A Call for Action
In 2020, students and faculty grappled with an unprecedented confluence of forces that included COVID-19’s profound impact on the performing arts and the social upheaval centered on issues of systemic racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd. Given this background and their own sense of disenfranchisement in institutional decision-making, theatre students at the University of Michigan (U-M) went on strike and provided a list of demands that centered wellness, Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) representation in the curriculum, and a student voice in season selection. Students continue to make parallel demands in theatre departments all over the country.
That fall, U-M faculty convened to address core pandemic-specific issues and state an intention for long-term, sustainable accountability within the department that would lead to measurable outcomes to correct these inequities. One key through line that continues to resonate is how to involve students in the season selection process. How can the department develop a mechanism amplifying student voices and addressing their concerns?
The Challenge of Many Stakeholders
While brainstorming ways to disrupt these antiquated systems, we first had to acknowledge that there are a wide range of opinions, perspectives, and goals. The Department of Theatre and Drama at U-M is the home for nearly two hundred undergraduate students across three different degree programs, multiple concentrations, and additional academic minors. Historically, Theatre and Drama presents four or five fully produced shows annually. As we move forward fostering student agency in the selection process and cultivating greater transparency with the whole community, it is important to acknowledge possible pinch points:
- What are the learning goals of these production experiences for the different constituencies?
- What are the benefits and challenges of large-cast shows and small-cast shows?
- If participation in curricular productions is a degree requirement, are there enough opportunities?
- There are students who explicitly want roles aligned with their identity, and there are students who do not. Students have shared fears of feeling “pigeon-holed” into a role based on identity.
While recognizing where there might be tension, we worked as a departmental community to define what makes a balanced and robust season. Students in the class and faculty members considered:
- How do we ensure there is something for everyone over the course of the year while recognizing that not every show will satisfy everyone?
- How do we think holistically about what kinds of support must be in place to approach challenging topics and culturally sensitive themes?
- How do we prioritize uplifting historically underrepresented writers while acknowledging possible casting challenges and traumatic stories?
- Training programs must work to expand and disrupt the canon while meeting the learning outcomes of the program.
How can the department develop a mechanism amplifying student voices and addressing their concerns?
Past Attempts to Broaden the Conversation
Pre-pandemic, most of the plays were typically selected by faculty directors. While there was a community proposal form, students rarely used it, as the form required deep knowledge of the piece, the production requirements, and a substantial time commitment to complete. The chair of the department synthesized proposed titles, engaged guest directors, and worked to ensure the season had balance and met the pedagogical goals over a four-year cycle. During her eleven-year tenure as chair, our previous departmental chair, Priscilla Lindsay, worked with a transparency not typically seen to that point, as she maintained a whiteboard of suggestions for the whole department to see as she mapped a two- to three-year plan.
In March of 2021, the chair convened a student and faculty season selection committee to determine the 2021-2022 season. While the goal of including student voices in the conversation was met, this process revealed many challenges. One of the challenges was simply finding a common meeting time. Another challenge was capacity: reading plays takes time, and more opinions meant more plays to read. No one had the bandwidth to read everything under consideration. There was a lot of “no” and not enough context. With the end of the term looming, we needed clarity around the scope of productions. To meet deadlines to secure rights, faculty took the students’ feedback to date and decided on the season for the following academic year. The students’ frustration over those choices wasn’t entirely because of the pieces selected, but rather with the rush to make decisions. Directors needed to state why each title was important pedagogically, why they, as theatre artists, wanted to tell these stories, and answer the question, “Why this play, and why now?” Eventually, as auditions neared, each director worked to state that why. Once students understood they were heard, change was happening, and accountability could be tracked, they became invested.
Developing a Season Selection Advisory Course
The theme we continue to return to is “transparency.” Last year, as interim chair of the department, I fostered greater transparency while responding to the challenges of time and capacity by piloting a one credit Season Selection Advisory course. We had recently restructured our departmental class schedule to create a common meeting time. Therefore, offering the course during a common hour ensured any student could be available to take the class and any faculty member could participate in the process. As a credit-bearing course, the Season Selection Advisory course required students to commit to one hour of in-class time for brainstorming and discussions and two hours outside of class for activities like reading one play per week, researching an overview of a body of work, and participating in short written reflections. Another advantage to framing this work as a course is utilizing Canvas, U-M’s learning management system (LMS). This LMS infrastructure facilitated organizing resources, linking to the library system, sharing scripts, and developing asynchronous discussion boards.
This faculty facilitator must be able to cultivate trust with students as the students act as ambassadors to the rest of the student body.
When I first taught this course during the second term beginning in January 2022, we quickly discovered that it was offered too late in the academic year! Fortunately, the ten students involved in the pilot understood the dual purpose of considering the 2022-2023 season while we developed and tuned the process for doing so. In addition to determining the plays, we strove to create a sustainable template for future iterations of the course. One key element was a list of community guidelines that we co-created on the first day of class, which we revisited throughout the term. These guidelines provided a frame to ensure every class member was heard, and they encouraged each of us to practice communication tools such as “speaking in draft” and “speaking from the ‘I.’” Another consideration in implementing a course like this is determining who teaches it. I assumed this role as interim chair with the privilege of tenure, and I continued this year as our new chair is onboarding. I can imagine that if a theatre department feels fraught or politicized, the person who convenes a course like this should be chosen with care. They should be as neutral a party as possible, perhaps the chair or a dramaturg, and someone who understands the production resources of their institution well. This faculty facilitator must be able to cultivate trust with students as the students act as ambassadors to the rest of the student body.
During our weekly meeting time we hosted several guests: faculty who would likely direct the following year; the director of our production facilities and staff, who shared some of the logistics; and artistic leadership from a professional theatre company who shared their process for developing a season. Some faculty directors proposed specific titles to consider, as did the wider community through a new survey, and every week groups of three or four students would read one of three plays. After listening and gathering information during the first half of the semester, the second half focused on discussing each title and researching others that met the stated themes. Titles that were under serious consideration would be read by more class members. I tracked titles and who read what through a simple, live spreadsheet linked to Canvas.