Everything was perfect, or at least that’s how it seemed. As a first year theatre student I was in awe at where I, a poor kid from the middle of nowhere, had the honor to attend school. The soaring glass atrium of the Walgreen Drama Center reflected the vibrancy of a theatrical stage. I’d never seen something so elegant. The people that walked around the building were just as perfect. Everything about them amazed me: The way their hair never had any flyaways or dead ends, how their makeup was always glossed over and primed, the confidence that they carried with them as they walked through the building. At my first theatre class I didn’t say a word. In fact, in my first two months of theatre school I didn’t speak more than two or three sentences to any of my peers or professors. This was because I was convinced that I didn’t belong. Who am I to sit in class next to some of the most talented emerging theatre creators to date? I couldn’t comprehend that I was considered their equals — that I was a part of the perfection of the University of Michigan. 

As the years went by, I began to feel a creeping suspicion that this place wasn’t as perfect as the naive 17 year-old version of myself seemed to believe. The professors I once idolized slowly began to seem human to me. They weren’t giants of theatrical talent, but rather, human beings filled with all things humans are filled with: mistakes, imperfection and the occasional habit of letting others down. I’d begun to accept theirs as well as the Department of Theatre and Drama’s flaws as the norm. I didn’t think there was much I, a student, could do to change them. I already felt like an imposter in a school full of seemingly perfect people. I didn’t want to step on any toes. 

Yet, over the past few weeks, “stepping on people’s toes” seems to be a recurring theme at the University. On Tuesday, Sept. 8, the Graduate Employees’ Organization went on strike in response to the University of Michigan’s fall reopening plans. This was followed by a strike from Residential Advisors at the U as well and a planned — but later postponed — walkout by dining hall employees. Soon enough, on Tuesday, Sept. 15, the students within the University’s Department of Theatre and Drama went on strike as well

This strike was in response to the Department’s plan to put on two shows for the Fall 2020 season, one of which is “Dracula in the Pandemics,” a spin off of “Dracula” by Kate Hamills. As BFA Acting students are required to audition for every single University production put on by the Department of Theatre and Drama, there was little transparency on behalf of the department in regards to what rehearsals would like once these shows began. 

In an initiative led by the BFA Acting Class of 2022, students put forward a list of immediate and long term demands that were sent to SMTD faculty on Tuesday afternoon planning to withhold attendance from class until those immediate demands are met. A great deal of these demands echoed the sentiments put forth by GEO and the Residential Advisors. 

Students felt the faculty was “neglecting (their) rights as students and as human beings” by “requiring students to participate in the theater season during a pandemic,” and that “Dracula in the Pandemics” did not feel appropriate in our current climate. They finally pointed out that the administration was “ignoring/minimizing the individual experiences each student is having in response to the ongoing pandemics of racism and COVID-19,” amongst other concerns. 

The demands also requested the ability to opt out of University productions without repercussions, academic or otherwise, until public health guidelines indicate it is safe to resume normal activities, especially those that involve being in close quarters with many other people. 

Based on my own experience as a theatre and drama student, I feel that this list of demands is pertinent, relevant and beneficial to the overall health and well-being of the entire Department of Theatre and Drama. In addition to concerns regarding the health of students, the list of demands also addresses the way in which marginalized groups within the department are treated. SMTD Senior Ben Rodenmeyer spoke about this in an interview over Facetime. 

“The culture of the BFA program has been an issue over my entire time here,” Rodenmeyer said. “There have been issues in the program regarding treatment of BIPOC, queer and trans students. I have watched all of my friends who find themselves in underrepresented communities struggle with how to adapt to the program. We want the program to adapt to us. It’s really not that big of an ask.” 

In a Zoom interview, SMTD junior Mary Handsome seconded this sentiment, commenting on the types of characters BIPOC students are expected to portray.

“We are asked to play stereotypes and to play what white people think BIPOC people are,”  she said.

One of the students’ long term goals in their list of demands is to have more BIPOC professors teaching core classes in the curriculum. The students have also demanded that there be a “decolonized curriculum that focuses on a variety of techniques from around the world. These techniques should be taught alongside teaching appreciation vs. appropriation. They should showcase different cultures rather than tokenizing them, and should teach us how to research outside of our ‘bubble’ and incorporate that research.” 

On Monday, Sept. 21, the faculty in the Department of Theatre and Drama released a statement detailing their plans to meet the immediate demands of the Theatre and Drama students. The Department is going to implement the bail-out system that students requested. They will also allow students the right to opt-out of University Productions as long as the conditions of the pandemic last and have committed to seeking further inclusion of students in the hiring process.

Additionally, they will be sending out a call for proposals for online student work to be accepted on a rolling basis for the remainder of the academic year. The Department has also committed to sending out weekly emails to keep students apprised of any information regarding departmental issues and concerns along with a promise to work with the students on the long-term goals over the next few years. Because the Department of Theatre and Drama met the students’ immediate demands, the students have decided to cease striking and resume attending classes. 

During our Zoom interview, Handsome effortlessly expressed the intentions behind the strike and why it started in the first place. She said, “This strike isn’t to say that Theatre and Drama is doing everything wrong. We know they can do better…and we are making the push for them to do better. It is way past time to reform and make change. This year, if anything, is the year to do those things and take action instead of just talking about taking action.” 

The actions that we take now will affect the theatre students in years to come. Perhaps the next round of nervous, naive freshmen will take our lead in refusing to accept complacency as the norm. SMTD Junior Ruby Pérez said in her final email to the department regarding the strikes, “I truly believe that the document we created was an act of generosity, a ‘love offering’, for each other, for our faculty, and for all of the future T&D students.”

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