During the fall and spring 2020 semesters, the Department of Theater Arts at SUNY New Paltz has three wishes: to ensure the safety and health of students and the public, to provide rich educational experiences for students, and to support the theme of social justice through action. In these tumultuous times, none of these wishes are easily granted, let alone granted simultaneously. However, the department is prepared and eager to fully realize each objective.
On September 12, the Theater Arts Department will produce Tori Sampson’s “Cadillac Crew,” the first of ten planned staged readings. The performance will be streamed live, but this is not necessarily the case for every show in the lineup.
“We are still entering [in with] the idea that we hope to bring these readings on stage at McKenna [theater] with a socially distanced live audience,” said Ken Goldstein, professor of design and director of the Department of Theater Arts. “But with that first reading, by the time we had to make the decision, there wasn’t enough information for us to feel like it was a safe and healthy choice to do it in theater.”
“Health and safety issues are absolutely paramount,” he continued.
Whether or not the staged readings are live and in-person or live and virtual, the department is confident that students of all theater concentrations will benefit from an in-depth and exciting educational experience, despite the mitigation measures of the COVID-19.
“In a profession where, for early-career artists, we as faculty members try to get our students to think outside the box; now there is no box,” said Catherine Doherty, performance concentration lead and theater arts teacher. “It forces our imagination in a way it has never been exercised before.”
COVID-19 restrictions aren’t the only challenge students will face academically. The compilation of projects consists almost entirely of new works that have never been staged before, requiring students to conceptualize each reading without the aid of past productions from different theaters. The focus on premiere work stems from the department’s focus on human rights.
“The Department of Theater Arts at SUNY New Paltz is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. But too often these words are hollow. Matching words with deeds is crucial, now more than ever,” read a statement on the ministry’s website.
“In the types of projects that we have decided to do, [there is] a concerted effort to focus on issues of social justice, or a concerted effort to examine playwrights whose voices may be marginalized,” Doherty said.
The goal in elevating these marginalized voices is to bring their stories to life as accurately as possible. This will include bringing in an “outside” actor to accurately portray a transgender male grandparent.
“We decided that if there was a specific enough role that one of our students couldn’t fill that role, we would bring an outside actor into the program,” Doherty said.
Parker Howland, a second-year drama major, completed a reading of “Henry IV” in the fall 2019 semester. The reading was selected from the “Play On! Shakespeare” project created by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in which plays have been adapted to modern language to make Shakespeare more accessible to all audiences. This fall there will be a “Play On!” reading of “Two Gentlemen of Verona”.
“I feel like I grew as a performer and a person during the week-long rehearsal process. [for Henry IV] than me during my seven years as an actor. This is due to the fast-paced nature of the rehearsal process and the experience and opinions shared with me by an outside director,” Howland said. “We were allowed and encouraged to make mistakes and learn from them quickly with the comfort of knowing we were among other artists who were also learning.”
So far, students like Howland are responding well to changes made by the department to accommodate our current situation.
“They keep the authenticity of [theatre] rather than filming scenes and putting it all together,” Howland said. “They always keep it very raw.”
Regarding the choice of readings for this season, the feedback is positive.
“They chose the shows based on what’s going on in the world. They are [doing the best] they can stand up and meet these issues and discuss these issues in an appropriate forum: the theatre, which is supposed to shed light on issues that are not talked about much. That’s the point,” Howland said.
“It is difficult to sum up our commitment. It’s important, but fundamentally it’s our responsibility in theater and it’s our responsibility in higher education to care about our students and our community,” Goldstein said. “I think we’re doing our best to respond in a way that increases voice representation and story representation.”
To book “Cadillac Crew” tickets and see titles for the 2020-21 season, visit newpaltz.edu/fpa/theatre. All performances are free and open to the public, with the option of donating to the program.