This week, Theatre Bay Area is proud to publish an article written by Juliana Lustenader, a student in San Francisco State University’s “Writing about Theatre” class. Ms. Lustenader is the winner of a competition instituted by course instructor Lily Janiak and TBA associate editor Laura Brueckner to encourage young writers to produce skilled and thoughtful arts journalism.
SFSU student, actor and arts
writer Juliana Lustenader.
ACT and SFSU: Bubbles That Just Won’t Pop
By Juliana Lustenader
The first time I heard the acronym ACT, back in my first year at San Francisco State University (SFSU), I remember thinking to myself, “Why are they telling me how to spell the word 'act?'” After that embarrassing conversation concluded, all I knew about American Conservatory Theater was just that, its title.
It wasn’t until two years later when I met Rebekah Brockman, an MFA student at ACT, that I learned the theatre company had an MFA acting program at all. Brockman lived with Kenny Toll, a founder of Do It Live Productions, when he and I were studying at SFSU together. Brockman and Toll met by chance at a summer Shakespeare program in Oxford in 2006. Once Brockman was accepted into ACT’s MFA program, Toll offered her the empty room in his house. That’s when the real conversation started. The two would come back home from their days of classes and share their ideas, concerns and questions about their curriculum with each other. The two actors realized how few of their theatrical peers would attend productions off campus and outside of their curriculum.
“When Kenny and I were talking, it would be about what our generation could do to support each other’s work and raise the bar for each other,” recalls Brockman. “It’s what we could do as the students to be proactive about seeing each other’s work and then seeing work around the area and still talking about it.”
Shay Wisniewski, another founder of Do It Live Productions and a recent SFSU graduate, met Brockman through Toll as well. Like me, Wisniewski relied on these connections to learn what she could about ACT in her early years of study. “The only thing I knew about ACT was what I knew from Rebecca and Mark [Jackson],” she admits. “[ACT mainstage shows] are advertised everywhere. But when it comes to MFA performances, they are not advertised as well.”
It is disconcerting to hear reports of students attending an undergraduate acting program not knowing about the performances happening at a prestigious MFA acting program located in the same city. But this is not entirely the SFSU student body’s fault. As Wisniewski previously stated, the MFA shows are hardly advertised around the city compared to the mainstage affairs. To have the ACT and SFSU students communicate with each other more could prove productive on both sides; not just to educate the undergrads, but also for the MFA students to start making connections and get bodies in their audiences.
Mark Jackson, a guest professor at both ACT and SFSU, has never seen a connection between the students at both programs since his years of studying theatre at SFSU. “The fact that Rebekah and Kenny were living together, that created more of a bridge than probably there’s ever been,” he jokes, but he may not know just how right he is.
As the school years came and went, Brockman and Toll tried their best to get their peers’ attention about the student shows happening outside of their own campus’ walls. But this proved difficult, as the production calendars hardly matched up and the students grew increasingly busy.
Brockman found it especially difficult to convince her classmates to join her when she’d venture out to SFSU. She attributes this to the drastically different schedule the conservatory uses compared to the state institution. “Our schedule is from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day,” she sighs. “There are so many theatres, so many people, so many shows that are out there and, as far as our schedule goes, getting the training, seeing the mainstage shows, rehearsing and teaching, there is very little time to actually bridge a gap.”
Toll and his SFSU peers were in the same boat as Brockman. There were few students who were willing to leave their Creative Arts building and venture into other theatres in the Bay Area. While she was studying at SFSU, Wisniewski helped run the student’s drama union called the Player’s Club; and she used her status in the club to advocate attending shows off campus. But much like Brockman’s attempts, it failed. “It was very hard,” Wisniewski explains. “Most people had their own rehearsals or work to go to.”
The lack of student attendance at Bay Area theatres can be answered simply by pointing to the little money and time these young adults have. Why leave a campus where multiple shows are produced each month, half of which are free? But even when the Players’ Club would offer free tickets to see award-winning productions at top companies to their members, hardly any of them would take initiative and actually travel to the theatres.
Based on his experience teaching at both SFSU and ACT, Jackson believes that only proactive students, like Brockman, can solve this problem. “Somebody has to do it and it has to be someone with invested interest,” he determines. “Without somebody like Rebekah, who’s a student, no faculty member is going to do it and no staff member at ACT is going to do it.”
Jackson’s statement about the faculty got me thinking: if the students are having a hard time leaving the campus to see outside shows, maybe it’s time for the teachers and staff to step up and bridge the gap.
Wisniewski, who recently completed the Summer Training Congress at ACT, thinks a formal connection between the two theatre schools would be a huge step in the right direction. “If we could grasp the knowledge that these students are learning in the MFA program and have them share with the BA students, we could create a wonderful learning environment, where there isn’t a teacher-actor dynamic necessarily, but a company feel,” she hopes aloud.
What may appear to be a master class for the benefit of the SFSU undergrads and the exploitation of the ACT grad students is not what Wisniewski imagines. This collaborative set-up should allow the schools’ students to learn and teach equally; each side’s theatre experiences and ideas are valid. After all, students at both of these institutions are taking courses with a plethora of teachers that are actors, directors, and designers working professionally in the Bay Area today. The ACT students would have an opportunity to workshop projects and create new work with a large group of eager theatre majors, not just the same seven people they see every day in their conservatory classes. Since both programs share almost all of the same class topics, the two groups of actors could compare and contrast how they have been trained in those fields and fill in possible gaps. Combining the specifically-trained mind of the ACT grad with the open-minded creativity of the SFSU student would prove to be a valuable learning experience for both parties.
What I, Wisniewski, and most of the students at both schools didn’t know is that there once was talk among the staff about creating a classroom setting where the two groups could work together. Kurt Daw, previously the Dean of Creative Arts at SFSU and a two-term President of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, says that planning was put on hold because, “those discussions were fairly advanced around the time the economy in California started crashing and SFSU didn’t have enough money to follow through on our part of the discussion.”
Jackson has doubts about a university setting being the right option for connecting these groups of students. “I’m sure there are conservatory style MFA programs within university settings somewhere… but it’s just a different environment,” he explains. “What ACT is doing is very special and I personally would hate to see them dissipate within a university system.”
Which brings up the ultimate question: can an undergraduate theatre program at a state school even compete with a world-renowned MFA conservatory? Toll believes that the students should stop being concerned with how different the schools are and should start working together as performers. “You’ve got these two monster programs that are pumping out theatre students into the Bay Area,” he describes. “San Francisco is full of working actors from both SFSU and ACT.” Being a performer in the Bay Area is about working with other actors, not against them. If the students from either institution want to become successful working actors in this community, they must be open to working side by side with other local actors, despite what’s written on their diploma.
And the collaboration has already begun. After failing to coax her classmates into SFSU’s Little Theatre, Brockman has thought of joining creative forces with Do It Live Productions. “With Do It Live, what excited me was our generation of artists having a network among each other,” exclaims Brockman. “Shotgun Players started up the same way we are starting up and that’s through the conversation.” The conversation is welcome on both sides, as Wisniewski points out, “Do It Live is derived of State students and knowing that an ACT student has taken an interest in us is really quite cool.”
The collaboration doesn’t end at brand-new theatre companies created by recent graduates. As Toll pointed out before, the Bay Area theatre community is full of ACT and SFSU students all volunteering, auditioning, and performing today and many of them are working together under the top companies’ roofs. One example is the production of “Woyzeck” opening later this year which will feature ACT student Alex Crowther in the title role, with Kenny Toll by his side, all under the direction of Mark Jackson. This is just one out of many instances when young actors from both worlds have been able to work with each other in a building not necessarily funded by the California state school system or ACT donations.
Brockman uses “Woyzeck” as an example of how the conversation among graduates from both schools can keep going. “Students who are still getting the chance to work together out in the industry, that’s what I’m interested in,” she explains. “That’s how things happen, evolve or keep escalating. It’s just a matter of throwing all of the paint on the walls and seeing what colors you come up with.”
If Brockman and Toll hadn’t met when they did, the collaboration that has already begun among the schools’ graduates may not exist. It is upsetting to see how few of the current students want to be a part of that discussion and how many of them seem to be waiting for graduation before joining in. “Having gone through an undergrad program and a graduate program,” says Brockman, “I find you educate yourself more with what your peers are doing.” It looks as if only a select few students understand the possibilities that lie before them when they share their ideas with future cast members.
“It’s always valuable to be in communication with other theatre students,” states Toll. “Collaborating and working with people outside of your own little element is nothing but beneficial.”
The benefit of this conversation goes far beyond improving school productions. We as students have the opportunity to use the knowledge that we’re given and translate it into our work as actors in the Bay Area. By sharing our achievements and mistakes with others in the community, we can continue learning well into our professional lives. We can’t rely on teachers, classrooms and school productions to educate us forever; we have to graduate someday. And when that day comes, we will have a group of colleagues with all kinds of backgrounds ready to help us and create new, bold theatre together. But before the final product can be seen by the Bay Area theatre community, the students have to be willing to venture out of their comfort zone. “Maybe that’s the ultimate benefit for both, to get out of your own bubble,” Jackson argues. “You can get quite isolated at either place. Just to burst that [bubble] is worth it.”
Juliana Lustenader is a student at San Francisco State University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Theatre Arts. As a local actor, she has performed for Shotgun Players, California's Great America, and in several SFSU productions. Catch up with her at skillpages.com/Juliana.Lustenader.
The views represented in this Chatterbox Art & Opinion post are those of the individual author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Theatre Bay Area or its staff.