Stern College Dramatics Society to Perform Play on Wilf Campus for First Time
For the first time in the history of the Stern College Dramatics Society, the club will be performing in the Wilf Campus Schottenstein Theater uptown with their production of Our Town by Thornton Wilder. In 2012, the Beren campus theater was sold and until this year, SCDS has not had a suitable alternative for their performances. Jordyn Kaufman, the previous president of SCDS, speculated that it was most likely sold for financial reasons, but it is still unclear.
For the past few years, Norman Thomas High School and Koch Auditorium have been the theater substitutes, both inadequate and inconvenient solutions, according to many members of SCDS. Koch Auditorium is used as a classroom during the year, lacks a stage, and is not set up to be used as a theater. Unlike Koch, Norman Thomas does have a stage, but it is a large auditorium without lighting, and does not belong to Stern. Further, the high school had extremely strict rules regarding rehearsal time and did not allow SCDS to store props overnight.
Immediately following the sale of the Beren campus theater, there was a lot of speculation as to why SCDS was not immediately offered use of the Wilf campus theater. At the time, rumors spread that the contract between the donors of the theaters and Yeshiva University stated that female students could not use the Schottenstein theater. However, that rumor was proven false last year when, Jordyn Kaufman, SCW ‘17, proposed to Katz Dean of Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences Karen Bacon and Dean of Student Life Dr. Chaim Nissel that the women should move to the uptown theater.
“I demanded to see the contracts,” Kaufman explained, “and I was told they would go check it out. They came back explaining that it doesn’t state that and agreed to start talking logistics.”
With Dean Bacon and Dean Nissel on board, the path to obtaining usage of the uptown theater became more manageable. However, there was still communication and logistics to be resolved with the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society and their director, Lin Snider.
Initially, there was a degree of apprehension amongst members of the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society about sharing the space. However, Kaufman recalled that “one thing [Dean Nissel] strongly stated multiple times was that the men do not own the theater, the university does.” While the administration wanted to ensure harmony between YCDS and SCDS, it was ultimately up to Dean Nissel and Dean Bacon, in consultation with other administrators, who would be able to use the theater.
Dean Nissel eventually took over the process and proceeded to sit down with the directors of both societies to discuss details of an arrangement. There were multiple meetings between the Deans and both Dramatics Societies, leading to an agreement giving each club access to the Schottenstein Theater for one semester of the academic year.
In addition to gaining access to the Schottenstein Theater, Rebecca Epstein, stage manager of this year’s performance and the president of SCDS, explained that last year, SCDS members discovered that their previously tight budget was immensely lower than the amount they were supposed to receive. An unnamed source in SCDS approximated that the budget was about $1,000, the majority of which was used to pay for the substitute stage, which only made the financial situation more dire. However, last year it was revealed by Dean Nissel that SCDS had an endowment fund made in their name of $10,000 of which they were entitled between $5,000 and $6,000 a year—money SCDS had not been aware of until then. The Commentator attempted to clarify the ambiguous source of the funds and the reason it was unknown to SCDS by discussing the matter with Dean Nissel. However, due to turnover in the YU Budget Office and unfamiliarity in the sourcing from Dean Nissel’s office The Commentator was unable to receive clarification. Though it remains unclear why this information was only recently revealed and why SCDS does not receive all of the money, this year OSL has worked with SCDS to ensure they obtain their proper funding. This higher budget has allowed SCDS to hire additional crew members, purchase more props, and ensure proper maintenance of the theater.
Epstein, Syms ‘18, explained the one setback in the process of utilizing the money. “Because we’ve never had a budget, we had to have a discussion with OSL about not only obtaining the endowment, but how we will use it.” SCDS has always operated under OSL and the budget has been negotiated with them. When Epstein first approached OSL asking for money, OSL was skeptical “because the budgeting committee never gave us any money,” and though they were aware of the endowment, “it didn’t really matter, because we still had to get permission to use it.” However, she added that “we’ve always operated on a really tight budget, something really crazy low, so that there’s any money is amazing.”
Epstein, who was in the play last year as well, expressed excitement at the transition to the Schottenstein Theater. “Last year we were in Koch and did not know until two weeks before [the performance] that we were performing there. It was crazy and so stressful and no one would give us any information. When you don’t even know dimensions of the stage, it’s really hard to rehearse. You can see that we rehearse specifically for this stage.”
Reuven Russell, the Artistic Director of the society who has been with SCDS for 12 years, expressed how being in a real theater raises the bar for the performance. “The lights makes us look better, even just the space makes us look better.”
According to those organizing the program, the students have been extremely dedicated and enthusiastic about putting the performance together. Russell stressed that “it’s not easy to travel all the way uptown at the end of the day at rush hour, and it’s a little bit of a burden. But once we’re here and working, it’s great.”
Epstein expressed a similar sentiment, stating that it is “frustrating to take shuttles from Midtown because there’s a lot of traffic so we end up starting rehearsal much later and it’s hard to get people to stay past 10:30.” Additionally, Epstein continued, “the lighting for the theater is so incredibly intricate, and originally, we didn’t realize we had to hire someone to do lights so we did hire Rabbi Krug, but it was much later in the semester. We were here last week till 2 AM just doing lights and he’s still here every night.”
When asked how the men of YCDS are handling the situation, the female cast had very positive feedback. Professor Russell and Epstein happily noted that “the boys have been very nice about it and a couple have even been here to help out.” Yoseph Boniuk, the technical director for YCDS who has been helping with the lights, expressed how he’s been a liaison to the SCDS cast, and the “girls are wonderful to work with.” He did share how not all male students share this sentiment. “Half the boys are glad the girls are uptown, but there are those among us who are not pleased and think the boys should have a play each semester, and it’s unfortunate that we have to share spotlight. It’s unfortunate that we can’t each have our own theater and each have a play each semester, but I’m glad the girls are in it.” At the end of the day, however, he did add that “I believe every member of YCDS thinks that the girls should have their own play and have their own theater.”
Yaacov Siev, a member of the YCDS’ cast last year, recalled that “in the beginning there was a lot of uncertainty about how it will play out in terms of who will be performing each semester and how will the girls be able to learn how to use everything.” He elaborated that, “in the beginning there was a little adversity to it, especially in the greater Yeshiva University community, there’s more adversity especially coming from the more ‘yeshivaey’ aspect. Maybe because Schottenstein was only for boys for so long and people have been so stuck on that and can’t break out of that mindset.” He ended on a positive note, concluding that, “I now see that everything’s coming together in fruition, we’re starting to see that maybe this will work out and maybe we can coexist.”
Though the stage time is being split, resulting in only one performance per year for each club, Siev explained how this was not a huge adjustment as “last year there was only one play. So maybe people who have been here longer might be annoyed but, so far [as I have been here], there’s only been one play per year.” An unnamed source from SCDS explained that the reason behind this was “when a source in the OSL found out about the discrepancy of budgets between SCDS and YCDS, the budget for the males was hugely slashed and YCDS decided to only do one show a year.” While in the past SCDS also performed every semester, at this point, they too had lessened that to once a year.
Being in the uptown theater this year has proven to be a refreshing and exciting change for the members of SCDS. Ahava Sherman, a senior and cast member of Our Town, looks back laughing at how “last year, you could not even tell where the stage started and ended. We actually had to build the sets, and, while I appreciate how heimish it was, it’s so much better to be on a real stage.” As the performances approach, Liorah Rubinstein, a cast member and Vice President of SCDS, reflects on how being in the uptown theater differs from the past years. “You just walk in[to the theater] and immediately feel enveloped by this experience knowing that there’s real lighting, a real stage, and real prop rooms. The energy is totally different, not only because we’re using a real theater but for the first time, we have online ticketing and four performances.” For the cast of SCDS, these additions have added to the authenticity of the production and created a genuine atmosphere of a real play.
This article has been updated since it has been published
Photo Credit: Rachel Herschmann