Students make international connections in theater class

Tasha Milkman admits that she got a bit teary-eyed upon receiving her “Global Theater” class assignment early this spring.

Milkman and other students taking the course, taught by theater faculty member Christopher Cartmill, stepped into Shindell Hall on the Douglass Campus to find themselves in a makeshift airport terminal, complete with seating arranged like a waiting area and the sounds of international arrivals and departures in the air.

Each student was handed a boarding pass to a particular city, whose theater industry they would research over the semester. Cartmill showed a series of picture-perfect destinations, including Madrid and Vancouver, as well as places not necessarily known for their cultural scenes. Milkman’s assignment came last: Aleppo, Syria.

“The image, of course, was of a destroyed city,” says Milkman, a Mason Gross graduate acting student. “To be honest, I cried. We think of all these places as fabulous destinations for culture and experiencing something that is exciting and fun, and then there’s this city where people don’t even have access to shelter and food, and are being killed by bombs. It just felt very jarring.”

Theater students, including designers, stage managers, playwrights, actors, and technical directors, take Cartmill’s two-semester class before heading off to London to study at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Their studies in global theater making culminate with a class presentation that encourages students to connect to other artists to learn about their professional and personal experiences.

Through her research—which included a phone conversation with a Duke University Middle East scholar and online chats with Syrian artists via Facebook—Milkman learned that theater takes on different forms in dangerous parts of the world, where art is not only silenced but also destroyed.

“Theater is this thing that we value as fleeting—it happens once and you have to be there, and then it goes away,” Milkman says. “But if you’re an artist living in a place where nothing is permanent, and things could be exploded and gone in the blink of an eye all around you, it’s not appealing to do a form that’s going to be erased after it’s over.” 

In speaking with the director of Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, a satirical web series featuring puppets who mock the government, Milkman discovered that Syrian artists value Facebook and YouTube as places to publish their work and disseminate information that isn’t controlled by news outlets.

“What I learned pushed me to expand my ideas of what the form can include, in the sense that theater doesn’t have to be something impermanent,” says Milkman.

Graduate acting student Sydney Mitchell knew little about her assigned city, Dubai, other than its location in the United Arab Emirates and evidence of its extreme wealth in the form of glitzy skyscrapers and manmade islands in the shape of palm trees.

Mitchell expected to discover a commercial theater industry overshadowing smaller companies struggling to compete—similar to many Western cities with an active arts scene, she says.

Mitchell acknowledges that she had a lot to learn about the reality of theater in the Persian Gulf coast city.

“Theater artists in Dubai have no government help, very little formal training, a sometimes reluctant audience base, and extreme financial hurdles,” says Mitchell. “I still cannot believe that one of the wealthiest cities in the entire world, with a government so dedicated to the continual improvement of their global positioning and image, does not offer any subsidies for theater.”

Mitchell’s figurative journey to the Middle East, which she describes as a “discovery-filled adventure,” was guided by artists in the region whom she researched and then reached out to via email. Her conversations with both Dubai natives and foreign residents presented a grim picture of censorship, endless government involvement in artistic productions, and crushing costs to do business.

But Mitchell also found glimmers of a theater community still eager to create art through venues including the Short+Sweet Dubai Theatre Festival of 10-minute plays, whose director she spoke with over Skype.

Through these connections, Mitchell says she was reminded that borders—geographical, racial, gender, or religious—don’t have to limit the scope of what an artist creates.

“This project has opened my eyes to the global theatrical community and its power to reach across the dividing lines to, at the very least, promote understanding, and in the best of circumstances to use theater as a uniting force,” Mitchell says. “Knowing about the struggles and triumphs of the artists in Dubai has made me feel a part of something bigger, like none of us are alone in the fight if we could just reach out and share more stories.”

For some of Cartmill’s students, reaching out begins by asking a professor where to start.

Hannah Roessler, an undergraduate stage management student, was assigned to research the theater scene in Bergen, Norway. She first contacted Mason Gross faculty member Ellen Bredehoft, who teaches costume design and had worked with the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet.

“The best thing that Ellen did for me was send me the link for the Bergen National Opera,” says Roessler, who emailed that organization’s resident stage manager with questions about the demographics of theater-goers, what new plays were in production, and even what people wear to see shows.

“It was incredibly exciting to talk to a stage manager from another culture, and to get her take on theater in Bergen and how stage management operates in Norway,” Roessler says. “She was so open and willing to help me—it’s amazing how hospitable people can be.”

Roessler also learned about theater funding in Norway, which comes largely from the government, as well as the influence of Bergen’s tourism industry on the theater and the opera’s focus on youth programs and classes.

Cartmill varies the “Global Theater” projects each year—one class may focus on major theater capitals, while the next will study festivals. The goal, Cartmill says, is to get students to expand their ability to ask questions and begin a dialogue.

“Our art form is one of collaboration and connection,” says Cartmill. “The emphasis is not on the Wiki-knowledge of a place or individual, but rather on the journey in trying to connect to that place or person.”

Studying and experiencing theater culture in other parts of the world is “essential,” says Milkman, who traveled to Berlin with Cartmill on a Rutgers study abroad program this summer.

“This was one of the most important classes I’ve taken,” says Milkman. “I really value the fact that the theater program and Christopher’s work places an enormous value on contemporary global work and doesn’t limit our study of theater history and current practice to our own culture.”

For Mitchell, the class offered “a space where we have had some of the most honest, provoking, and illuminating conversations since coming to Rutgers.”

“The class takes all of the theater history information that students may or may not have learned and puts it in a human context,” Mitchell adds. “It is where we learn to think like artists and speak like collaborators in a greater global community.”

Photos by Matt Pilsner and Allegra Heart.
Information accurate as of fall 2017