With calls for anti-racist restructuring, Whitman’s theatre department looks inward

Lena Friedman, Staff Reporter

Over the summer, in response to safety and racial equity concerns raised by members of Whitman’s theater community, the college’s theater department canceled its fall season of virtual productions. Now, the department is undergoing a structural review process, which includes reassessing the curriculum and production decisions going forward. 

Chair of the Department of Theater and Dance Laura Hope says that the ongoing state of the pandemic has also factored into the review, and spring semester productions have now been canceled as well. 

“No decision has been made about the 2021-2022 season of productions,” Hope said in an email to The Wire. “This work is a process, and I don’t expect to have answers about what production will look like for Fall 2021 and Spring 2022 until some time in Spring of 2021.” 

At the end of August, multiple Whitman students sent department-wide emails to share their lived experiences with racism in the department, such as encountering racial microaggressions, not being afforded the same career development opportunities as their white peers and being limited to certain acting roles. 

Meanwhile, over the summer, Whitman’s Drama Club Officers (DCOs) had been compiling a comprehensive document with regard to broader safety and racial equity concerns. 

“The work that was done over the summer to create that document was really, first and foremost, a response to the George Floyd protests,” the Drama Club’s Student Theater Coordinator Grace Sanwald said. 

The document calls for safer communication between students and faculty regarding health and identity, with a particular focus on the experiences of BIPOC members of the community. It suggests a wide array of solutions, from requiring professional intimacy directors and fight choreographers during productions, to employing a “color-conscious model” when casting and selecting productions and choosing at least one play a year written by a BIPOC playwright. 

“[The murder of George Floyd] sparked a lot of outrage, rightfully, and then also started working its way into schools and job environments and things like that,” Drama Club Historian Jay Tyson said. “I think we collectively just realized that some safety things had to be addressed and we could be doing a lot more in terms of anti-racism in our department.”

Shortly after the emails and the document went public, the department halted all fall productions, including the fall festival and Concord Floral virtual performances, with the exception of September’s Dance Studio Series. This decision was part of an immediate “preliminary action plan,” which announced anti-racist training workshops for faculty, staff and students, a curricular review and a re-evaluation of student recruitment and scholarship decisions. 

Two forums have been held so far. One was open to faculty, staff and students and was mediated by Associate Dean of Health and Wellness Dr. Rae Chresfield, and the other was an all-student discussion led by Drama Club leaders.

“It’s not just anti-racist work that needs to be happening in the department, it’s also their process for producing plays,” Sanwald said. “There’s been some conflict over that in the past, and so, they want to really start over and find something that is healthy and safe and equitable for all students.”

Hope says that the faculty have been meeting on a weekly basis, engaging with Dr. Chresfield and students and also spending time planning future workshops and events against the backdrop of the ongoing pandemic. 

“The performing arts have been hit hard by the pandemic, and the results have been devastating on many levels,” Hope said. “We are in the process of revamping how we look at the season and what we produce; however, our first obligation remains the safety and well-being of the community.”

The Drama Club, which mainly focuses on event planning, is also looking restructure its functioning, leadership roles and responsibilities. One section of the document that DCOs compiled calls for diversity and representation in the club, expanding the number of leadership positions and working to “amplify” BIPOC nominees during elections. 

“We need to be doing more in every respect and that also could be acting more as liaisons for students and providing a safe space for them, and generally doing more outreach and amplification when it comes to things like student theatre and working with people who are interested in the department as majors or non-majors,” Tyson said.