The Benefits of Student Ran Theatre

Emily Brown 

I’m a college theater major in a relatively small liberal arts college in Syracuse, NY. On my campus, we have two theater companies: the staff run, and the student run. The staff run has predominantly professors as directors and designers (occasionally students are used as assistant designers), and students make up most (if not all) of the cast and crew. On the other hand, there is the student run theater company. Everyone from the executive directors, to the directors, actors, crew, designers, etc. is a student (we still have faculty moderators, but they mostly make sure we manage the space, funds, and supplies properly). The faculty run company usually uses our larger stage space, and the student run uses the smaller, more intimate, space.

Naturally, most people see the faculty run theater company as being “better”. I admit to feeling that way for most of my freshman year of college. But after my sophomore year, when I worked extensively with both theater companies, I realized something: I like the student company better. I feel like it gives me a more “true to professional theater” experience than working with the faculty. Why? Because the staff run theater company is a great learning tool. You have the entire staff of trained theater professionals working with you. You have priority for space, props, resources, even actors (to a degree).

Don’t get me wrong, I still love working with the staff run company. I just feel like working with the students is closer to what I’ll do in the “real world” after I graduate. After graduation, I’m working with my peers, not under my mentors and teachers. When I go to get a job, I’ll be on my own to figure out procedures and speak up if I want or need something. The same applies to the student company.

When I go to work on a student run show, I know that there is going to be chaos. It’s working with a group of your peers to make a production that holds up to the standards set by all the other local theater companies. No one looks at a student run show as being that much different from a faculty run show. People will, at most, consider that it is a smaller stage. But from an audience perspective, it’s all the same on stage regardless of who is in charge backstage.

Audience members don’t know that it was all student designers that worked on this show. They don’t care. They just want to be entertained. Unless they read all the bios--and on a college campus, very few people even look at the program more than a cursory glance to see their friends’ names--no one will know whether the production team is students or staff.

Through working on student run shows I have learned to work with limited resources, and how to make a little go a long way. I’ve also really built my problem solving and conflict resolution. Sure, I do some of this with the faculty run shows. But let’s be honest here: everyone is going to be on their best behavior for the faculty--they’re the people who write our letters of recommendation. But when it’s just students? People will act less professional. People will be catty. Not all the time, but it happens.

It’s a good way to learn how to deal with peers and follow the proper hierarchy of theater personnel. What do I mean by that? Typically, in a theater setting, if there is a problem between say the light op and the sound op, then they go to the stage manager and she fixes it (if possible). Or if some designers are disagreeing over where funds should be allocated, then the executive director steps in. This is what happens in the student run shows, and since everyone is a peer to everyone else, it works. However, if the stage manager is a student, the director and designers are all faculty, and someone has a problem with someone else; then they rarely come to another student. People will go to the faculty members to fix problems. The sound op will have the set designer fix his beef with the light op, while the dresser and ASM don’t bring up their beef because they don’t want the faculty to know.

A friend of mine from a different college had a problem with one of her faculty run shows where apparently one of the dressers had been dating the lead actor, and they broke up, but nobody wanted to tell the faculty (the director and stage manager for that show were both faculty members). But the dresser and actor refused to be in the same room as one another, making everything way more complicated than it needed to be.

On the flip side, in a show that I was stage manager for with the student run theater company, I found out that our light op and sound op had a thing and didn’t really want to be cramped next to each other for the whole of tech week. I was able to talk to them, not as an authority figure, but as an equal. The light op decided to drop out, so we replaced her and the show went off without a hitch.

While people may not want to spill all the details of their personal lives to someone else just because they are peers, that doesn’t mean that they won’t. I also know that people are way more comfortable telling their peers about personal issues/conflicts rather than their professors.

But it’s more than just personal relations. In a student run company, everyone knows that we’re all learning. We’re all at the same level. Everyone does their best to both collaborate and make their part of the production better. Everyone loves showing off their abilities, and it feels good to work with people who are your equal. Creative disagreements can be handled, hopefully in a mature fashion.

When I was an assistant set designer for a staff run show, I didn’t want to disagree with my faculty mentor, nor did I want to speak up to the director (a visiting staff member). Overall, I feel like the design I did for that show wasn’t what I wanted it to be. When I look at those pictures, it doesn’t really feel like my design at all.

On the other hand, when I’ve worked with the student run shows, the entire creative process seems to flow better. Whenever someone disagrees with the direction of a show, or if one person gets too big for their britches, they are reeled in. Everyone takes a step back and we all listen to each others ideas. Sure, it’s usually more chaotic with all students, and yes there is almost always someone who doesn’t really understand the meaning of collaboration. But that is part of the learning curve. From my friends who have graduated and moved on into the “real world” they say that it more closely mimics the student run shows that the staff run.

Maybe my opinion will change again when I graduate in May, but for now I’m enjoying working with my peers and learning from the faculty.

Photo: New York Film Academy