Save the HJT 8 Play Season!
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We, the undersigned, are a collection of alumni, former faculty, current students, and Whitman College community members who are concerned about the future trajectory of the Department of Theatre.
The Theatre department, Harper Joy Theatre, and the community at large are invaluable parts of Whitman and have produced skilled artists for many years. Harper Joy students produce work of the highest quality, which influences and enriches the cultural landscape of the Walla Walla Valley. Students from all backgrounds, passions and majors work together onstage, offstage, and backstage to create theatre that moves, challenges and inspires.
Hundreds of HJT students have gone on to pursue careers all over the world using the skills, techniques, and craft learned within this community, both in the arts and in careers further afield. Many have given or are in the process of giving back to the Whitman community in ways which are shaped by their experiences in the Theatre.
It is our understanding that there is a plan to reduce the number of official department theatrical productions from eight per year -The Instant Play Festival, the One Act Contest, and three additional productions per semester - to five. We feel this may have extremely detrimental short and long-term impacts for the department specifically, and the theatre community at large. These impacts would be felt not only within Whitman College, but throughout the Walla Walla community. They include:
1. Departmental brain-drain among students and faculty. For the majority students who decide to attend Whitman to pursue theatre, the number of productions produced each semester is the primary differentiating factor in their decision-making process. The quantity and quality of productions significantly affects the ability of the department to attract more talented, driven, and creative artists to Whitman and to Walla Walla. Even a modest change in this schedule could begin a downward spiral of student recruitment and faculty retention which would make future recovery to the current high standards and appeal difficult or impossible.
2. Reduced opportunities for all students, especially first and second years interested in theatre. Fewer productions per year would mean fewer positions for student artists to work on and develop skills. Because the theatre department currently has senior-level requirements for working on productions, this reduction likely means that first and second-year students will be the ones who suffer most. This would jeopardize a valuable aspect of the Whitman theatre education--student mentorship. Incoming students benefit from working with more experienced upperclassmen, and in turn, upperclassmen benefit from the opportunity to teach and develop their mentorship skills. There are few other fields where these opportunities are so prominent or fruitful as in theatre. One of the current strengths of the theatre department is that students of any grade level are welcome to participate in productions, making Whitman attractive to prospective students. A lower quantity of shows will lead to a lower quality of shows, as student-artists and technicians will not be as developed or proficient in their fields as they currently are, thanks to the current state of opportunities and mentoring available to them.
3. A reduction in opportunities for participation for non-majors in the community. Whitman prides itself on providing diverse opportunities for students that facilitate the education of passionate, well-rounded people. Around half of the students in the theatre community in any year are non-majors. The community provides one of the largest settings on campus for students from incredibly diverse backgrounds and fields to live in a convivial and close-knit way together, and allows for projects to be worked on in an interdisciplinary fashion that is unrivalled on campus. This environment would be challenged by this change.
4. A drastic decrease in opportunities for those in the technical fields. We anticipate that student-led productions will be promoted as a means to fill in the gap of fewer department productions. While this may provide some opportunities for actors and directors, the number of technical opportunities in official productions cannot be sufficiently replaced by student-led productions, as many of the resources needed for the technical fields are controlled by the department. Furthermore, there is currently no vibrant culture of student-produced theatre at HJT, and very few students who identify primarily as directors. This culture cannot simply be created overnight by reducing the number of season shows, and directors will not be born out of this void.
5. A diminished point of connection with the Walla Walla community at large. The theatre department is currently one of the largest and most successful public-facing entities on campus that fosters town-gown relations on a weekly basis. Many who have lived in Walla Walla and the larger Valley area feel a strong sense of connection to the Whitman campus singularly through the official productions of the Harper Joy Theatre. A reduction in shows limits the ways community members interact with our school, and damages a critical hub of community relations within the college.
In light of these impacts, we urge the decision-making bodies responsible at Whitman to:
1. Immediately open up channels of dialogue with concerned alumni, students, and community members. The proposed changes are substantial and contentious and warrant all due transparency, accountability, and external input.
2. Elaborate publicly upon the reasoning for such a departmental change. The loss of programs that have enriched the Whitman experience of so many students and faculty should not be taken lightly. Justification for these proposed changes should be made available to concerned alumni and potential donors who want current Whitman students to be afforded the same opportunities that made their education so valuable. And the underlying reasons will need to be addressed through different channels when the 8 play season is restored.
3. Re-commit to a program of eight theatrical productions per-year--including the Instant Play Festival and One Act Contest, re-commencing in the 2018-2019 school year.
4. We recognize that due to the increased institutional standards of independent research for all academics at Whitman, the current Theatre faculty could be strained by the demands of maintaining eight shows per year. We urge the Provost and Dean of the Faculty in conjunction with the department to explore any and all options to support the current faculty and increase departmental flexibility, including and up to the possibility of additional tenure track positions, and seasonal guest directors and artists.
We appreciate your attention to these matters. We take this change incredibly seriously, and hope for movement towards effective, clear, and meaningful dialogue in the immediate future which can lead to a satisfying resolution for all involved, and maintain the high standard of educational excellence that the Whitman Theatre department has so admirably upheld.
Addendum: We understand that the consolidation of the theatre and dance departments has led to two previously-existing dance shows being included in the tally of theatre shows produced per year. We don’t include this in the tally of shows because they are, as stated, shows that have existed at Whitman since before the consolidation and are subsequently not a replacement for fewer shows in the Theatre department. Further, we understand there is currently minimal to non-existent student cross-participation between the Theatre and Dance departments on seasonal productions. Therefore, the opportunities of a dance production are not compatible with the opportunities presented by a theatre production.
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