When it was first announced in Spring 2017 that the Stern College Dramatics Society (SCDS) would be staging its next performance, Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town, at the Schottenstein Theater on the Wilf Campus, it was treated as a long-awaited triumph for a society which has faced many odds in its quest for recognition from the YU administration and community. Especially after a chaotic play season that year, in which its acclaimed performance of Inherit the Wind was held in Koch Auditorium without a stage and with an audience that had to sit on folding chairs, it was heartening to see SCDS given an opportunity to shine in a professional environment, just like the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society had been given. There was certainly some skepticism and nervousness: could the society, used to working on a shoestring budget and with limited experience with the amenities of a professional theater, adapt to the challenges of the new venue? But despite the naysaying, SCDS jumped into the task with fervor and enthusiasm, glad to be immersed in what SCW senior Liorah Rubinstein, SCDS board member playing the key role of the Stage Manager, calls the “particular magic” of performing in a real theater.
SCDS has been somewhat itinerant in the years since its theater at the Schottenstein Cultural Center on the Beren Campus was sold in 2012. It has put on plays at Norman Thomas High School, a public school a block from Stanton Hall on 215 Lexington, and in Koch Auditorium on the second floor of Stanton. Neither location was ideal. While Norman Thomas High School had a spacious stage and seating area, it was difficult both to find dates to rent spaces for performances as well as to access the space for tech and dress rehearsals. In addition, as SCDS alumna ST Schwartz (SCW ’15) noted, “Often we got a great audience but the theater was so enormous and the seats were so far from the stage that the crowd looked small, which could be disheartening to the actresses on stage.” Koch Auditorium, essentially a large room with no stage, needed a lot of work to be made up as a venue to stage a play with a large audience, which included renting an expensive lights system.
This is the first year since the Cultural Center’s sale in which SCDS has access to a venue in which they have a stage, spacious seating, an operational tech booth, a backstage, and consistent access to the venue for rehearsals. To SCW junior Racheli Moskowitz, though, the uptown theater represents something even more than the sum of its amenities. “Koch Auditorium is everybody’s space, the Norman Thomas auditorium is just borrowed. But the Schott theater–it’s first and foremost a home for the dramatics society. Having a space that’s ours, that’s there for us, is such a powerful feeling. It legitimizes what we do, and is more of a home than any space we’ve had before.”
Last year’s president Jordyn Kaufman, SCW ’17, admitted crying tears of joy when she first entered the theater to visit one of the rehearsals for Our Town. For her, it was the culmination of her mission–a continuation of one which had been ongoing ever since the downtown theater had been sold–to get the uptown theater for SCDS. Kaufman spent months discussing the issue, first with Dean of Undergraduate Arts and Sciences Karen Bacon and later Dean of Students Chaim Nissel. She managed to convince them of the importance of SCDS having a permanent home in a YU theater. In the past this effort had been stymied by what turned out to be an urban legend, long thought to be true even in high levels of the administration, that a clause in the donors’ contract forbade women from using the men’s theater–- a clause which actually did not exist.
Once both deans were solidly behind the cause, they worked hard to make it happen, cutting through red tape and securing the approval of the Roshei Yeshiva. Kaufman had intended to announce the news and admitted that when former President Joel announced it prematurely at a town hall meeting she was initially surprised and frustrated. However she now believes that it was fitting that such momentous news came from the head of the institution. Former SCDS president Rachel Gottlieb, SCW ’16, emphasized the groundbreaking nature of Kaufman’s contribution, saying “I am incredibly impressed with everything that Jordyn Kaufman did to make this happen. This literally could not have happened without her.”
None of SCDS’s board, crew or cast were blind to the challenges that lay ahead. Kaufman admitted that she realized that “I made a decision for everyone–I knew that everyone was excited for the opportunity and could rise to the challenge, but it was still a new challenge that we weren’t used to.”
The society had never before faced many of the technical challenges which come along with a professional theater. However, to crew members, like set designer Ruchie Gross, SCW ’18, the challenge is one that she finds broadens the scope of what she can accomplish creatively. “There is a much more permanent feeling of set, unlike in Koch and Norman Thomas, where everything needed to be rolled in,” said Gross. She is now able to paint the set directly in the theater and work with the stage before the performance, things which weren’t possible in previous years. Another technical challenge is the sophisticated lighting system, a vast improvement over last year’s lighting, provided by a light board rented and programmed on opening night. This year, the society has had the able assistance of Rabbi John Krug, YCDS’s lighting designer, in both learning how to operate the lighting system and using it to its fullest potential. They have also gotten assistance from Yoseph Boniuk, YC ‘18, and Alex Pittler, SCW ‘18, students who both have experience working in the theater for YCDS.
“Having a big lighting designer like Rabbi Krug and having space to work in are major benefits to our new space,” said Professor Reuven Russell, Stern College speech professor and SCDS’s veteran director. “There’s nothing like acting in a real theater–it invigorates everyone from actor to designer to director to put on the best play possible.”
Another challenge has been the distance between the theater and the Beren Campus. This geographical challenge has required extra time commitment from the cast, crew and audience for travel between the Wilf and Beren campuses. Especially with the rush hour traffic going uptown in the early evening, it can take over an hour to get to the theater from Beren in time for rehearsal. For cast members like Ariella Etshalom, SCW ’20, it can be difficult but rewarding. “Being an ‘uptown girl’ is very exciting,” says Etshalom. “Travel can be difficult, especially every night in the weeks before the show, but knowing that we’re in a real theater makes it worth the extra effort.”
While the cast and crew have been able to adapt to the commute on the shuttle and subway, SCDS realized that the Beren Campus students who are traditionally part of the show’s target audience would not necessarily be able to get to the performances. In response they have rented buses to bring Beren women to and from the three weeknight performances. But for students on the Wilf Campus, the play’s move is putting it on the radar for those who otherwise might not have made the trek to Beren. “Instead of having to take a subway or shuttle downtown, it’s literally a 5 minute walk away,” says Yaacov Siev, YC ‘20. “Now everyone who was apprehensive last year about having to schlep downtown for SCDS’s play will have no excuse.” In fact, the increased potential audience led the society to take a gamble and double its number of performances from two in previous years to four this year, including a Sunday matinee performance.
As they see the tremendous strides which the society is taking in this year’s performance, SCDS members past and present look to future years and hope that all of the progress which has been made will only be built upon. “Seeing everyone rising to the challenge, it makes me hope that SCDS will never lose this opportunity,” said Kaufman. Shoshy Ciment, SCW ‘19, an SCDS board member who is playing Emily, echoed this sentiment. “I’m so honored to be able to be a part of the generation that finally gets to take advantage of the Schottenstein theater,” said Ciment. “I think this is the beginning of a new era for SCDS.”