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One Approach to Student Engagement in Educational Season Selection

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.

Two performers embrace onstage while another sits next to them and faces forward.

Clara Dossetter, Myles Mathews, Miles Ogron, Hadley Gorsline and Tatiana Cloobeck in Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow by Halley Feiffer at the University of Michigan at the Arthur Miller Theatre. Directed by Ryan Dobrin. Scenic Design by Jess Fialko. Costume Design by Matthew Eggers. Lighting Design by Abi Farnsworth. Sound Design by Henry Reynolds. Photo by Peter Smith.

Course Content

Given the course structure, students expected a certain level of required engagement and outside work. I developed simple rubrics so students understood those expectations transparently. In both iterations of the course, we began by reading several articles and sharing resources offering different perspectives on casting, identity, and new considerations for producing theatre in higher education. Of particular value were The Welcome Table Initiative and The Defense League Toolkit as springboards for conversation. I structured the Canvas site as an open-source, growing library. Modules were not sequential; rather they were organized by type of information. One module housed script-finding resources such as The Kilroys, Expand the Canon, and the BIPOC swap list, and included an open discussion board where students could add additional resources easily. Another module focused on our departmental community. During our pilot semester, students crafted a new, shorter survey that centered themes, priorities, experiences, and any concerns. There was an invitation and space to suggest specific titles, but the survey focused on broader goals.

Throughout the semester, students shared a short monthly journal entry with me that held space for their personal questions or any worries about the process, and they participated in quick, weekly discussion board prompts. These on-line discussions included, “What does a balanced season mean to you?” and “Were you surprised by any of the survey results?” Because we only met for fifty minutes in class each week, the discussion boards allowed students to prime those in-class meetings with an asynchronous sharing earlier in the week. In addition to the community survey, the end of term deliverable was a slideshow synthesizing their work.

The major shift in practice is that we are working from a list that has been curated by the students.

Because our department auditions each year’s fall shows in the previous spring, we felt very rushed to determine the season so that we could secure the rights. Because of the time crunch, we did not reveal the whole upcoming 2022-2023 season but added the last shows a few weeks later. For each production we shared:

  • Why this play? (A note from the director)
  • Considerations from Season Selection Advisory
  • Casting information
  • Production history
  • Explicit content warnings and show requirements.

This year, the course convened with a new group of students (except one who provided excellent continuity) in Fall 2022 to plan the academic year 2023-2024 season. During this next version of the course, students adjusted the survey questions to deepen the community’s engagement. An important addition to the process was that departmental faculty carved out ten minutes of class time for students to complete the survey, so the results were much more robust. The class summarized the results and shared them with the department later in the fall. Because we had more time, we adjusted the goal: in consideration of our venues and the directors, the class crafted a short list of twelve titles that we shared with the community in January with a link to provide any additional feedback. The slide show that accompanied this list has more breadth than the depth of the first one, but casting details and notes from the directors are being added as the final list is determined. Throughout the winter, the chair and faculty deeply considered the list and are now mindfully crafting the next season with an awareness of a two- to three-year plan. The major shift in practice is that we are working from a list that has been curated by the students. Though the course is not meeting this term, as decisions come into focus, I have communicated with the members of the class with updates, and the new chair, Tiffany Trent, has hosted listening sessions with the student body. We are poised to share next year’s shows!

At the beginning of the course last fall, I asked the students if any of them had been here for the student strike in 2020, and there were only two. I am grateful for their collective investment in this new process at it evolves, trust in the legacy they have inherited, and remain optimistic we have created a sustainable template for student agency in our season selection process.

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