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Theater cult

(Kai Takahashi)

(Kai Takahashi)

Yale’s undergraduate theater community is everywhere; we’re surrounded by countless productions and performance ensembles. There are small stages and large ones, classics and experimental contemporaries; and amidst all the possibilities, some specific pockets form, making something reliable within the overwhelming set of dramatic options.
In an email last fall, Yale’s freshman class received the bios of seven members of a relatively new student organization called Common Room. Meant as an invitation to audition, the group described itself as “Yale’s only undergraduate repertory theater company.” Looking back, Common Room member Ruby Spiegel ES ’15 recalls the email as “pretentious and scary;” still, it convinced about 25 freshmen to audition, with Jacob Osborne DC ’16 finally joining the group.

Members Chandler Rosenthal CC ’14 and Jesse Schreck CC ’14 came up with the idea of the group last September. Rosenthal wanted a performance group that would eradicate the feeling of “post-show depression.” The two thought Common Room could foster communal artistic growth while offering a less transient social experience. “Why not continue to work with the people you love? It can only allow for a tighter ensemble and better theater,” says Paul Hinkes ES ’15, a member of the group.

Every fall since its inception, Common Room has put on one large original production—this past fall, it was Bed Play. They spent last spring workshopping projects and designing the next fall’s endeavor, a schedule they plan to follow in the coming semester. The group has no formal roles and no real hierarchy, though Schreck calls himself the group “logistician.” Different members rotate between writing, acting, directing, producing, and filling any number of the other roles created by putting on a production.

Its small size allows the group to get comfortable enough to give each other meaningful feedback—as Schreck said, their ease with each other “cuts out all the polite, stepping-around things.” Spiegel says it’s immensely helpful “to have a group of people that know how you write, know how to give you notes…and they’re your friends and can tell you, ‘no, no, no.’” For the actors, the commitment to original material means that plays will be written for the number and genders available, and possibly with parts specifically crafted for an actor’s particular voice and traits. “Like, Paul is so tall,” Spiegel said, in reference to group member Paul “Tall Paul” Hinkes. “How funny would it be if we made him this silent, mysterious character?”

With rehearsals twice a week Common Room is a time commitment, but its members recognize the difficulty of time shortages. “We’re not looking to isolate ourselves from the awesome theater community that we love participating in,” Schreck said. “We don’t want Common Room to be a burden, we want it to be an exciting thing.”

The hectic schedules of Common Room’s members are typical of most Yale students involved in the drama community—with many conceding that they feel like their academics are “on the side.” “Theater has kind of always taken precedence,” said Alex Kramer, BR ‘15, of Control Group. “My work has to be done around my rehearsal schedule and when I’m in tech week for a show, there’s really no getting anything done.” Hinkes agreed: “The scale definitely tips in favor of theater. I mean, I’m hardly skipping classes left and right, but I’d always rather go to rehearsal than do homework.”

The combination of the time commitment and the social element of the drama scene has created one of the most vibrant undergraduate communities on campus. As a performance art, it’s automatically one of the most visible student creative outlets, and between the 14 student theaters, various performance groups, and countless independent productions, the theater world can often seem to dominate student cultural consciousness. “That collected group is probably the most prominent non-athletic community at Yale,” said Stephen Feigenbaum, BR ’11 MUS ’13, who’s currently putting up Abyss, of the overlapping theater, improv, and a cappella scenes. “[It’s] certainly the only large off-campus community that’s not athletics or the ‘frat scene’…also because theater are people are very hard to miss.”

Theater might be most notable for the intense, visible passion of its members. Although not all involved students are convinced they’ll pursue theater post-graduation, most agree that they decided a while ago that their time here would be best spent devoting themselves to an activity and community they love. “Yale doesn’t really give you life skills,” Spiegel said. “Theater kind of does.”