University News

Financial stress strains student involvement in theater

Low-income students navigate fitting classes, work shifts, rehearsals into schedule

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Last week, the Production Workshop held Performance Craft Week, a series of tech- and design-based crash courses facilitated by Brown students about lighting, directing, sound design, set building, costume design and dramaturgy.

“We have noticed that the same people tend to design over and over again for our shows,” said PW board member Luke Denton ’18.

In spreading theatrical knowledge, the workshops aimed to address a skill set disparity resulting from socio-economic divides that limit some students’ prior exposure to the world of theater.

“Conversations around diversity often get centered just around race,” said Nika Salazar ’16, chair of Sock and Buskin. “In my experience, I think class is much more polarizing than race is at Brown.”

This polarization is particularly visible in theater because of the discipline’s “long and incredibly complicated history of being a privileged, upper-class institution in the United States,” Denton said. The financially precarious nature of the profession self-selects performers and artists who can afford the risk, he added. “That issue goes far beyond Brown.”

“People seem to think that they need to have a certain cultural background in order to appreciate theater,” said Patricia Ybarra, associate professor of theater arts and performance studies. “My experience is quite the opposite.”

At the department’s Feb. 4 discussion on diversity and inclusion, TAPS Associate Professor Kym Moore said “As theater-makers, we need to break apart the notion of theater as being ‘theat-ah’ and make it just about going to see a show.”


Ybarra sees similar insecurities play out on a daily basis in the classroom, she said. Her course, TAPS 1670: “Latino/a Theater and Performance,” attracts both students well-versed in theater and students with backgrounds in ethnic or American studies. Each group of students often believes that the other group is better qualified to appreciate the primary texts, Ybarra said. This sometimes leaves students questioning whether they should have taken the course, she added.

“Of course, they should all be taking the course,” Ybarra said. “People know more than they think they know.”

Salazar described her first few TAPS classes at Brown as a struggle to “catch up” with her peers, many of whom had benefited from summer theater courses and strong theater programs in their high schools.

“I came to Brown having absolutely no formal training outside of a couple of theater productions I had done in high school,” Salazar said, adding that her feelings of inferiority nearly put her off theater entirely.

Three years later, along with being the chair of Sock and Buskin’s board, Salazar is now set to graduate in May with a double concentration in TAPS and psychology. She is also the author and director of “The Red Paint,” this year’s Senior Slot show, a funded opportunity for seniors to showcase their directorial skills.

Salazar felt “incredibly lucky” to have been able to declare a theater concentration. Since Salazar is paying her own way through college, she may have “had it easier than some students” in that her family always recognized that it was her decision to make, she said.

Despite finding her family supportive in the long run, Salazar struggled with breaking the news to them. When she told her father about concentrating in theater, he initially responded to her decision by saying, “You could have done anything.”

“Theater is what I want to do with my life, but there’s a lot of guilt around majoring in an art,” Salazar said. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds often feel as if they are sacrificing their family’s best chance at upward social mobility by choosing to leave Brown with uncertain financial prospects.

Work, study and theater

Nicole Martinez ’18 began working for BuDS within the first week of her first semester at Brown. Brown’s financial aid “wasn’t great,” Martinez said, and she wanted to reduce the financial pressure on her parents by paying for books and personal expenses. Her high school theater program was “just awful,” so she never thought she would want to act in college, she said.

A production of “Othello” put on by Shakespeare on the Green convinced Martinez to participate in SOTG’s Scenes Fest, a collection of individually performed scenes from Shakespeare. While working on a larger show the next semester, a castmate encouraged her to apply to the SOTG board.

A demanding course load last semester forced Martinez to choose between quitting her job and quitting theater. Martinez chose to quit her job.

Faced with a similar trade-off between academics, work and theater, Salazar managed both theater and work one semester by scaling back to three courses. Salazar spent hours she could have been doing homework working her job, she said. As a result of often prioritizing theater and work over classes, she is currently taking four concentration requirements in her final semester as an undergrad.

In Denton’s case, the balancing act was trickier because of other extracurricular commitments.

His first year, Denton’s involvement with theater was shaped by his job as a caterer and cashier for BuDS. His work schedule conflicted with the standard evening rehearsal times, and — as a freshman with limited work experience — he said he could not find other jobs immediately. “I felt like I couldn’t audition for shows because I’d be missing rehearsals,” he said.

He chose to work on tech and design for shows instead of performing, which mostly allowed him the flexibility to work around his work-study commitments. But designing posed its own financial difficulties. Designers for the Production Workshop are expected to procure supplies using their own funds and wait for reimbursements from the University at a later date. “I couldn’t afford to spend $60 on supplies even though the loss was temporary,” Denton said.

Last semester, Denton decided to direct his first show, “Comfort and Despair,” with SOTG. His theater commitments became so demanding that Denton not only quit his job, but also his volunteer work as a sex education tutor with Sexual Health Advocacy through Peer Education in order to keep up with his academics. Denton, who aims to enter academia after graduation, said that giving up teaching was a particularly hard decision to make.

“Because theater and work are so inflexible, it comes down to both of them in the end,” Denton said, explaining that managing theater and work-study came at the cost of other extracurricular activities. “In my case, I had to go a step further and choose between theater and work because I wanted to be more involved in campus theater than I had been.”

Because he earned money over the summer, Denton could stop working for a semester. Denton now works with John Street Studios on set design, a job that allows him to set more flexible hours and stay involved in theater at the same time.

“I chose my job keeping theater in mind,” Denton said.

Martinez said she applied for desk jobs this semester, but has yet to hear back from any employers. In the meantime, Martinez has tightened up her finances. For example, she has moved to the cheapest meal plan in an effort to save money. “Sometimes I’ll think, ‘is it worth buying this coffee today?’ I’m trying not to be frivolous.”

Working for BuDS also requires students to be on their feet for hours and interact with diners constantly, Martinez said, adding that it can be physically and mentally exhausting. Working often left her feeling “drained” when she went to rehearsals after finishing her shifts. “Going to work was literally a struggle every day,” she said.

Salazar hopes that students working on large productions, like the ongoing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” will eventually receive course credit for their work. “Who works 24 hours a week for a class?” Salazar asked, underscoring the amount of time students invest in shows. “It is important to be told that your efforts are valued,” she said.

A concern with such a model is that it may present an unrealistic picture of working in the “real world,” where theater may be less forgiving of financial hardship, Salazar said. But “university theater does not have to follow the model of the professional theater industry,” Salazar said, quoting an earlier conversation she had with Ybarra. “In fact, it should be a model for the professional theater industry.”

One of the ways in which the University has sought to make professional theater more accessible is by introducing a debt-free Masters in Fine Arts into the operational plan, Ybarra said. “We’re still working on the logistics of making it happen,” she added.

The program was originally designed to “pay for itself,” meaning that all the costs affiliated with the program were covered by tuition. Moving to a debt-free model is an “astounding” step for TAPS faculty members and the administration to take, Ybarra said. “We would have been laughed at five years ago if I had suggested that.”

But the only long-term solution to the problem of economic discrimination in theater for undergrads is to reconsider the traditional 7 p.m.-to-11 p.m. rehearsal model, Salazar said.

“I am aware that the kind of dedication it takes to work evenings really restricts the amount of time students can also work for profit during the year,” Ybarra said. “At the same time, there’s no way to take the number of hours away,” she said, adding that she was open to considering how to organize those hours differently.

Besides work, another challenge to the current late-night rehearsal model is that students are taking more classes in the evenings, Ybarra said. Students working on shows increasingly report conflicts with night movie screenings for their film classes, she added.

When Salazar was working on Production Workshop’s “Nudity in the Upspace,” the cast and crew developed a schedule that made sure that no one had to skip work. “I have to pay rent. I’m on meal plan,” Salazar said, explaining that she couldn’t afford the sustained loss in income that dropping shifts demanded.

For Salazar, this is the first time in her theater career at Brown that people are starting to recognize how demanding it is to enter theater as a student with financial difficulties and stay involved in it despite work-study commitments.

“It’s important not to lose this momentum,” Salazar said. “I hope people will continue having these conversations to make sure Brown lives up to the standards it has set for itself.”

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