By Eli Hughes–
The Theatre Arts Undergraduate Student Union held an open meeting with theatre faculty on April 22 to discuss issues within the department, which have led to the formation of the union and a walkout from rehearsal of their show Hashtag on April 16.
The walkout included undergraduate performers and crew including stage management, acting, lights, costumes and scene design.
“This is a demonstration of undergraduate student impact on the U of L theatre department. We acknowledge that this is an inconvenience for many involved in this technical process, and that’s the point we’re trying to make,” the members of the union said in a flyer that was left behind in the theatre building and distributed during the walkout.
“We encourage you to go back and try to work. Who is missing? Who is needed in this space that has disappeared.”
One of the issues these students spoke out about includes the culture of burnout they claim is fostered by the department.
“Undergrad students in this department have just felt totally not supported and exploited. Everyone gets burnt out. I know people who finish their degree and never want to do theatre again,” said Loren Moody, senior theatre major.
Aiden Stivers, a senior theater major, said the issues are especially prominent during tech week.
“I think it’s important to note that specifically tech week has been literally hell week for a lot of undergraduates,” Stivers said. “Especially undergraduates in the technical departments, because we are often put in leadership roles that we don’t get a lot of training for or we don’t feel secure in and we are left to kind of scramble around and figure out how to do it.”
Students also reported a lack of communication in the department and said that was something they hoped to change.
“We’ve taken steps to start that, but this walkout is really intended to remind them that we haven’t forgotten about the issues and problems that we’ve had in the past that many students have suffered through and also to remind them of the weight we hold in this department, so that they take us seriously and they know that fixing our issues is of utmost importance,” Colton Bachinkski, a sophomore theatre major said.
Other issues mentioned on the student union’s list of grievances include a lack of acting opportunities for undergraduates, a history of faculty misgendering transgender students, lack of response to sexual assault and sexual harassment claims, and a lack of preparing students for their professional careers.
Nefertiti Burton, chair of the Department of Theater Arts, said she supported the students decision to form a student union but was confused by the decision to walk out after a time had already been set to meet and talk about these concerns.
“The students had immediately accepted and confirmed the meeting, so I was totally confused as to why they would take this action after scheduling the meeting,” Burton said. “This was especially troubling since this predominantly white group of students chose to walk out of the tech process on an African American Theatre Program production that was developed by students to address the anti-black and social justice movements dominating our nation’s attention at this moment.”
Miranda Cisneros, the technical production manager for the department, said she fully supports the students’ decision to form a union, but disagreed with the timing of the walkout for the same reasons. She also added the play centers around racial injustice and policing so she believed that the show deserved everyone’s full attention.
“The majority of the undergraduate student union is comprised of white students and I think that was a big oversight for them to walk out,” she said.
According to Burton, at the meeting on April 22, students apologized for walking out during an AATP production and clarified their intentions.
“They explained that it was meant to illustrate how important undergrads are to the department, and they apologized for taking that action on an AATP show,” she said.
“They stated that they had not considered what kind of message the walkout of a predominantly white group of students might send and the impact it could have on many in the department. The students also stated several times that many of their grievances were related to circumstances that are in the past and they have already seen progress. They expressed appreciation for the faculty and staff and our efforts to make change.”
Following the meeting, Hunter Dischley, a junior theater major, said she had mixed feelings about the response they received. “They seemed receptive to all of our goals and all that, but they also didn’t remember some of the stuff we had told them previously.”
Cisneros believes that the theatre department has been moving forward with the unions concerns in mind since the formation of the union and that they will continue to move forward. “As a recent alum of this department, I would say that the amount of change that I have seen in the department since I graduated is revolutionary,” Cisneros said.
Burton said she and the rest of the faculty and staff plan to reflect on what was discussed at the meeting and move forward to address the student’s concerns.
“I learned a great deal from the students,” she said. “And I recognize that there is a lot more that faculty can do to uplift the importance and value of undergraduate labor in our productions. The students identified issues in the curriculum and course scheduling that I will consider carefully and adjust where possible. They also spoke to issues of climate and culture in the department relative to transgender students that I will take immediate action to address.”
“I am grateful that the students are eager to collaborate with faculty and staff to make the Theatre Arts department a better place to learn and work, and I foresee positive change in 2021-2022.”
Graphic by Eli Hughes//The Louisville Cardinal