to burn out and never want to be involved in a show again.”

“In my experience,” she continued, “that’s one of the biggest contributors to production team and cast shortages. We’re all responsible as a community to take care of each other and encourage each other to not overcommit.”

One of the underlying problems with this dilemma is the lack of attention given to these roles. Through their involvement with student theatre, members of the community have more knowledge of the process that a production undergoes. But the general Vassar students might not.

Charlotte Varcoe-Wolfson ’19 [Full disclosure: Varcoe-Wolfson is the Design Editor for The Miscellany News], who has stage managed one show and assistant stage managed two, commented on this campus-wide phenomenon

She stated, “Even though everyone involved in student theatre productions, but especially directors and stage managers, spend upwards of 10 hours a week on their production, they receive no academic compensation or recognition on campus. While I choose to do student theatre instead of department productions, the disconnect between our work and the recognition can be frustrating.”

Elianna Scheide ’20 has taken on the roles of production manager, set designer, props designer and stage manager. Scheide will be stage managing Merely Players’ upcoming production of W. S. Gilbert’s “The Palace of Truth.”

Addressing the recognition given to the production side, Scheide said, “I feel that it’s always an issue. People who know theatre know that’s incredibly important. People not in theatre tend not realize how vital it is to have good technicians and good directors and good managers. It is integral to the process that all parts of the production team and the cast work together, but it shouldn’t be obvious. If it goes well you shouldn’t know that there was ever an issue. That’s the joy of theatre, that all you see is on the stage.”

Another aspect to the dilemma regards how inexperienced students can get involved. For many freshmen, acting seems like a plentiful opportunity that they need little background for. But the myth that production roles are reserved for experienced designers is a lie. There are always ways to be involved with the student theatre community, and production roles are the most consistent.

ducate, the Vassar College Tech Conglomerate (VCTC) reaches out to productions to find what roles are needed on their teams. They also hold workshops every semester to train new members for production roles. VCTC has recently become a full organization with the VSA. The tech organization is also working with the recently formed Student Theatre Alliance (STA) to create further dialogue between the various theatre groups on campus.

Lindsay Matheos ’19 has been primarily a stage manager for both student theatre and the Drama Department, as well as being production manager, lighting designer and set designer, as well as acting as the education director of VCTC

Regarding VCTC’s future plans, Matheos said, “We just got promoted to a full organization, which means we can have a budget now and start these educational initiatives. We have lots of ideas for that. One of the things we were just talking about was working with Stephen Jones and the Drama Department on design salons where we all meet and talk about design for an hour every Wednesday. So we’re having Tech office hours so that if you’re working on a show, you can come by and people from Tech Conglomerate can be there to help you through the process.”

One of the student theatre organizations that is combating this issue and including new members is Merely Players. The group mission has been to act as a teaching organization, facilitating roles for newcomers to the student theatre community and creating opportunities for anyone to try a new production role with guidance. President of Merely Players Max Fine ’17 has been a sound designer, assistant director, stage manager, director, music director, production manager and an actor in his time at Vassar. Currently he is sound designing Merely Player’s upcoming production of “Dr. Faustus” and production managing “The Palace of Truth.”

Fine signified the importance of the group’s mission, stating, “Merely is a teaching organization. Different people have different ideas of what that means. I would not be where I am now without Merely being a teaching organization. I’m aware of how Merely’s teaching mission gave me my start in student theatre at Vassar. Merely really wants to make sure that people who are interested in theatre, but may not be experienced, get opportunities to participate, both from acting and design sides.”

Unlike student theatre, the Drama Department handles their production roles differently. In addition to allowing students to apply for positions, the department assigns actors that have been cast in shows to production roles. This opportunity can get a student interested in a new area of design and avoid a deficiency of designers.

A challenge within the Drama Department is creating courses that focus on these production roles. Some courses touch on these roles, but there is still no stage management class within the department.

Leo Hilton ’19 has been one of the central lighting designers on campus, in addition to being a set designer, electrics operator, sound designer and master electricians work for the Drama Department. He is also the Equipment Manager and Treasurer for VCTC.

“With the facilities and the funding the Department receives,” Hilton commented, “they do a fantastic job. Generally speaking, the Department is doing what they can. It’s not so much that the Department is the problem. It feels like a lack of understanding from the College administration that there is serious interest in theatre technology and design. That is something special about the Drama Department at Vassar. They treat designers as part of the team along with the director and actors and creators of the show on a more equal theatre-making model. I think the more that we can develop the design side of theatre-making, that’s just a plus for Vassar’s theatre education.”

Many designers and managers also mentor their undergraduates by giving them assistant roles. This allows students to shadow the trained technicians through the most ideal setting: experience.

Hilton spoke of the importance in giving new students opportunities in design roles: “I feel like I do a pretty good job at limiting my involvement. I feel overwhelmed by the requests I get for participation in shows. I try to do what I can to get good designers for shows.”

Hilton elaborated on how he encourages directors to work with new designers: “Somebody asks me to be part of their proposal and I’m already signed on for two shows this semester. That’s already a lot of work. So I say, ‘Unfortunately, I’m fully committed but I have a bunch of people who are first-time designers. Let me hook you up with one of them and I’d be more than glad to mentor them through the process if they have any questions.’”

Varcoe-Wolfson spoke to her experience as an assistant-turned-stage manager. She stated, “Had it not been for my experience assistant stage managing as a freshman ‘Fly By Night,’ I would not have been able to take on the job of stage manager for ‘Grey Gardens: The Musical’ this year. Working under a seasoned stage manager gave me confidence in my abilities to manage a production on my own. I’m so appreciative of these mentors.”

While there is always a surplus of production roles, the Vassar student theatre community is taking the initiative to spread a message of inclusivity and allow more students to explore the powerful and essential duty designers get to participate in. Communicating with the Vassar community at-large has always been a struggle but it is also something VCTC and the STA aims to resolve.

Getting involved with the design elements of a show is an enriching experience. When someone attends a show, they may be able to take away a brilliant performance given by an actor. But when someone can notice the intricate lighting or the effects of an elaborate set, it only adds to a greater appreciation of theatre as an art. A masterpiece exists beyond a few features, instead relying on every element working off together.

As a stage manager, Matheos pieces all the different roles in a production to form the final piece. She spoke of the unity each person has in the show, stating, “Everything should be collaborative. Student theatre can be hierarchical and everyone has set roles, but in the end, you’re all working towards this final goal. I just think you can’t have a show without performers. And I think to the same degree you can’t have a full show without design, and certainly not without management.”

 

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