Auditions and advocacy prove dramatic

by Cathleen Cusachs / Beacon Staff • January 18, 2017

Riley Hillyer, a junior performing arts major, is skipping EmStage auditions to march in D.C.
Riley Hillyer, a junior performing arts major, is skipping EmStage auditions to march in D.C.

As a Bachelor of Fine Arts acting major, junior Riley Hillyer was planning on auditioning for Emerson Stage, a requirement that he was happy to fulfill. He was also looking forward to attending the Women’s March in D.C. as an ally.

He can’t do both.

This semester, the audition dates for EmStage’s NewFest, the production branch of the performing arts department’s series of plays and readings, are Jan. 20 and Jan. 21—the weekend of the inauguration.

“It’s unfortunately conflicting with students who wanted to go protest the inauguration,” Hillyer said. “I feel like being an active citizen of the United States is much more important.”

When the dates were announced via email to the department on Dec. 20, Hillyer and many other students requested a change. Chair Melia Bensussen sent out a follow-up email explaining why the dates couldn’t budge.

“The Department of Performing Arts needs to continue its work and fulfill its commitment to the education and training of its students,” Bensussen wrote in the email, which was forwarded to the Beacon. “[The] choice is always yours, even though it may come with a sacrifice or loss of opportunity.”

Bensussen told the Beacon the date was chosen almost a year ago for several reasons. On Jan. 30, rehearsals begin for NewFest’s Living Will, restricting the auditions from being postponed. The department is also bringing in professionals like playwright Jackie Goldfinder and director Cristina Alicea, as part of the New Works Initiative. The program brings original, professional pieces to EmStage for workshops with students. Bensussen said Alicea and Goldfinder are only available this weekend for auditions.

Musical theater and BFA acting students, such as Hillyer, have to audition for NewFest. Although faculty typically keep track of who attends and who doesn’t, there has seemingly never been consequences for those who don’t follow through on the requirement. Bensussen told the Beacon there will also be no punishment for missing this semester’s auditions. Still, Hillyer said he’s worried students have to choose between their education and their civic right to protest.

Hillyer did get permission and will be attending the protest in Washington. He said his professors overall were understanding.

Sheba Wood, a junior performing arts major, said she already planned to skip auditions this year; Wood is in the theatre education program and is not required to attend. She said she wasn’t aware of the date conflict until she saw Facebook friends talking about it.

The winter organization fair, hosted in the campus center, is a meet-and-greet among students and recognized on-campus groups. Although it’s still scheduled for Jan. 20, a poll was sent out to organizations asking if the date should be moved, according to Jess Guida, a member of the Orientation Core Staff in charge of the event.

“It didn’t make sense to me,” Wood said. “I felt disappointed in the fact that other areas of the school were thinking about how they were going to adjust their lives and their schedules in accordance with what’s going on in the world, which makes sense because we’re a school which claims to be super civically engaged.”

Wood said she was surprised her own department didn’t extend the same courtesy to students, especially when she says she knows many who are struggling with trauma post-election.

Bensussen said she finds it saddening that students feel they have to make a decision between theater and activism, when they should go hand-in-hand.

“Focusing on one weekend of auditions when there are other ways [to protest] breaks my heart,” Bensussen said. “I think we can have both. It makes me sad to think students are going to force each other to make choices when you can be an activist and a theater-maker, and ideally, you should be doing both.”

Hillyer said he agrees art is an important form of protest, but he thinks he will have a stronger impact at the march where an audience with a wider set of beliefs might notice. He said Emerson is largely a liberal bubble, and it feels like he’s preaching to the choir.

Through the initiative this semester, Goldfinger is workshopping Fresh, a political piece looking at the relationship between online activism and art. Hillyer and Wood both expressed concern over how this show might turn out if all the politically-active students go to the inauguration instead.

“It’s great if you can automatically take what you’re going through, put it into what you’re working on, and put your whole self into what you’re doing in the audition room that day,” Wood said. “But, not everyone can do that. That doesn’t make anyone less right for any role just because they’re taking time to process.”

Bensussen said their audition numbers fluctuate from around 130 students to over 200, but this year’s sign-up numbers are consistent with previous years. She said she is not sure what the outcome will be, but if they cannot cast one of the productions, Emerson will lose the opportunity to put on a new play.

“I think that would be a very dark result in a time when we all need to be working,” Bensussen said. “My guess is Hamilton is performing that day. That cast is not going to be marching, that cast is going to be protesting with their work, as is all of Broadway, as is all of off-Broadway, as is Emerson Stage.”