Ithaca & Cornell

THEATRE AT CORNELL

a selection of first-person accounts

By ANNA A. BRENNER

As strange as it may sound to all you bio majors and engineers, the determining factor for my choosing Cornell was its theatre department.

Now, before I continue, I do have to mention that my other option for college was Johns Hopkins, which, despite its incredible writing program (another thing I was interested in), only offered a theatre minor. And, as I wanted to major in both English and Theatre, I knew that any place that just offered me a minor was not going to cut it.

So here I am, pre-frosh Anna: I’ve just mailed in my acceptance of Cornell’s acceptance. I’ve sealed my fate as a prospective English and Theatre double major. Except, according to this hot freshman Theatre major I’ve been talking to via Facebook, the Department has now shifted away from Theatre, Film and Dance towards something called “PMA”: Performing & Media Arts. But he assures me that it’s fine, that I’ll still be able to study exactly the same things I would’ve under the old Theatre major. That, perhaps, this departmental shift is even better because I could take film or dance classes and they’d still fulfill my major requirements (if I played my cards right). That this really just added flexibility into my scheduling. That it also is incredibly helpful considering the Department’s recent budget cuts.

Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, 1989

Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, 1989

Wait, I’m thinking, budget cuts?

Budget cuts. $1 million to $2 million annually, according to an article published in the Cornell Chronicle in 2010. And they were set to take effect just as I started my freshman year.

Great, I thought. Just great.

When I got to Cornell, I assumed I’d be auditioning for shows at Risley, Cornell’s student-run theatre. I mean, why wouldn’t I? They were putting up Little Shop of Horrors and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog, to name a few. The year before, they’d done Avenue Q. Risley seemed like the place to be, in regards to performance.

But after performing at Risley’s Musical Theatre Night the first weekend of freshman year — more like after being coerced into performing at Musical Theatre Night by two upperclassmen — I was then coerced into auditioning for Adding Machine, a musical I’d never heard of that was going up at the Schwartz in its 450-seat main stage theatre. Simply put, I didn’t really know what to expect. For one, I was a freshman; I was just getting my land-legs in the world of college, and auditioning for a show that rehearsed for four hours a day, six days a week, seemed downright insane. Second, what was this musical? And why was a student directing it? What about all of the faculty? But I wasn’t going to get cast — I mean, I had literally just gotten to Cornell. They had to have had, like, at least twenty people who were better than me, and this was only a seven-person cast. Someone else would get it. Right?

I got cast. The show ended up being one of the most challenging, rewarding and eye-opening opportunities I’ve ever had. I had the chance to work with a professional stage manager and professional set, props, sound, lighting and costume designers; I took Equity breaks and went to my first costume fittings; my director even wanted me to make my own choices (gasp!).

When the show was over, I continued working in the department as a playwright and, later, as an assistant director. Because of Adding Machine, professors (and students) in the Department knew who I was, which meant there were a lot of people asking me to audition for things, or to submit my work to the departmental dramatic writing competition (Heermans-McCalmon; Google it!). To top it all off, my director, my castmates and my friends who lived in Risley, were all older than me, and were more than happy to give me my advice — regardless of whether or not I asked for it. Because of them, I was able to navigate the Cornell theatre world with (relative) ease. These are the classes you must take, they said. These are the professors you should avoid. These are the shows you should audition for.

My theatre experience at Cornell has been incredible — and all thanks to a few strokes of luck. Had I not lived in Risley, I would’ve never auditioned for Adding Machine. Had I not auditioned for Adding Machine, I never would’ve met my director, my castmates, or the departmental designers, and, because of them, I ended up doing literally every other show I’ve partaken in as an actor, writer or director for the first two years of my college experience.

Needless to say, not everyone has been this lucky — at all. To pass my Cornell theatre experience off as the everyman’s Cornell theatre experience would be ridiculous and, to many, downright wrong. Which is why, when asked to write an article about theatre culture at Cornell, I interviewed a few people with varying experiences, all of whom are very involved in the theatre scene, some of whom are actual PMA (or Theatre) majors. This article will, by no means, serve as a comprehensive guide to theatre at Cornell, but it will, at least, present a few images of our time as students here.

THE ALUMNI

The first two people I contacted once I began writing this article were Larry and David,[1] close friends of mine who both graduated last year and were instrumental in my involvement in theatre over the past two years. I assistant directed for both Larry and David on one or more of their projects, and both are embarking on professional theatre careers, as a director and composer, respectively. Both entered Cornell in 2010, just as the budget cuts were announced, and experienced the full gamut of the transition from Theatre, Film and Dance to Performing & Media Arts, and how that affected the theatre scene at Risley and throughout campus over the course of their college careers.

Anna: Did you enter Cornell knowing you would be majoring in Theatre (or in Music, as is David’s case)?

Larry: I first visited Cornell intending to apply Early Decision for Architecture, which I’d been studying for years, but when it became clear that program would allow almost no time for me to pursue my real passion, I stopped working on my portfolio and applied to study Theatre. I had already fallen in love with the school, so I continued Early Decision.

David: Nope. I had always loved it, but when I chose to come to Cornell, I thought I was choosing to keep it as a hobby, and pursue a science like Psychiatry or Neurobiology.

A: David, what ended up drawing you to pursuing Theatre / Music here?

D: I got to Cornell and started taking music classes, but stayed away from the Schwartz Center because I decided that if they didn’t like musicals, I didn’t like them.[2]

After doing one musical with the Melodramatic Theatre Company my freshman year, I was pretty upset with how musicals were both regarded and executed on campus — and it really pissed me off! Because musicals literally gave my life meaning as a child.

So, the next semester, I decided to direct a musical at Risley Theatre. It was a janky production; there was no real set design. Our lighting cues were essentially “on” and “off” and it was super stressful because none of us knew what we were doing. But also it had heart, and I got kind of hooked on making musicals happen, especially because everyone in the show really got something out of the experience.

Then, I got rejected from the College Scholar Program and considered transferring because Cornell shits on theatre, and Cornell Theatre shits on musicals, so I just felt like shit. But then my friends were like “NO, DON’T GO! DO ANOTHER SHOW AT RISLEY!” And then I did, and it sold out, and the rest (as they say) is history.

My junior year, musicals were suddenly a thing, and there were like three happening at once. It was madness!

A: Larry, what struck you about the theatre community at Cornell when you got here as a freshman?

L: What was instantly shocking about theatre at Cornell was the amount of funding available for student work, at any level, even for a first-semester freshman. I was able to mount a production of [a Shakespeare play] that cost over 2,000 dollars without much trouble at all. At a more traditional Conservatory or BFA program, a young director’s highest aspiration might be a 50 dollar Black Box production in his or her senior year.

[In regards to the community itself,] back when I entered Cornell in 2010, the theatre community was very distinctly divided into the pre-professional Schwartz community (the serious Theatre students) and the amateur, extra-curricular Risley community. Overlap between those communities was encouraged but uncommon, and casting was a bloodbath at the Schwartz, where the professionalism was truly impressive. As the Department underwent changes, it had to draw very consciously from the “extra-curricular” crowd for its productions and started making efforts to appear less intimidating. Now there is almost no divide, for better or for worse.

There was a clear progression of classes to take at the Schwartz, and it was much harder to jump into the flow at any random time in your Cornell career. Freshmen could get cast in a main stage in small roles, as the Schwartz was still producing shows with casts upwards of 30 actors. I was cast as Si Crowell and Dead Man #2 in the Schwartz production of Our Town, and that was a huge privilege and source of excitement. There wasn’t such a diva mentality as we now find because it was understood that you had to work your way into the meaty roles. A huge source of pride for me was that I was one of three actors called back for the lead role of George Gibbs, which went to an extremely talented Junior, rightfully so.

I think we’ve lost a lot of the apprenticeship nature of the theatre industry.

A: Interesting. So why did people start going to Risley to do shows?

L: Risley started gaining momentum partially because of the 1.5 million dollar budget cuts from the Department of Theatre, Film and Dance, which meant there was significantly less work happening in the Schwartz, but also because of a few young directors and designers that started mounting larger, more fully-produced productions at Risley, bringing the skills and professionalism they were gaining from work at the Schwartz up to North Campus.

A: David, thoughts?

D: You want to know the truth about the theatre culture at Cornell?

I think it’s the only university theatre scene where, in my opinion, its greatest successes have come from working in adverse to the very department that teaches it.

I don’t know if Larry would agree, but I think that the single most driving force behind every successful theatre artist at Cornell has been trying to overcome the profound incapability of the department. Whether the university or the department are to blame for that is really up for debate, but I’m pretty sure that Theatre is the only academic discipline at Cornell where those in the know will sooner look to students for leadership and guidance than faculty. There are some exceptions, I think. I have a lot of respect for Bruce [Levitt], Ed [Intemann], Kent [Goetz], and the other designers.

However, several other faculty members simply don’t believe in the capability and drive of their students. [One professor] pretty much laughed in my face and told me I clearly had no idea what I was doing when I informed her of my plans to write a two act musical. And I don’t think she ever apologized for her sarcastic email, even after I won awards [for it] and she saw the production.

Now, the flipside of all of this is that my musical did happen, was successful and I do technically have the Schwartz to thank for it.

THE DOUBLE-MAJOR-NO-MORE

Next, I spoke to Peaches, a fellow junior PMA major, about her theatre experience at Cornell. I interviewed her at a cast party for a production she was involved in, and she was glad to respond, Blink-182 blaring in the background the entire time.

Anna: So, Peaches, what can you tell me about your theatre experience here at Cornell?

Peaches: Well, the thing that I didn’t expect is I came here double majoring in biology and PMA, [and now that I’m here, I know that I have to do theatre for the rest of my life.] See, biology and theatre was the double major I decided on when I was 13 years old. I was like, “You know? I really want to be an actor, I really hope that it happens, but if it doesn’t, I really hope that I have something else.”

And then I came here, and I met so many amazing people who have changed my life — cast members and student directors, but also faculty — and I realized that I could never be happy as a biologist; that my passion is theatre, and that I have to do it.

And I think I learned that because I did a lot of things beyond the theatre community — I never lived in Risley, I met so many other people who do so many other things — and it really made me decide that theatre is where my heart is. And I’m really glad, in fact, that I came to Cornell for theatre, as opposed to a conservatory, because we get a really good academic experience, and we get to experience so many different things, and we have to read so many different things and meet so many different people who are into so many different things — and, well, it’s made me so well-rounded as a human being. It’s given me the experience to know that I want to do theatre for the rest of my life.

And it’s also given me enough experience to help me be a better actor. To know and hear so many different stories, and meet so many different people, and hear so many different things. It’s just an amazing experience, and so I think that, the theatre community at Cornell is really — they’re all really wonderful people, and they’ve helped me become really well-rounded.

THE ACTOR OF COLOR

I ran into Laura at dinner one evening and overheard her discussing the difficulties of being an actor of color at Cornell. It seemed that her experience was drastically different from many of my other friends’ and so, I set out to interview her about what the theatre scene here is like from her perspective.

Anna: Did you always know you were going to major in PMA when you got to Cornell? And, if so, why did you choose Cornell?

 Laura: Yeah, I knew that I would do PMA when I got here, but I’d also planned on double majoring in Bio. I made this deal with my parents that I would look for schools that had strong science and performing arts departments with good connections with alumni.

A: Cool. In your opinion, what do you think is the PMA Department’s biggest issue?

L: There is an obvious lack of opportunities for students of color in this department. It is true that the sizes of the shows, a result of budget cuts, plays into this, but that is not as pressing as the fact that the shows chosen are not those traditionally played by a diverse cast. The students see this and are either discouraged to the point of not auditioning at all, leading to the department thinking that they don’t have the students to produce a diverse show, or they audition for shows not traditionally cast diversely (e.g. The Glass Menagerie) and don’t even make it to callbacks. This leads to these same students feeling as though there is not room for them in the major to gain experience in performance and deciding to change majors. It also does not seem as though the department, upon being notified of losing students, is fazed at all.

A: I see. And how would you describe theatre culture / the theatre community here at Cornell?

L: Small, limited, basically a clique, which only worsens the aforementioned issues.

[But, in regards to things I do like about the community here], mainly within Risley theatre, I have been part of productions in which the cast is open and accepting of new talent as well as returning friends, which helps to form strong communities and lasting relationships.

[Something I dislike, though, is the sense of] returning talent being so set in their ways and those who they normally work with refusing to fully or genuinely welcome new talent.

After talking to Laura, I couldn’t help but wonder what Larry, who was, perhaps, the most involved in the department out of us all, would have to say about her allegations of the lack of opportunities for students of color. When I brought the issue up with him, he essentially said that while he understood Laura’s concern, one also must remember that both the Schwartz and Risley had attempted very diverse plays in the past — plays, such as A Raisin in the Sun, that required students of color — and that those shows had difficulty finding enough people to audition and, thus, ended up either pulling from Ithaca College’s students or simply getting cancelled altogether (as was the case with Risley’s Raisin). Furthermore, he continued, the same director who’s doing Menagerie this year did the same play in the early ’90s and casted a black Amanda; so, clearly, while this director was responding to the feel of his auditionees when considering them for a callback (to cast, say, Laura from Menagerie, one would have to be vulnerable, yet mature — so you wouldn’t want to call back an actor that exuded strength for the role), and this feel would inevitably play into an actor’s visual aesthetic, it didn’t (directly) have to do with their race (although race does play a role in one’s aesthetic, yada yada yada). Finally, although this year’s Schwartz Center season does not include any shows with a specifically black cast (or a specifically Asian cast, or a cast specifically of any demographic, really, besides Menagerie, which is a classic and is, yes, typically played by white people), it does include shows that are extremely open-ended in regards to casting: one could do almost anything with Blood Wedding depending on one’s “take” on and vision for the piece; the same could be said of Paula Vogel’s Mineola Twins, produced in October of this season, which was just so damn bizarre and impossible to play in a college setting that one must be experimental with the piece. And, while Menagerie has a cast of only four people and Mineola only really needs three (although the Schwartz production had many more), big-cast shows like Blood Wedding provide a chance for more people — and, ideally, more people who are younger or don’t typically get cast — to gain experience and get the performance opportunity they crave. Thus, while he understood Laura’s concern, he thought it somewhat uninformed: There were, in fact, opportunities for students of all races (although it was difficult; yes, the theatre establishment traditionally does cater to white people; and no, there aren’t ever enough roles to go around), but, beyond this, getting cast isn’t a right but both a privilege and a stroke of luck. You can be the most talented actor in the world, but if you aren’t right for the part or the production, then you’re not going to make the cut; and the only way to prepare students for the real world of theatre and casting — the real, crazy world — is to cultivate that understanding.

When I brought Larry’s comments about Laura’s comments up with another friend of mine, Lily (who was not interviewed for this article, but is a fellow PMA major with feet in both the theatre and film sides of the department), she, in turn, said that while she understood Larry’s argument, she still did think Laura was right, and that there aren’t enough opportunities or open-mindedness in regards to casting in the department, and —

I could go on forever.

The bottom line is, theatre at Cornell is complicated, and while it can be angering or annoying or downright terrifying, it also can be really rewarding. It is the downfall of our social lives as well as its savior. It gives us a tight-knit group of friends, but also quarters us off from the rest of campus — even, in some cases, from friends and fellow theatre geeks who simply aren’t in the same production as we are. And, yeah, theatre and theatre culture here has its problems. Sure. But when I look back on my college experience, I know that I won’t really be thinking about how little sleep I got, or how much we drank or even how awful the weather was. I’ll be thinking about the shows. I’ll be thinking about the people.

[1] All names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees. Also because pseudonyms are fun.

[2] The Schwartz Center has, in recent memory, tended to stay away from musicals — especially since the budget cuts. Adding Machine was a rarity.

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