Guest Post: What’s Going On With Theater At Wesleyan?


Some of you have probably seen on Facebook that there is something going wrong with the Theater Department, and might have further questions.  Maia Nelles-Sager ’17 wrote a piece explaining the state of the Wesleyan Theater Department and submitted it to Wesleying. We are deciding to post it because we think it represents an all-too-often occurrence where departments are neglected and visiting professors are overworked.

As with many things at Wesleyan, there are inner workings of the administration  to which students don’t have access. In the case of the post below, these things are having a direct impact on the formal education that we have come here to receive. As a prospective theater major, this post is something near and dear to me. I’ve seen a big cry for transparency in our community, and I hope you all will take time to see why many students are looking for it in the case of the Theater Department. Read past the jump for Maia’s post.

Here is Maia’s post:

With everything going on in the world right now, the Wesleyan theater major may seem like a pretty chill place. I mean, that’s what Lin-Manuel Miranda ‘02 majored in, right?

Yes, but not quite. This coming Monday, February 13, the theater majors, headed by the Senior Class Representatives Cheyanne Williams ‘17 and Jess Cummings ‘17, have organized a Town Hall to discuss with the faculty, staff, interested students, and administration certain failings within the department. If you’re not a Theater major, you may not be aware of what is going on. Hold tight- it’s a bit of a long story.

Before the class of 2017, the theater major was small. There were nine Theater majors in the class of 2016, and years before that were similar in size. Additionally, there were four tenured faculty members, one tenure-track professor, an artist-in-residence, and a chair who was a member of the department. Sounds awesome, right? Right. But, due to a few poorly timed coincidences, the department is now in a receivership; there are only two tenured professors, no tenure-track professors, gateways to the major aren’t being offered, and there are forty declared majors (so that doesn’t include the prospective class of 2019, which is looking like it will be about 20 theater majors, or any of the prospective majors in the class of 2020, which is looking to be more).

What is a receivership, you may ask? Until 2016, Yuri Kordonski was the chair of the Theater department. Yuri taught directing, sometimes acting, and some history and literature electives. In 2016 Yuri was offered a job at the Yale School of Drama, which he took. We’re all very proud of Yuri, but that left the Theater department without a chair. Dean of the Arts and Humanities, Ellen Nerenberg, took the job and became the Interim Chair of the Theater Department. Dean Nerenberg is also a professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, and is probably a wonderful professor, but has never taught a Theater course at Wesleyan before. Before she became Interim Chair of the department, Dean Nerenberg had never been to a Theater Department faculty meeting, or involved in the department at all. In fact, since she has been Chair, the theater department has not held regular faculty meetings. They have not since Yuri left, over 2 semesters ago.

Yuri wasn’t the only one who left in 2016. That year two other faculty members also left the department: Professor Emeritus Jack Carr, and the Artist-in-Residence Leslie Weinberg. Both retired, bringing the number of faculty members with job security down to two. Of course, we all know that professors are horrendously underpaid, but because the theater department now has so many majors and so few tenured faculty members, visiting professors are being asked to advise theses (something only tenured/tenured-track professors are supposed to do), teach extra classes, and are generally being even more overworked and even more underpaid than is normal in academia, and they are not being offered any way to have career mobility. Wesleyan boasts an 8:1 student to faculty ratio on its website. The current ratio of theater majors to tenured faculty is 20:1.

This brings us to the other side of the problem. Wesleyan has used the Theater Department in promotional material ever since Hamilton exploded two years ago. It’s hard to hear about Wesleyan these days and not get excited about the state of theater. Largely due to this,  the Theater major has grown tremendously. The Sophomore and First Year classes are the biggest groups of prospective Theater majors ever, which is wonderful. However, one of the very first things Dean Nerenberg did as Interim Chair was put a hold on hiring faculty members. At this point there is no professor who can teach Acting I, and Theater Histories I and II are similarly up in the air, with Fall 2017 being the last semester they are surely being taught. All three of these classes are gateways to the major, and Acting I specifically is one of the most sought after classes at Wesleyan, routinely offering three sections to fill demand. And yet Wesleyan is still publicizing the Theater Department as if it can handle the current overflow of students.

In light of all this, there will be a town hall on Monday, where students, alumni, and other members of the community can share their feelings on the major, reasons it’s important that we resume hiring—especially tenure-track professors—and ask the administration directly what their plans are for reforming this situation. The town hall is open to anyone who is interested, and the current and past theater majors would love your support. It will take place in the Ring Family Performing Arts Hall from 4:45-6:00pm. Whether you find yourself directly affected by this or not, we hope that you will join us in solidarity.

TL;DR Support Wesleyan students in Theater at the Town Hall on Monday, February 13th from 4:45-6pm in the Ring Family Performing Arts Hall.


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2 thoughts on “Guest Post: What’s Going On With Theater At Wesleyan?

  1. Jacquelyn Roberts

    Dear Wes Theater Folks,
    I am an alum, Class of “82 and an alum of Yale Drama Class of “89. For a few months I have been trying to put together a joint production of my play, Lick O’ the Knife, involving Wesleyan students and a group of sub-Saharan African artist in Florence. I am still willing to make this happen in spite of the challenges posed by the Theater Department.

    Please contact me if you are interested
    Jackie Roberts

    Lick O’ the Knife is a modern comedy in the tradition of the popular plays of the early nineteenth century. Set in 1837 Paris, the piece revolves around a friendship between the Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin and the French dramatist, Alexandre Dumas (pere) that takes place over a wild 12 hours of drinking, poetry and love-making. In short, Lick O’ the Knife is a Black swashbuckler.
    It is often forgotten that these nineteenth century writers spoke openly of their experiences as black men. Lick O’ the Knife’s exploration of the bonds among black men has been transposed into 1837 in order to offer fresh perspectives on the dynamics of masculinity that we inhabit in contemporary Black America. The play straddles the double-edged sword of violence as a path to freedom and violence as a path to self-destruction.

    Jackie Roberts is the artistic director of 2016 ell project at the Arts Center of the Capital Region, a regional theater dedicated to providing living wage jobs for young people 18 to 25. Jackie has been a member of Blacksmyths, the African American writers, collective at the Mark Taper Forum; and a finalist for the Sundance Playwriting Festival and the Eugene O’Neill Festival. She was a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts as well as a grant recipient. Her plays have been performed at the Sledgehammer Theater in San Diego, The Cleveland Public Theatre and schools around the country including the Mary McDowell Friends School/A School For Students With Learning Disabilities. Her article “Healing Myths from the Ethnic Community, or Why I don’t teach August Wilson” is available in the journal Theater Topics. She has a B.A. in philosophy from Wesleyan University and an M.F.A. from Yale University School of Drama. As an actor, she flourished for several years working in the theater, where she received a Southern California Theatre Critics Award and a NAACP Image Award. Jackie also spent several years on the Warner Brothers’ sitcom, The Steve Harvey Show, Fox’s Party of Five as well as NBC’s The West Wing. Her article “Healing Myths from the Ethnic Community, or Why I don’t teach August Wilson” is available in Theater Topics September 2010, John Hopkins University Press.

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