The most essential element of student theatre is the students. They act, they direct, they design. They determine which plays to produce and sometimes they even write the show itself. With the Class of 2016 graduating and moving on to pursue their passions, now more than ever, is a time to reflect.
In preparation for this article, I reached out to more than 40 seniors that have been involved in student theatre at Vassar. In these interviews, we discussed how student theatre has changed during their time, favorite moments during their involvement and the future to come, for both them and this community.
They’ve taken on a multitude of roles and witnessed a community grow stronger and bolder in the topics they’ve tackled. More student theatre has emerged to the point that there’s rarely a weekend where there isn’t a special event or staged reading or full-length production going up. Vassar’s student theatre is thriving and the people to thank are sadly the ones that are going. The seniors have encouraged the community to present new voices, tackle bold ideas and expand on what it means to make great art.
But these seniors didn’t begin there. Many got involved as freshmen. They might have acted in various drama productions in high school, but they hardly had experienced the type of shows they devise today. Freshmen can’t participate in department shows until the spring, so many of the seniors got involved with student theatre.
Board member of Merely Players (Vassar’s classical theatre organization) Hannah Colonnese ’16 took part in student theatre from the very beginning, seizing the chance to make art: “I knew I wanted to do theatre and so first-semester freshmen can’t do drama department, so that was the outlet basically. And first semester, I only did a directing workshop and I think a cabaret and then some crew stuff in the Shiva. Then second semester was when it really took off when I sort of dove into everything.”
One of the benefits in student theatre is the bounty of roles anyone can take. Since every role in a production is filled by a student, that means there’s someone designing the lights or building the sets, not a build crew, which the Drama Department uses. And these have become students’ passions. They might’ve initially gotten involved in student theatre with one role in mind and found their dream job on a casual opportunity.
Carly Katz ’16, one of the main costume designers of student theatre, originally got involved as a freshman with the intent on acting. Through her involvement with student productions, however, she’s discovered a different field and an even greater passion in costume designing: “It’s changed what it means to me. I started off like, ‘You’re an actor,’ ‘You’re a director,’ ‘You’re a technician,’ and now I feel like you can do any part of that. You can keep with one and explore different things.”
As a freshman, it’s very difficult to get cast in a production, especially in the fall. However, taking on the roles you can and meeting people involved is a great way to participate. For many of the seniors, once they had started doing shows, they met a tightly-knit group of people set out on making great art.
Former President of Merely Players Rob Leinheiser ’16 has worked with Merely for nearly every show he’s been involved with at Vassar since freshman year. What drew him into continuing working with the organization was the closeness he felt when doing their production of “Henry IV Parts 1 & 2”: “We were in the chapel in fall and I remember absolutely freezing backstage between scenes and worrying about the whole show. But the cast–united by the bubbly presence of our director–was so dedicated to the show and each other. It felt like all of the close theatre relationships I had in high school were suddenly superseded by something real. A real love between cast mates.”
Not all of the students involved in student theatre are drama majors. People from all sorts of fields, from psychology to media studies to chemistry, have managed to find a home in the student theatre community at Vassar and emerge as artists.
Nora Kaye ’16, a neuroscience major, is a member of Woodshed, Vassar’s non-hierarchical devised theatre group, and has managed to have her major fuse with her art: “I think it allows me to look at creative projects in different ways potentially. And this semester, a friend, who’s also a neuro major also affiliated with theatre, and I did a theatre-neuroscience independent study looking at the portrayal of madness in theatre. So we’ve tried to integrate it.”
By working in Woodshed, Kaye has been able to take a stab at every role under the sun and grow as a theatremaker during the devising process: “Since Woodshed is non-hierarchical, which is incredibly exciting but also can be difficult–so it’s completely collaborative and there’s no specific directors or really delineated roles–I’ve gotten to try my hand at everything. It’s been directorial but also I’ve done a lot of sound design through it, which has been so much fun. It also just really allows the whole creative process to be in your own hands and that is incredibly rewarding to look back on and feel your voice was heard in so many different elements of the show.”
Because basically anybody can get involved with student theatre, this creates the opportunity to make new friends of different interests and work with collaborators on new ideas. It also provides the chance for you to find a team that you can always stick with.
Sarah Freedman ’16 has taken on a variety of roles, including acting, designing and stage managing, and is one of the most prominent playwrights on campus. Through this exploration of the student theatre community, she’s managed to find a group of artists to work with and trust: “I put a lot less pressure on myself, because I’ve learned to trust my other collaborators. And I’ve also found people who I know I work well with, whom I trust. And that’s like most of being successful in theatre, I think. Just working with people you like and you trust. But it can be hard to find those people, but once you do, you gotta keep working with them.”
Freedman continued, “I’d really encourage people to try out stage managing or designing, even if you’re mainly an actor or a director, because it makes a huge difference in your work if you’ve had experience in a different role.”
Some of the student theatre organizations hold auditions in the fall and spring, allowing people to join the troupes on campus as permanent members. Shakespeare Troupe, Idlewild (Vassar’s all-female student organization), Woodshed and Britomartis (Vassar’s devised student theatre troupe) all hold these auditions and get the rare situation of working consistently with a team to make art.
Special Events Coordinator for Philaletheis (Vassar’s oldest student theatre organization) Patrick Dunning ’16 has been a member of Shakespeare Troupe since the spring of his freshman year, getting the benefit of having frequent collaborators on each show: “Working with a somewhat consistent ensemble of theatremakers for two, three or four years in a row is a rare and special treat, and it’s very much come to feel like a sort of family to me in my time here at Vassar.”
Within this community is a space to discover. While the Drama Department is meant for educational purposes, student theatre can often offer itself as just as much if not more of an educational opportunity in the world of theatre. It creates a playground for the artist to explore their artistic visions with a surplus of organizations willing to fund it and help realize it.
Working with Future Waitstaff of America (Vassar’s musical theatre organization), Unbound (Vassar’s devised theatre organization) and Philaletheis in his four years at Vassar, Collin Knopp-Schwyn ’16 [Full Disclosure: Knopp-Schwyn is a crossword editor for The Miscellany News] has managed to seize this opportunity to stage many of his creative ideas: “I would say my whole life is just a series of projects and that’s very much something I have found to be true but also that I’ve found that is able to be true with student theatre here. I’ve really loved the chance to do these special projects, all of them I think, because they’re a great chance to fail or succeed in equal measure. And this is very much a place where it’s okay to fail at something and have it be a failure. That’s still alright because in that way it’s more of a learning experience sometimes than academic theatre can be.”
Four years ago, the student theatre scene at Vassar was much different than it is today. Ebony Theatre Ensemble, a student theatre organization dedicated to bringing Black drama to Vassar and providing opportunities for Black actors, had been defunct for several years. Britomartis was still a pre-org, producing most of its shows through Unbound.
Since then, there’s been an influx in original works on campus focusing on the artist’s identity and voice. With social justice movements such as the transgender rights movement and Black Lives Matter, these works are more relevant than ever before. There are still leaps to be made in getting everyone’s interests heard, but that is the direction student theatre is heading, with credit given to many of the seniors for paving the way.
Asia Howard ’16, a member of Woodshed and a key figure in reviving Ebony Theatre Ensemble, has managed to find her artistic voice through participating in the creative outlets of these devised theatre organizations: “Groups like Ebony have been really important to me as a theatremaker for artists of color to carve out spaces because the theatre scene on Vassar campus can be pretty exclusive and I’m happy that I was able to gel with Woodshed and Ebony and have those spaces where we have agency over our work and it’s non-hierarchical. So we all have a say in the narratives being told and our visibility with those projects.”
In such a playground to grow in, everyone gets the chance to create what interests them. Out in the professional world, there are other factors to worry about, like commercial success and producers to consult with on every decision. The only requirement here is the ambition to pursue this vision and a team to support it.
Rachel Messbauer ’16, a drama major and frequent actor with Merely Players, has auditioned for any production she can, realizing the once-in-a-lifetime possibilities student theatre provides for the artist: “Student theatre at Vassar is an opportunity for us as actors and directors and designers to push creative boundaries and really do things we would not expect to do when we go out into the ‘real world’ and you just get type-cast as ‘Girlfriend #2.’”
Messbauer continued: “I think seizing that opportunity and just being as experimental as possible is important because it allows you to think, ‘What can I do here that I might not be able to do when I get out of college?,’ or ‘These are the ideas [that were important to me as an artist] in college. Now how can I translate them into life after?’ I think the more experimental and political the better, because it allows you to find your own artistic identity.”
For the future, the groundwork is already being laid down to create a more collaborative student theatre community where art can grow and internal disputes are minimized. While there hasn’t been a full-out war, tensions sometimes have arisen between groups, especially for arranging performance spaces or making casting decisions. Despite many productions using alternate spaces, there is still a limitation in the amount of theaters on campus. With more students interested than ever, timing can also be an obstruction.
However, because of the efforts made by many seniors and other students to form the Student Theatre Alliance, a pre-org that was formed earlier this semester, a brighter, more transparent student theatre is on the horizon. The Student Theatre Alliance will facilitate spaces as well as provide a channel for discourse among the student theatre organizations.
Colonnese expressed great optimism in the future of this community: “I think that the Student Theatre Alliance that’s happening right now is going to be a really exciting thing. I feel like sometimes there’s been a lot of tension between orgs, whether it’s playful or serious. At various times it’s been both. And so I think the Student Theatre Alliance will be a good peace-keeping. They’ve got a constitution and everything. It’s not an official org but it’s a coalition just to negotiate spaces, negotiate issues that affect all of student theatre so that it’s not just conversations happening between people who happen to know someone on another org’s board. It’s an official outlet to do that.”
Even though student theatre and the Drama Department are separate, they both fall under that tent of great theatre that Vassar has to offer. The Drama Department tends to put on fewer shows in a semester, usually as part of a drama major’s senior project. These shows also rely heavily upon the guidance of Drama Department professors.
Drama Department Chair Gabrielle Cody has been a professor for many of the graduating seniors involved with student theatre, perhaps even from their very first theatre course, Drama 102: Introduction to Theatre. Cody hopes that they have managed to grow as artists in their time here: “Our philosophy and advice from the start is, become a theatremaker, practice all areas and learn to create your own work so that you are not sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring when you leave Vassar.”
Cody doles out some wisdom to the Class of 2016 as they go off into the world: “Keep doing your work and cross over as much as you can from writing to directing to performing, find small venues to showcase your work, see a lot of theatre, intern for artists/theaters whose work you admire–the smaller the theater, the more access to those artists–get a day job and take care of your health because you have only you: eat, sleep and read, and remember to play as well.”
While they may be graduating soon, many of these seniors wish to pursue the arts once they enter the real world. The job market might not be easy and there’s no way to know what will happen, but theatre is and always will be a community of artists supporting each other.
After Vassar, Dunning, like many other seniors, hopes to explore the wide world of this art that he’s come to discover at Vassar: “It’s a bit far-fetched, maybe, but I hope that in the coming years I’m able to roam around as much as I can, doing as many different kinds of theatre in as many different places with as many different communities of artists and people as I can, and yet still be able to develop consistent, long-lasting working relationships with new people and people I already know and love. Dream big, I guess.”