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Brown, Trinity MFA Program focuses on diversity, equity

Program hosts workshops, weekly meetings to foster greater inclusivity in its art community

Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2018

The students’ common space for the Brown University/Trinity Repertory Program is vaguely reminiscent of a college dorm, with pale blue lockers lining two parallel hallways and a nondescript and homey eating area in between. But here, in the break room, lies the first clue to the program’s prestige: A significant part of one wall is filled, top to bottom, with articles featuring graduates or soon-to-be graduates working in television, directing plays or acting in musicals.

The Brown University/Trinity Repertory program, started in 2002, is one of the top six Master of Fine Arts acting and directing programs in the country as ranked by the Hollywood Reporter. Alums regularly go into television and film or perform on Broadway post-degree, according to Stephen Berenson, founding director of the program. Despite this prestige, the space exudes comfort.

Yet “resting” — physically or on their laurels — is practically uncharted territory for those enrolled in and in charge of the program. Students, comprising two directors and 14 actors per class, spend upwards of 10 hours per weekday and eight hours on Saturday attending classes or rehearsal, according to Anwar Ali MFA ’20, a first-year student in the program.

For faculty members, a primary area of focus for the program’s improvement is diversity, equity and inclusion, Berenson said.

The University recently announced that it would provide full tuition scholarships for all students for the 2018-2019 school year, The Herald previously reported. This decision was a step in the right direction, Berenson said. “There were some wonderful people who would have liked to apply that I’m sure didn’t because it’s very expensive to come here,” he added.

The current program is about 45 percent students of color, while next year’s class will be at least 50 percent, if not more, Berenson said.

Ali was waitlisted by the program before his admittance and was later told that he was initially waitlisted because there were not enough funds to provide him with a full scholarship, he said. “Because I had some debt from my past, and I had financial need, I would need a scholarship, and so (they) would rather just not accept me at all,” he added.

In addition to removing barriers to admission, the program is working internally to underscore the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion. The program holds weekly EDI meetings and recently had a weeklong workshop with Art Equity, a company that facilitates conversations about how arts communities can be more inclusive, Ali said.

The EDI meetings also equip students and faculty with the necessary “vocabulary and ways to examine inequity, like getting everyone on board with discussions of intersectionality, like the history of oppression around certain populations,” said Jack Dwyer MFA ’18, a third-year student in the program.

The meetings allow faculty and students to grapple with their individual concerns about the program. One of the most consistently expressed concerns is the lack of faculty of color on the program’s staff, according to Dwyer. All of the department heads are white men and women, he said, adding that uncompetitive salaries for the program’s staff make it difficult to attract more diverse faculty.

“All of our acting teachers could get better salaries in other places, and right now they are all staying because they love the program and they love the work the program does,” Dwyer said.  “But in terms of attracting new faculty members, and particularly in terms of diversifying our faculty, what the University is paying our faculty presents a challenge.”

In addition, the works studied in the program can sometimes inhibit progress towards inclusivity. “If you’re working on a Shakespeare play, which of course was written for all white men, how do you open it up so that can be inclusive to everyone?” Berenson said. “You go to the majority of plays right now around the country, and the cast is very diverse. But then how do you support that as an actor when something in the language is perhaps against who you are or what your background is?”

In response, students in the program have actively embraced the opportunity to explore the work of underrepresented artists. For instance, a director in one of Dwyer’s classes is committed to putting on plays written exclusively by women of color, with the exception of the two Shakespeare plays required by the program, Dwyer said.

Berenson, Dwyer and Ali agree that increased diversity in the program is a necessity when it comes to accomplishing the true task of theater: reflecting life through stories.

“If we are reflecting life, we have to reflect what we see and what is around us,” Ali said. “And there are stories that are not being told, and there are bodies that need those stories told.”

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