Last week, the College’s theatre department cancelled its fall show, Beast Thing, in response to students’ concerns about the play’s potentially traumatizing content and their experiences in the show.
Many students involved in the show expressed frustration with their inability to bring their concerns about the show’s content and overall working process to the creative team. The theatre department has a responsibility to treat students with respect and to make sure that their concerns are not being invalidated or de-legitimized. Theatre department plays require students to commit their bodies to their work; these students deserve to be fully involved and represented in the productions.
The theatre department attempted to recruit more students of color to act in Beast Thing, which was written by Aleshea Harris, a black playwright, for predominantly black casts. This was well-intentioned, and such efforts should be further expanded in the future given that the theatre department, and the College overall, have historically been white spaces. However, several cast members reported feeling taken advantage of, exemplified by the withdrawal of several actors of color due to the rehearsal environment. The theatre department has an obligation to be welcoming of all identities and to represent those identities in ways that are not tokenizing or harmful.
The Record also takes issue with the theatre department’s unilateral decision to cancel the show amid requests by the cast that they continue to work out problems that arose during tech week. While we recognize that there are many factors at play, it is apparent that the cast dedicated an incredible amount of time and emotional labor to Beast Thing; to shut down the production without attempting to address the students’ concerns, especially when those students sacrificed time normally spent on school work, friends and other extracurriculars to participate in the show, demonstrates a significant divide between the theatre department faculty and staff and the students.
It is disappointing and counterproductive – for the cast, the creative team and the campus as a whole – that this revolutionary work by a playwright of color did not find an audience here at the College. The College is a predominantly white institution that must grapple with both the space it gives these voices and how it presents them. Simultaneously, the students involved in Beast Thing have a right to express their experiences and concerns regarding the rehearsal process and end product. It is possible to both accept that this show’s cancellation is a loss for the campus and for those involved, and to acknowledge the harms that cast members experienced from what should have been a generative process.
The theatre department is a campus institution that would not be possible without the free expression of ideas. We at the Record reaffirm our commitment to this ideal and commend the theatre department for choosing new, challenging works. We commend the department and director, Misha Chowdhury, for bringing this brave work to campus. We would also like to further encourage the department to consider professors who are willing to bring such works and are committed to these goals of equity and inclusion as they look to hire for a tenure-track position.
The College has a responsibility to engage with students involved in the theatre community so that they may explore their interests in collaboration with faculty in a way that is productive rather than harmful. We hope that the department takes this opportunity to re-examine its treatment of students and methods for outreach in its future productions.