During Richard Joel’s last Beren Campus Town Hall meeting, he made an announcement that surprised not only the theatrical community on campus, but many students who heard it: Schottenstein Theater would be shared between both dramatics societies starting this fall.
Until now, Schottenstein Theater, located a few blocks away from the Wilf Campus, only provided a home for Yeshiva College Dramatics Society (YCDS). Originally, there were theaters for each campus, but when Yeshiva University hit their financial slump, the Beren Campus theater was sold. In an article published in the Commentator last year titled “The Heights Are Alive With The Sound Of Sexism,” an anonymous student wrote, “In fact, both theatres were donated by the same person, an individual who valued the arts and wanted students on both campuses to have equal opportunity to follow their passions.” Stern College Dramatics Society (SCDS) lost their theater while YCDS continued to perform in Schottenstein and many Beren students argued that the equal opportunity that was originally granted to both societies was now gone.
For years, students on both campuses had heard that the contract that was written by the donors of the different theaters stated that women were not allowed to perform on the men’s stage. There’d been little inclination to fight for the use of the uptown theater beforehand due to this provision, which ultimately turned out to be a rumor. Jordyn Kaufman, president of the Stern College Dramatics Society, who worked on gaining access to the theater for much of this year, shed some light on this claim. “This year I actually questioned it to the people who had to give me answers. I was told by Dean Bacon, by Dr. Nissel, by Rabbi Brander, that it literally wasn’t true. We’re not sure who created that rumor, but it was definitely created because it was common knowledge that people[believed].”
For many years, SCDS had to find ways to work with the very limited budget and space that they were provided with, all while Yeshiva College Dramatics Society was granted a much larger budget. Kaufman commented on this discrepancy: “YCDS has a much, much larger budget than SCDS which is kind of hilarious because they’re not even paying for a space so our budget is pocket change [in] comparison.” Since Yeshiva College Dramatics Society is provided with a larger budget, all without needing to spend money on renting a space, they have the opportunity to put on a more costly, elaborate show, and even hold a cast party with personalized gifts for the cast and crew.
The budget for Stern Dramatics has been significantly lower, with sources in administration disclosing that SCDS’ budget was approximately 1/20th of YCDS’. In fact, SCDS has been given a budget of approximately less than $1,000 every year, and nearly half of this goes to the rights for the play alone. Board members of SCDS never knew how much money they had left to spend on the performance or what was paid for out of their budget because they were never given access to that information. Despite having their own bank account, SCDS did not see it until this year. An anonymous source stated, “It was suggested less than a week before our first performance that we cancel our second show and only do one because it was too stressful and expensive for facilities to break down the stage and put it up again, while the boys have six performances.” Some feel that the school’s attitude toward the two societies can be seen best on Yeshiva University’s social media pages, which contain numerous, professional pictures of the YCDS’ show and just one, blurry picture of SCDS’ Inherit The Wind.
“For SCDS, we’ve always struggled to get even remotely close to the same level of support YCDS gets from the school,” Becca Epstein, co-vice president of the Stern College Dramatics Society said. “One of the biggest roadblocks that we’ve encountered is the lack of our own performance space. In years past, we were given the space in Norman Thomas high school to use. Of course, the term ‘given’ is very subjective. We were given very limited clearance as to when we were allowed to rehearse, and which set and props pieces we were allowed to leave. This year, the question of where we would be performing wasn’t answered until a few weeks before the show, leaving us with little room as to how we could rehearse. While the men of YCDS were building their set in their theater, we were rehearsing in any classroom that was big enough for us. While we were taking the first 45 minutes of our allotted rehearsal time in Koch to clear the desks and make the space usable, the men were already beginning to advertise their show. While YCDS was conducting their “tech week” with full lights, set, sound, and props, our incredibly talented Lights Head, Tali Kozlowski, was figuring out a foreign lights system mere hours before our show, since she wasn’t able to have access to them earlier.” SCDS has had to face these issues for many years.
Kaufman felt that part of her job as president would be to change all this. She took the issue to Dean Karen Bacon. Kaufman praised Dean Bacon, saying, “In the past, Dean Bacon has been a good friend not only to SCDS, but to the arts in general…Dean Bacon was very much on our side.” But Kaufman felt frustrated by the lack of response from other members of the administration. “It was like we were knocking on their door, but they looked through the peephole, saw it was [us], and pretended we weren’t there.”
The process to gain access to the theater was a tough one, Kaufman said. “I would meet with [Dean Bacon] and discuss the lack of progress being made… so it was this cycle of me meeting with her and her relaying that message to [Rabbi Kenneth Brander and Dr. Chaim Nissel] and then her telling me that nothing had happened.” Dean Bacon suggested that Kaufman meet with Dean Nissel in person to work on the issues and, since November, Kaufman met with Dean Nissel numerous times to explain SCDS’ situation and why it was important for the administration to pay attention to their needs. The most critical discussion the two had was the lack of a theater space.
At first, “it really felt like the meetings weren’t getting anywhere, like it was a waste of time; I felt like I wasn’t being heard. It wasn’t like he wasn’t trying—he was really trying—but it felt like he didn’t understand what I was saying.” But, during a phone call with Dr. Nissel in January, Kaufman realized that she said something that resonated with him. “He said, ‘Jordyn, I’m in this with you. We’re going to make it work.’ It was a good moment.”
Though SCDS’ play this year, Inherit The Wind, was performed in Koch, Kaufman said, “We ended up in Koch with the promise that next year, we would be in the uptown theater.”
This decision was a victory for the members of SCDS, who felt that it should have been announced by Kaufman, the president of the club and one of the key players in accomplishing this, or perhaps Dean Bacon or Dr. Nissel who have been an active allies for SCDS. The announcement was instead made by President Joel, who admitted after the Town Hall to having only minimal information about the project.
Chani Grossman, secretary of the Stern College Dramatics Society, who attended the final Town Hall meeting, said, “The minute President Joel broke the news, I immediately jumped up, ran out of the room, and sent a frantic voice note to the board WhatsApp group…It was frustrating not being able to hold on to the information and be able to release it at a time that would have been more optimal for the society.”
Rivkie Rieter, the stage manager for this year’s production of Inherit The Wind, agreed with Grossman. “I was pretty surprised that he’d announced it so casually,” she said. “I knew that Jordyn had been killing herself for the past two years to make this happen, and I was caught-off guard when he announced it as though it was all his idea and his doing.”
SCDS members were frustrated that they were not even able to be the first ones to publically announce it over social media. Shortly after Joel shared the news, YCDS posted it on their Facebook page.
When asked how they felt about sharing the space with SCDS, Co-President of the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society, Binyamin Bixon stated, “I have no idea what this means for YCDS and SCDS as a whole, but I’m excited to know that girls will (finally) be able to use our stage.”
However, there were members that were more concerned. A student who wished to remain anonymous said, “Although the boys are happy that the girls now have use of the theater, it’s more logistically how SCDS is going to use it. The theater is not in great condition and the girls really don’t know what they are about to get themselves into…There’s a lot of upkeep to making sure that their show is on point. It takes a huge commitment that they are not aware of and be prepared to be there until 1, sometimes 2 AM…They will be shocked as to how much more work and stress this will bring them.”
When asked what she thought of this comment, Kaufman stressed, “This is not a joke to us. We know what we’re getting ourselves into. At the end of the day, the notion that women would not be able to maintain the space or that they don’t know what they’re getting themselves into is an assumption and a ridiculous one at that because obviously, if Dr. Nissel and the rest of the administration trusts in SCDS’ ability that we have proved to them, it’s not a concern.”
The anonymous source also stated that “there’s also a worry amongst YCDS that they don’t realize how much work goes into making sets. The theater becomes a construction site up until the show, so unless they know how to work power tools, then it’s going to be difficult to manipulate the theater to what they need.”
Kaufman isn’t worried about that, pointing out that, in the past few years, SCDS has become very adaptive due to their roving theater space. “Last year, we had two women of SCDS who built an entire set with one half-dead drill and a hand-saw,” Kaufman pointed out. “I personally had to sit on a plank of wood on a desk while another woman used a hand-saw and went back and forth and back and forth until the two-by-four finally cut. This year, we also had a woman on the day of the show a mere hour and a half before the performance who was handed a light board that was hooked up to unfamiliar lights brought by an outside company with little to no instruction on what to do. An hour and a half later, when the performance started, the woman had pulled together the lights in a more beautiful way than we could have ever dreamed someone would have in that timeframe. We had a woman working on costumes who was told you have almost no money, a bigger cast than we’ve had in years, and you have to clothe all of them. She went across the city, scrounging for anything that could possibly fit both into our budget, into the theme of the show, and still uphold the levels of modesty that we women of Stern College hold.”
Despite the logistical challenges, SCDS’ sold out both shows this year, even adding more seats for the second showing. “The night before the show, the last costume piece fell into place and somehow with all the difficulties, [it] managed to look incredible.” Kaufman said. “The women of SCDS are no stranger to difficult circumstances. We welcome the challenge of slightly different circumstances because we know that every difficulty we have been thrown we have not only dealt with, but mastered.”
Becca Epstein added, “The women of SCDS have proven time and again what it means to truly care about something and to see it through. They have embodied the phrase, ‘the show must go on.’ We are talented, strong, resilient, and passionate.”
At the end of the day, SCDS is heartened to know that all of their hard work is being recognized. “I’m really excited,” Grossman said. “Having been to the YCDS play, I have seen what a great space it is and I’m looking forward to being able to use it for next year’s production.”
“We will take this opportunity and use it to the fullest extent,” Epstein promised. “I hope that my fellow students at Yeshiva University take the chance to see how much SCDS can shine.”
Kaufman added, “One thing I always say is if SCDS had the resources that the men in the YCDS had, we would be Broadway.