Cap and Bells starts fall season with funding problems, difficulty in obtaining rights

Arrington Luck

Cap and Bells is seeking to regain its footing after grappling with issues of funding and rights acquisition going into its fall season. Since the beginning of the academic year, the student-run theater group has been forced to change two of its show choices, after having been denied the rights to Jonathan Larson’s RENT and Claire Baron’s Dance Nation, even though they auditioned casts for both shows prior to obtaining the rights. Now, the group is running Steven Sater’s Spring Awakening and a student-written and -directed production to fill the place of the two previous shows.

According to College Council (CC) treasurer Jamie Vaccaro ’21, Cap and Bells “failed to request an annual budget last Spring,” precluding them from receiving funding at the start of the 2019-2020 academic year. Without funding, Cap and Bells was unable to begin the process of acquiring rights for its fall season. 

In lieu of a budget, Cap and Bells sought CC funding at the start of the academic year.

“I made a production calendar, where I was going with the idea that okay, the first day of school, we’re going to … get approved … for this funding by CC, we’re going to submit these rights requests, and then we’re going to hear back and get approvals on the rights requests in time for auditions” said Maye McPhail ’22, production manager for Cap and Bells.

“On the date, we thought we [would] be able to get funding,” McPhail continued. “We weren’t able to get funding and it became clear the process was going to take a little longer.” 

Vaccaro says that he granted Cap and Bells access to discretionary funding on Sept. 6, after attempting to set up a time for the group to appear in front of CC’s Financial Committee (FinCom).

“I originally said that I wanted to try and do a FinCom meeting on Sept. 8, but that proved to be too early to be feasible. As soon as I made that call, I gave them the discretionary funding for their show rights,” Vaccaro said. “This was on Friday the 6th, so it was sooner than it could have possibly been by through the normal process.”

By that point, according to McPhail, Cap and Bells had already begun advertising auditions to the student body. They did not use the name of the show in advertising auditions, however. 

In emails as early as last May, Cap and Bells expressed definitively that RENT was to be a part of the upcoming fall season. In an email sent to the Cap and Bells listserv, John Murphy ’21, the co-artistic director of Cap and Bells, listed both Dance Nation and RENT as the upcoming shows, well before the group had applied for rights.

In another email to the Cap and Bells listserv on September 13, then-treasurer Ben Weber ’21 wrote that “Cap & Bells is putting on Jonathan Larson’s RENT” and that “these auditions [were] specifically for RENT.” These statements were made after the group had received discretionary funding, but before the group was sure of the status of their rights requests.

“At times, we definitely made these promises [for] shows that we could not deliver on,” McPhail acknowledged. 

Following auditions, hopeful actors received roles for both RENT and Spring Awakening, though they were made aware that RENT’s production was not a certainty, given an upcoming production of the show in Boston. 

After auditions had been held, the group received a delay in rights adjudication, causing Cap and Bells board members and directors to begin planning for a rights denial. Cap and Bells eventually had their rights denied for RENT

“We immediately, after talking to our rep at MTI [Music Theater International], pulled the show RENT and went with our backup choice Spring Awakening, which we submitted a rights request for and got approval of,” McPhail said.

For Dance Nation, circumstances were similar, according to McPhail. Going forward for the fall season, a student-written and -directed play will take the place of Dance Nation.

McPhail reinforced that mistakes made in the funding and rights acquisition process are entirely the fault of the Cap and Bells board. 

“I would just stress again that [this] was a decision by the Cap and Bells board and not a decision made by the directors of each show; whatever they agreed to was based on information that we gave them, as the organization that’s supposed to be taking care of them and help them make theatre, saying they should not be worried about denials,” McPhail said.

“We’ve definitely learned a lot through going into future seasons that nothing is guaranteed,” she continued, “and that we absolutely need to monitor our flow of information to make sure that we’re not setting up expectations we can’t deliver.”