These Acting Schools Got Called Out by Their Students—Here’s How They Changed Their Programs

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“A white professor said the n-word to a group of white students, and no one said a word; no one reported it.” “I was told [that] I passed the paper bag test and that [it] was a good thing.” These are some of the experiences former students of Syracuse University’s Department of Drama had with faculty while they were studying there. They were included in a letter from students and alumni of the program that was sent to the department last summer, as the theater industry and the nation at large were grappling with how to address systemic racism. The letter had 490 signatures.

In it, the students described feeling traumatized by the program. They also included a number of demands, among them “an anti-racist curriculum and syllabus review system” and “a wider selection of scenes written by BIPOC playwrights.” 

And SU is not alone. Around the country, universities are examining the ways their own programs have upheld white supremacy, either through the plays and playwrights they choose to teach in class, or by sidelining or stereotyping BIPOC students. At Cornell, one student wrote about “yellowface and appropriation of Nigerian (Igbo) culture in a production of [Eric Overmyer’s] ‘On the Verge’ and casting the only students of color in the show as savages.” 

From creating new curriculums to letting students choose departmental productions, acting and drama departments around the country are trying to better serve the needs of an increasingly diverse student body.

“There are a number of ways in which academic systems are structured to support systemic racism and white supremacy—that’s a given.”

Ralph Zito

chair of the Department of Drama, Syracuse University

“There are a number of ways in which academic systems are structured to support systemic racism and white supremacy—that’s a given,” says Ralph Zito, chair of the drama department at Syracuse. Zito is on research leave until 2022, but he’s leading the restructuring of the drama department to best meet the students’ demands. 

Some of these changes are more long-term, but, says Zito, “It has been our hope to institute as many immediate changes as we possibly [can], from the time we received the call to action.” 

How Universities Are Changing Their Curricula
The base of any acting training is the curriculum—and the professors who spoke for this story agreed that their current curricula are overly focused on the Western canon, particularly on white playwrights. It’s something that director Tamilla Woodard, who was just appointed as chair of the acting department at the Yale School of Drama, has been thinking about a lot.

“Part of the training that is offered in most of our top schools, to learn how to act on a graduate level, is about learning how to play an objective or intention,” she says. “The characters that you’re often asked to occupy are [from] Ibsen, Strindberg, Mamet. For some reason, we think that these identities are easy to occupy for everybody—that everybody can find their way into Nora [Helmer, of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’], no matter what their cultural background is, and so we center these characters or these kinds of stories as accessible to all people. That is essentially white supremacy culture—[assuming] everybody can find their way into this. And that is simply not true.” 

It’s early days for Woodard, but she’s been asking herself, “How do we provide a variety of entry points for folks when they’re learning the basics of how to occupy a role, or how to activate their imagination?”

Carolyn Jane Goelzer, an acting professor at Cornell University, says she completely overhauled the Introduction to Acting course she teaches. This was part of the university’s response to a letter published on Medium last year by actor and Cornell alumnus Chisom Awachie, who detailed the racist incidents she experienced while at the university.

Goelzer admits that, prior to the changes, the acting course was predominantly filled with the works of white male playwrights. So for the 2020–21 academic year, students who took the Intro to Acting course studied plays by Lynn Nottage, Dominique Morisseau, Christopher Chen, and Martyna Majok—a syllabus predominantly made up of playwrights of color. 

“We wanted to be sure that our students, who are from more and more diverse populations, were given a chance to read plays that might have more personal and cultural resonance for them, even in this very limited roster of plays that we were covering,” says Goelzer.

Cornell also expanded the acting pedagogies that it was teaching students, incorporating Sharrell D. Luckett and Tia M. Shaffer’s “Black Acting Methods” into the curriculum.

As Goelzer notes, “I like the discussion that they have with those of us who are teaching acting that help us understand the biases that have really influenced our teachings and really invite us to look at other ways of making work.” 

How Universities Are Expanding Their Faculties 
Another criticism of the current academic landscape is the lack of diversity among faculty, which leads to more instances of microaggressions or overtly derogatory comments to students. Last year, alumni of Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts acting program sent a letter to the school’s faculty pointing out that there was only one Black instructor in the program, in contrast to 22 white instructors. The students also said they were assigned scenes by white playwrights 95% of the time, and white playwrights were produced 93% of the time.

“We’re less text-based in our acting practice in the classroom than we were before. We’re working a lot more with imaginative speculation, with bringing one’s own personal perspective and experience into creating story, and different ways of thinking about how structures affect story.”

Carolyn Jane Goelzer

acting professor, Cornell University

In response, Mason Gross hired a new head of acting, Cameron Knight. According to Barbara Marchant, the outgoing head, the school now has a faculty committee on equity, diversity, and inclusion. “This committee has requested that every faculty member perform a comprehensive review of syllabi for every class they have taught over the past two years to work toward ensuring that these courses are representative and affirmative of our students’ multifaceted identities,” she wrote in an email to Backstage.

Similarly, Cornell’s Performing and Media Arts department faculty is all white, so in the current school year, there has been a series of diversity trainings and conversations with the faculty. Students have also been encouraged to provide feedback.

Says Goelzer, “We had a whole series of events last fall where we brought in professional facilitators to help us address racism in our departments. Those were some very hard conversations. We’re beginning to open up those conversations. It’s not easy work.”

At Syracuse University, one of the demands students had was for a more diverse faculty in the Department of Drama, asking that it be comprised of at least 50% BIPOC members by 2025. 

Zito says that’s a tough order, because many of the current faculty in the department are tenured. But the department is conducting four searches for full-time faculty and is focusing on making sure the candidate pool is diverse. In the short term, the drama department has made sure that a majority of the guest artists hired in the 2020–21 academic school year are BIPOC artists. For instance, they brought in a Black instructor and an Asian American instructor to teach the acting students dialect work. The present faculty also took a “decolonizing your syllabus” workshop at the beginning of the school year, and there’s a faculty mandate to use “inclusive course materials.” 

But there’s still work to do, Zito says. “How might I, as a white faculty member teaching a scene study class, effectively guide students of color through a scene written by a playwright of color?” he wondered. “I think we have learning to do in actor training about that.”

In addition to mandating more diverse coursework and guest instructors, the Syracuse drama department also wants to create a more varied array of courses, including introducing a Black scene study class in the 2021–22 academic year. New courses can be created as elective offerings, although this approach is flawed in that it suggests that ethnically specific coursework is not essential. Zito wants to incorporate more diverse courses into the core departmental curriculum that students would be required to take in order to graduate. But that takes approval from the university. As he notes, “The academic system, as it’s set up, can be slow-moving.” 

That’s also the case for complaints students have made about problematic professors. The current university structure does not allow for the firing of faculty who consistently commit racist microaggressions, and any major offense has to be reported to and handled by the university. 

Zito admits that the department doesn’t have an answer for how to address those issues, but he says that one of his priorities is making sure that students who come to him with complaints feel heard.

“We’re just at the beginning at the department level of trying to figure out what we can do to get those systems to be more responsive in a way that resonates for the students’ lived experience,” he says. “Theater departments can be kind of closed loops—they can be tight-knit families that are either functional or dysfunctional, depending on which way the wind blows.”

Meanwhile, what Goelzer has been trying to do in her own classroom is to make sure that conversations around equity and diversity are integrated into the learning process, so that students are aware that they can come to her if they have issues.

“We make time in our own classroom to talk as directly as possible about the issues around inclusion and equity,” she says. “We try to hear from the students about what their struggles are, what their obstacles are, what you know, what is going on. How can we identify things that are problematic and make changes to create a better environment of belonging in the classroom and in all of the work that we do?”

How Universities Are Empowering Their Acting Students
It’s not just curriculum changes that students have been asking for. In the Syracuse University student letter, there were demands to abolish the phrase “colorblind casting” from department communications, and that “all graduating senior performance majors are given the opportunity to participate and have a voice in the creation, rehearsal process, and production of Showcase.” The university has met both of those demands. This year, the Showcase featured the entire graduating class. 

The programs featured in this story have also incorporated student input into their selection process for productions. According to Awachie’s Medium post, at Cornell, BIPOC students were cast in fewer productions than white students. Goelzer says that, previously, the Cornell production season was chosen by the faculty and overseen by guest directors. 

“For some reason, we think that these identities are easy to occupy for everybody—that everybody can find their way into Nora [Helmer, of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’], no matter what their cultural background is.... That is essentially white supremacy culture.”

Tamilla Woodard

chair of the Acting Department, Yale School of Drama

For the 2020–21 academic year, the department created a performance and events committee composed mostly of students, who helped choose the programming for the year. This led to a variety of work, from a student film about the COVID-19 pandemic to a production of “Pipeline” by Morisseau. There was also a reading of a play by Cornell senior Gloria Oladipo about campus sexual assault and racism.

Cornell also did away with auditions, instead having students submit proposals for what they want to make. “There’s more and more work being done by students, that’s student-driven,” says Goelzer. “This is also something that the students wanted.” 

Similarly, Mason Gross has created a Student Play Committee. As Marchant explains, “This committee provides the opportunity for students representing all programs in the major to nominate student representatives to participate, alongside faculty members, in curating the Rutgers Theater Company season, ensuring that the process is collective, collaborative, and informed by the interests and backgrounds of our student body.” Mason Gross has also created a BIPOC Student Union (its acting students this year are 50% BIPOC). The union recently led an anti-racism training session for the students, and that material will be adapted into a training session for faculty.

Programs have also started inviting students to bring more of their own personal experience into the classroom, so students can learn how different backgrounds affect the act of storytelling.

“We’re less text-based in our acting practice in the classroom than we were before,” says Goelzer. “We’re working a lot more with imaginative speculation, with bringing one’s own personal perspective and experience into creating story, and different ways of thinking about how structures affect story in that way. There’s a lot more autonomy on the part of students to author their own work experiences and to provide a unique perspective.”

For her part, Woodard sees this personal approach as the future of actor training, at least at Yale. “I’m curious what it means for us to think really carefully about who was invited in to study at this school and servicing their needs explicitly,” she says. “What does it mean for me to really, really teach the student in front of me, not to teach the Yale way? How do we respond to that very particular need of that artist?”

She, along with the other professors who spoke for this story, emphasized the need to train actors to not simply be empty vessels for someone else’s artistic vision, but to become active storytellers. For instance, during this academic year, when in-person productions weren’t possible, the program proved that it could pivot quickly and still provide students with a robust educational experience. The acting students, who could not as easily work across different departments on their productions, have started making their own work.

“In this last pandemic year, the actors became storytellers, the actors picked up digital devices, and they began to be the purveyors of their own story,” says Woodard. “Outside of the playwrights, outside of the directors, they became each other’s eyes, and saw that they were good at it.” She then adds, happily, “That’s what we want. I want Taylor Macs, Daniel Alexander Joneses,” referring to artists who are both actors and writers. “That’s what you want to send out into the world.” 

For his part, Zito has been grateful for the learning experience of the past year, and for what will be discovered as these conversations continue. For other acting schools looking to make a change, he advises reaching out to their alumni networks, who can give the most clear-eyed view about what is missing and what needs to be done.

“Early career alumni, particularly early career alumni of color, are an untapped resource for training programs,” he says. “They are close enough to their student experience to have a lived experience of what it is to be a student, but they are freed from the faculty-student power dynamic. This gives them a unique agency.” Speaking for himself, Zito adds, “I acknowledge the emotional labor of the work and the value of that perspective. And I’m grateful for it.”

This story originally appeared in the May 13 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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