Arts & Events

A Commitment to Collaboration: The Common Goal of The Theater Department

"Measure for Measure" cast warm-up. Photo Credit: Caitlin Yoder // The Trail

By Caitlin Yoder

  Collaborative. Engaged. Imaginative. Informed. These four words are the core values of the theater department, and have been as long as Professor Sara Freeman, the director of the current spring production “Measure for Measure,” can remember. Even before they were officially part of the syllabi, the staff based all teachings around these values. Now, they have become integrated into all the department does. Jess Smith, the department chair, emphasized that while they’re all essential values, collaboration is the backbone of everything they do, bringing the other three together. Theater major Alice Noble (‘24) reaffirmed this emphasis on collaboration, mentioning it unprompted. “There’s a big emphasis amongst faculty, but also really student-driven inclusion. People are really focused on making sure that everyone who’s in a cast feels included,” she said. 

  This is Professor Smith’s 11th year as University faculty and she has been working towards fostering a healthy and collaborative environment within the department since she arrived. “You can’t do theater without deep, deep collaboration, for better or for worse. And so it’s a core value for us, so I’m so happy to know that our practices feel like they are in alignment with those values.” According to Smith, the aforementioned core values “are the qualities that we hope our students demonstrate, and they are also the qualities that we really tried to infuse all of our classes and practices with. So that became a mission for us probably a decade ago.” Since then, she has diligently taught those values to all faculty and students in the hopes that they will adopt them into their own mindsets and practices, even outside their pursuit of theater studies. “It is so fascinating to me how students define for themselves what they mean by collaborative, imaginative, informed and engaged,” Smith remarked. She went on to loosely define those four terms, emphasizing that the definitions are not meant to be restrictive but rather to guide students to learn in a productive, healthy, and enjoyable manner. 

  Smith’s definition of engagement was “pushing myself to show up beyond the one way that I know that I’m good at, but instead choosing to risk comfort for bravery and for growth,” and also being engaged not just in production, but also the “work of being an artist.” She continued that being “informed is about choosing to increase my knowledge and my breadth of knowledge and my depth of knowledge.” Being imaginative is about “the risk and reward of stepping beyond your comfort zone” and having “bravery of experimentation,” she said. Smith concluded her definitions with the sentiment that collaboration brings the whole department together. Classrooms, productions, crews – they are all places where students practice it. She continued by saying even her own teaching is collaborative; she’s not a professor who lectures the class for 80 minutes, because, as she puts it, “my skills are not about transmitting knowledge, they are about sharing knowledge.” To her, teaching should not be a hierarchical structure of knowledge, but a shared experience of learning from one another.

  The ability to demonstrate these values depends heavily on an understanding of boundaries: knowing your own, advocating for them, and learning and honoring others’. That’s why the department has heavily adopted boundary work through practices like intimacy workshops and community check-ins.

  “Honestly, I think COVID sort of encouraged this practice for us,” Smith stated, referring to the check-ins. “We were trying to navigate different conditions all the time,” and the best way to do that was through regular check-ins. But it became so much bigger than a COVID practice. Smith continued, stating that the practice became an important space to see the different needs of the community, and take a moment to address them. Quoting the common theater mantra: “The show must go on!” But Smith says, “that mantra is bullshit.” She continues, “Yes, we have a lot of work to do, and we gotta get this show up. And also, we have time to stop and check to see how things are actually going and make adjustments if we need to make adjustments.” Check-ins created a space where students felt comfortable and empowered, rather than feeling like they had to work themselves into the ground without complaint. This honest communication is one of many things that has contributed to a healthier environment for everyone involved in the department.

  Intimacy workshops offer another channel for actors to establish these boundaries while performing acts that can be both physically and emotionally intimate. In the context of “Measure for Measure,” a play where there are emotionally heavy topics rather than physical intimacy, the intimacy workshop and practices took a slightly different form. 

  “The content of ‘Measure for Measure’ is edgy, but it doesn’t require enacting the difficult stuff on stage,” Professor Freeman said, “so it’s a little bit different on the front of intimacy processes.” While the actors don’t necessarily depict physical issues, they “have to deal with content that’s talking about big life or death issues, big bodily autonomy issues, and big coercion/manipulation issues.” That’s made the process of stepping in and out of a role very important. This process lets everyone “let go of certain things in our daily lives and personal lives for the space of the work, and then we can pick them back up when we’re done,” Freeman said. Professor Smith agreed that stepping into one’s role in a safe and healthy manner is a huge priority. “We endorse being a full human being, and then stepping in a role and being really smart and healthy about how we separate those two things,” Smith said. Noble reiterated this sentiment from a student perspective. The “ritual,” as she put it, allows everyone to say, “‘I’m gonna take this on, and now I’m gonna let it go and go be my own person.’”

  According to Noble, these practices resonate strongly with the theater department’s students. As the cast representative for “Measure for Measure,” she acts as an intermediary between the production team and faculty in order to create a more private mode of communication. Through this position, she has both witnessed and experienced firsthand the positive effects of these procedures. “I feel like I have the tools now to know what my boundaries are,” she remarked. “It’s tricky to know how to say,‘I need to stop what we’re doing’ or ‘I need to do something different’ if you’ve never been put in a position where you get to practice that,” she said.

  Noble mentioned that they set some ground rules early on, especially in terms of language usage. Not only did that allow her and others to feel comfortable stopping and voicing their concerns, but it also helped avoid saying anything potentially triggering, especially in a play with such difficult material. “They’ve done a really good job of navigating that content safely,” Noble said.

  Ultimately, she is very grateful for the theater department and feels that it’s “really refreshing to be a part of” a community that so deeply values collaboration and respect. Even from an outsider perspective, it’s clear that this department has cultivated a community full of mutual respect and well-established values.