Theater community reacts to 2020 report
Brandeis' theater community was left reeling this week after the Brandeis 2020 Committee proposed drastic cuts to the design program.The committee recommended immediate suspension of all admissions to the graduate Master of Fine Arts design program, which is responsible for costume, lighting and set design for Brandeis Theater Company productions, and the phasing out of this program after all current students have graduated. Other proposed changes include a reduction of the overall theater budget and further integration of undergraduates into the department.
While the report awaits approval by Provost Marty Krauss, members of the theater community have sprung into action. Over 2,000 alumni, professors, undergraduate and graduate students and other concerned individuals have joined a Facebook group titled "Save Theater at Brandeis." Many have posted letters to the administration protesting the decision.
Prof. Debra Booth (THA), director of the design program, created the group after learning of the committee's proposals through an e-mail from Dean of Arts and Sciences Adam Jaffe. In an interview with justArts, she explained that Brandeis was one of the first to offer a Master of Fine Arts in Theater Design and that the program was paralleled only by those at Yale and New York University. "It's really kind of amazing to me that Brandeis would be willing to give up something that is one of the best design programs in the country," she said.
Booth feels that the committee's proposal resulted from insufficient awareness of the design program's role on campus. "One of the weaknesses of [the Curriculum and Academic Restructuring Steering Committee] is that you have people who are from vastly different fields. If you asked me to go in and tweak with chemistry I wouldn't know what to do. . They don't have the experience or the expertise to really be able to do that."
Booth explained that the design budget is allotted based on a complex calculation of the needs of the acting program, so the funding actually supports both programs. "There's always an educational process that I need to go through for people to understand how interconnected and how that balance sheet all works out," she said. "We don't function separately in that regard-those productions are a part of the whole. I don't know how you expect an actor to perform without sets, lights or costumes."
Michael Lincoln MFA '79, now a professor of lighting design at Ohio University, says that the committee should have proposed changes that were "more surgical rather than amputation." He questioned why his department had not suffered as many cuts as the one at Brandeis. "The irony to me is that Ohio University has undergone cuts for years because of the economy in the state, which is terrible. [The design department today is] facing bigger cuts, but we're not facing that kind of draconian, and what really feels like an unfair cut," he told justArts.
Citing the Board of Trustees' decision to close the Rose Art Museum, Lincoln added, "You can't help but think that the arts are being marginalized at Brandeis."
Office of the Arts Director Scott Edmiston, a professional theater director, rejects this sentiment, saying, "I know many of the faculty on the Brandeis 2020 committee, and they care about the arts. I am glad that no cuts or reductions were proposed for the Department of Fine Arts or Department of Music." Edmiston takes an optimistic view of the committee's findings. "I support the committee's proposal to increase opportunities for undergraduates in the theater arts department. The budgets may shrink, but we have a wealth of student talent at Brandeis that I would love to see on the Spingold stages," he wrote in an e-mail to justArts.
Lighting Design student Benjamin Williams (GRAD), who has spearheaded the graduate student response to the proposed cuts, takes a similarly positive approach. After initially soliciting letters of protest from alumni and theater professionals nationwide, he says, "We realized that we, along with the University, have a unique opportunity to create something very positive out of this situation. We've taken a more pragmatic approach in how we are addressing the administration and are asking for the opportunity to help them find a solution that will maintain the prestigious program that we are a part of while increasing undergraduate involvement across the board."
Booth said the design program has historically provided a unique opportunity for students to work with professionals in the field. "Brandeis was always very interested in having professionals teach and participate with the educational process here at Brandeis," she said. "That's why we have a Bernstein Festival of the Arts, because [Leonard Bernstein] was very much involved along with a number of other professionals in theater and in music."
Bridget McAllister '10, a Theater major specializing in costume design, is skeptical of claims that the proposed cuts provide an opportunity to improve undergraduate theater training. "The graduate program gave a lot of the undergraduates opportunities to work in a professional setting and really helped build resumes. The arts are hard enough [to pursue as a career] but this really is a major setback for everyone involved and the future of the theater at Brandeis," she wrote in an e-mail to the Justice.
Lincoln agrees that the cuts will negatively affect current undergraduates if they are implemented. "If they want to be the Brandeis Institute of Technology, then I guess they'll have to get their money from the scientists who are graduating," he said.