Yale’s Theater Growing Pains

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I can’t imagine that there are many schools like Yale, where there are so many separate undergraduate drama groups and independent productions that an umbrella organization, with an elected board, is needed to properly manage and publicize all those shows.

I mean, when I was at Tufts University in the early ‘80s, there was a sudden fever for shows staged outside the established student theater organizations (of which there were two, give or take one). The campus newspaper took an interest, all these extracurriculars took on a festival atmosphere, and cross-promotion was assured. When those shows were done, things went back to normal.

Not so at Yale, where it’s hard to even keep all the improv comedy troupes straight without a scorecard.

Recent articles in the Yale Daily News put Yale’s continually widespread undergraduate dramatic frenzy in focus.

This story by Eric Xiao discusses amendments to be made to the constitution of the Yale Drama Coalition (which was, its website explains, “founded in 1999 to foster a union of student voices impassioned by theater at Yale). For one thing, board members will now be elected by more expansive and inclusive voting process and not just decided through nominations debated by the previous board.

This story, also by Xiao, notes the shortage of lighting designers and other technical theater specialists for undergraduate shows. The story mimics one by Akbar Ahmed which the Yale Daily News published in 2012. Xiao’s article adds to the lament by saying that while the “underabundance” of tech designers mentioned in Ahmed’s story is still a problem, some of the student performance venues now have state-of-the-art sound, lighting and projection equipment which are sorely underutilized.

This “Up Close” commentary by Wesley Yin, in the April 9 Yale Daily News, opens with an anecdote involving a theater show, but is more concerned with the number of Yale student organizations in general and how they are funded. Some schools rely strictly on a Student Activity Fee to fund student activities. Yale has such a fee, but students can easily opt out of paying it. Many other funding streams exist. Creative & Performing Arts Awards (formerly known as the Sudler Fund), for instance, doles out over a thousand bucks to each successful applicant, of which there are many per semester. But when Yale has over 500 registered student organizations, as it does now, money may in fact be in short supply.

Finally, no action has been taken on the most direct and most familiar method of promotion in the history of Yale college theatrics: the wooden signboards which stood for decades outside the Yale post office at the corner of Elm and High streets, advertising current undergrad productions. The frame for the boards rusted away and broke off last fall, and no replacement has yet been made. Some have suggested electronic signage as a replacement. The Yale Daily News laid out the concerns back in January. But now a whole theater season has gone by without that old, well-liked method of getting the word out.

Speaking as a townie, those boards are much missed. I learned more about the state of campus drama through them than from a dozen websites. How well you slather paint on a bit of plywood can say a lot about the potential quality of your show. And it’s a raw, human approach, like live theater itself.

Whatever the future of funding, promotion and self-administration of widespread campus theater activities may be, let’s hope there’s still room for rough edges and some drippiness.

Yale Station
Credit where it’s due: This useful photo of the old theater signage comes from this study-notes site, http://english113miw2014.pbworks.com/w/page/72736241/Class%206%20Notes

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