By: Gavriel Guttman  | 

A Student’s Gripes On The Arts in YU

Liberal Arts

In choosing a college, I set my sights on YU, a place where I was destined to be Orthodox yet appreciative of secular studies. While my high school was not a place of literary excellence and development, I was sure YU would be. A year and a half into college, the time had come for me to throw all caution into the wind and venture into the abyss of predicted failure as an English major. I knew almost immediately that English was the track for me. I finally learned to appreciate Shakespeare, and how to write plays of my own. I began to write in my free time, something I had not done for a long time, and I was having a great time doing it. It was then time to take a swing at something I had always, sometimes secretly, dreamed of: drama.

As you might know at this point, I got the role of Paul Union in the YCDS Spring 2016 production of I’ll be Right Here by Etai Schucatowitz. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It was around the time of opening night that we heard there wouldn’t be a YCDS production next semester. It wasn’t a shock to me, as there were rumors circulating for weeks, but it was definitely heartbreaking. The reason, we heard, was due to budget cuts. This was very hard to come to terms with. A large part of my newly found niche, and the academic program that I am most proud to be part of was just cut in half. A production in the spring was still planned but all hopes of producing another hit next semester, all the new things we were planning to do, were extinguished just like that.

Everyone in YCDS was upset. Ari Marder, a junior majoring in psychology said, “The play is a unique opportunity for students to find their voice and express themselves in a way they maybe never had before. Budget cuts are always going to be difficult, but it's unfortunate that in doing so the school has limited a medium for camaraderie and growth that can be hard to find elsewhere.” Marder was the lead in the Fall 2014 production of A Few Good Men and has been an active member since. Matis Axel, also a senior and star of I’ll be Right Here responded to questions with, “I'm disappointed. I understand that there are factors which students aren't aware of, but the theatre department of a university should be able to put together a production each semester. If there's the willingness and energy to create something, the department shouldn't have to choose. I can't speak for other departments at YU, but YCDS mobilizes a huge amount of energy every semester to put together each production. It's something the University should be encouraging.”

Students who are not members of YCDS are upset as well. Yaakov Bronstein, a junior majoring in English, was shocked to hear about the changes and said, “As YCDS constitutes one of the college’s few remaining sites of serious artistic effort, and the only theatrical operation, cutting the upcoming semester's production denotes a qualitative and misguided loss to culture on campus.” Yaakov is one of the students who has appreciation for the arts and wants to see its presence on campus. If anything, many feel that YU is already lacking in this area, so why are they cutting away the little that we have?

Even the students who are not particularly interested in acting have tremendous opportunities in YCDS. In fact, a majority of the over sixty members this past semester were working in non-theatre oriented tasks. Whether it be people with interests in business, marketing, sales, advertising and public relations, architecture and construction, sound engineering, lighting, or graphic design, students had the opportunity to learn, create and add to their resumes. YCDS provides valuable internal experience to students of all majors and interests.

Professor Daniel Beliavsky, head of Yeshiva’s Fine Art Department, passionately maintains that the administration of Yeshiva College has not wavered at all in its commitment to providing a stellar liberal arts education. The college fully recognizes that all the sub-departments of the liberal arts department, which includes art, music, and theatre, are necessary parts of  the curriculum. What I found especially enlightening was that, according to Beliavsky, although budget issues are a reality, the administration’s real concern is the lack of student interest in the arts. Despite skyrocketing sales numbers for their most recent production, YCDS plays have not been doing well in terms of show attendance and have not had a satisfactory amount of students volunteer to take up key roles both on the board and in production. The music department can only be as big as the amount of students that register for its courses, and the same goes for art. Beliavsky explained that Yeshiva College would be offering a course in acting, something which had been done in years long past, and is now being offered in place of the play for the fall. The plan would then be to take the students of this fall’s class and have them act in the spring’s play, hopefully producing an equally, if not more, stellar production. The administration wants to revitalize student interest in the play, and at the same time offer a medium of acting to those who have always showed interest. Similar actions have been taken in regards to the Music and Art departments, with class cross-listed with English, History, and other more mainstream courses, being offered in the coming semesters, hoping to garner more interest for artistically focused.

According the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 71 percent of adults consumed a form of art via electronic media. In that same year, 37 percent of adults attended a performing arts event. Such research is consistent with my own experiences at YCDS. Audience members of most of the six performance of I’ll be Right Here saw a theatre that had most seats filled, with a crowd that was enthusiastic and attentive. YCDS itself this past semester was huge, with sixty students from YU and Stern, two alumni volunteers, and one volunteer who’s never been affiliated with the university at all. These numbers don’t indicate a YCDS struggling for members; they show more participation in YCDS than in any other elective.

Bothered by this contradiction between the administration’s concerns and the actual numbers, I scheduled a meeting with Joanne Jacobson, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of English. Dean Jacobson listened intently to my questions and managed to clarify things a great deal. She explained that the core issue the administration sees in YCDS is not completely a matter of numbers, rather it is which jobs students are choosing to fill. Granted, YCDS boasts a solid group of actors and some really dedicated crew members but there are some key jobs that are still not being filled. This semester, Yosef Frenkel,  technical director, and Molly Pocrass, YCDS’s lighting engineer are both graduating and there are no replacements lined up. Even larger of an issue is that for the past two semesters, YU had to hire an alumnus, Moshe Wigder, to take on the roles in YCDS which students did not fill. This included stage manager, producer, sound producer, and more. The administration sees that these roles could not be filled by students as a sign that people are just not interested and devoted enough to keep YCDS going. YCDS needs continued quantity and quality in the students who are receiving credit for the course.

I love YCDS and being part of it has been truly grand, but YCDS’s disintegration would mean more than a few disgruntled students. Don't we value the arts and want to be part of creating meaningful things? I think we should, and participation in things like YCDS would be indicative that others do as well. We have an acapella group, a jazz ensemble, a rock ensemble, and various papers and journals published throughout the year, but that’s it; nothing compared to other universities. Why can’t we do more?

The administration, as per my discussion with Dean Jacobson, is willing and ready to provide creative opportunities, the students merely need show that they’re interested. In fact, YC has begun a new program in which students could create their own minors, combining different class of relatable content. This means that if someone wanted, they could minor in theatre, as long as they get approved by the Dean’s Office. Students constantly complain that there is not enough academic credit offered from the university to participate in things like theatre, and they may be right. But Dean Jacobson maintains that if students were to step forward with proposals to minor in theatre, and more people would take on bigger roles in YCDS,  then the administration would be willing to consider providing more opportunities in the arts.  When I came to YU, I came expecting people to be passionate for knowledge, not just law and medicine, but for the arts, expression too. I believe that people are, they're just not taking the steps they can and should to take advantage of these opportunities.

The saddest thing about this whole thing is that I know that there are students interested in the arts. Walk through the dorms at night and observe how many students spend their down time watching film and television shows on their laptops. Listen to students talk in the caf about their weekend trips to museums and concerts and their detailed critiques on it all. People dream of being an actors and being able to get their feelings out for others to see and experience, for fame. But these same people are either scared to step up and try new things or perhaps they tell themselves that it doesn’t fit within ideologies, religious or not. There even people from YCDS who have moved on in “the biz”. Sophomore Jack Turell can be seen in a new movie, starring Michael Shannon, called Wolves, and alum Moshe Wigder in Porte Ouverte at the Dust Film and Animation Festival in NYC. It is sad that this is happening in YU, where these studies are supposed to be part of what we love and covet. It is up to us students to make the changes that are needed, so the administration can respond in the like. I beg my peers to consider joining YCDS in any capacity, to take Lin Snider’s class, “The Art of the Actor”, and to broaden their horizons, with the goals of building a YU community that is proud of its versatility in education and broad artistic expression.