In the fall and spring semesters of 2020, the Theater Arts Department at SUNY New Paltz has three wishes: Keep students and audiences safe and healthy, provide rich educational experiences for students and back the theme of social justice with action. In this tumultuous time, none of these wishes are easily granted — let alone granted simultaneously. However, the department is prepared and eager to fully realize each goal.
On Sept. 12, the Theater Arts department will produce “Cadillac Crew” by Tori Sampson, the first of ten planned staged readings. The performance will be live-streamed, but that is not necessarily the case for each show in the line-up.
“We are still entering [in with] the idea that we hope to bring these readings to the stage in McKenna [theater] with a socially distanced, live audience,” said Professor of Design and Chair of the Department of Theater Arts, Ken Goldstein. “But with this first reading, at the time we had to make the decision, there was not enough information for us to feel that it was a safe and healthy choice to make it into the theater.”
“Health and safety issues are absolutely first and foremost,” he continued.
Regardless of whether or not the staged readings are live and in-person or live and virtual, the department is confident that students of all theatre concentrations will be receiving an in-depth and exciting educational experience, despite COVID-19 mitigations.
“In a profession where, for early career artists, we as faculty members try to get our students to think outside the box; now there is no box,” said Head of the performance concentration and Professor of theatre arts, Catherine Doherty. “This is forcing our imaginations in a way that they have not been exercised before.”
COVID-19 restrictions are not the only challenge students will face academically. The compilation of projects almost completely consists of new work that has never been staged before, forcing students to conceptualize each reading without the help of past productions from different theaters. The emphasis on premiere work stems from the department’s emphasis on human rights.
“The Department of Theater Arts at SUNY New Paltz is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion. But too often, these words are hollow. Backing up words with action is crucial, now more than ever,” read a statement on the department’s website.
“In the types of projects we’ve decided to do, [there is] a concerted effort to focus on social justice issues, or a concerted effort to look at playwrights whose voices may be marginalized,” Doherty said.
The goal, in lifting these marginalized voices, is to breathe life into their stories in the most accurate ways possible. This will include bringing in an “outside” actor to accurately portray a transgender male grandparent.
“We decided that if there was a role that was specific enough that one of our students couldn’t fulfill that role, that we would bring in an outside actor into the program,” Doherty said.
Second-year theater performance major Parker Howland completed a reading of “Henry IV” in the fall semester of 2019. The reading was selected from the “Play On! Shakespeare” project created by the Oregon Shakespeare festival, in which the plays were adapted to modern language to make Shakespeare more accessible to any audience. This fall there will be a “Play On!” reading of “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
“I feel that I grew more as a performer and person during the one week rehearsal process [for Henry IV] than I have during my seven years as an actor. This is due to the fast paced nature of the rehearsal process and the experience and views shared with me from an outside director,” Howland said. “We were allowed and encouraged to make mistakes and learn from them quickly with the comfort of knowing that we were amongst other performers who were also learning.”
So far, students like Howland are responding well to the changes the department has made in order to adapt to our current situation
“They’re keeping the authenticity of [theatre] rather than filming scenes and putting it all together,” Howland said. “They’re still keeping it very raw.”
Regarding the choice of this season’s readings, the feedback is positive.
“They picked the shows appropriately to what is happening in the world. They’re [doing the best] they can to rise and meet those problems and discuss those problems in an appropriate forum: theatre, which is supposed to be bringing light to issues that aren’t talked about much. That’s the point,” Howland said.
“It’s hard to summarize our commitment. It’s significant, but fundamentally, it’s our responsibility in theatre and it’s our responsibility in higher education to pay attention to our students and our community,” Goldstein said. “I think we’re doing the best we can to respond in a way that increases representation of voice and representation of story.”
To reserve tickets for “Cadillac Crew” and view the 2020-21 season’s titles, visit newpaltz.edu/fpa/theatre. All performances are free and open to the public, with the option to donate to the program.