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Friday, February 23, 2024

Guest Column: Letter to MUSE

Editor’s note: As rumors have been circulating that lack of funding has pushed the Master of Fine Arts program in the theatre and dance department down to what might be its last year, there is the reality that more programs and organizations in the field will be cut. In fact, these are pressing issues that art, film, dramatic arts and design majors are all grappling with at the moment. MUSE received a letter submitted by Hannah Sharafian, a sophomore dramatic arts and English double major, who shed some light on how working on an entirely student and volunteer-run theatre organization has become, more than ever, difficult to manage.  — Uyen Cao

Rent (the musical by Jonathan Larson) is coming to Davis. That is a solid fact. But a month — maybe even a few weeks — ago, it wasn’t. Studio 301 Productions, the student-run production company I belong to that is putting up Rent, lacked the funds, the rights, the space — anything essential for the show to happen. Forget about fancy lights, microphones, a set; we could not afford the space to put on Rent. While we appreciated the irony of the situation, irony cannot rent you a theater and we risked withdrawing our proposal. We are in a different place now. The show will go on. But in the meantime, all of the students involved in producing this show got a taste of what it is like in the real world when theaters, or any companies, begin to fail.

Before last year, I didn’t understand that the arts were a business. I knew that when the economy suffered, the arts suffered, but that seemed more like a tragedy than anything concrete. But last year, through my involvement in the theater community on the UC Davis campus, I came to understand exactly how a theater company works and what goes into running it. It wasn’t something I planned; I was purely interested in acting and nothing more, but college has a way of teaching you things you never intended to learn. And when I became involved in Studio 301 this year I finally did learn why exactly the arts fail when the economy fails and public support wanes.

Let me clarify slightly: As theater companies go, 301 is blessed. With the support of our campus and specifically the theater and dance department, we do not run the risk of absolute failure that theater companies across the country face. We can endure poor ticket sales, and to an extent we can even afford to run shows that lose money. But only to an extent. Even a student-run company such as ours that doesn’t pay our actors, designers or directors needs to front money on a show. We do the shows the student members want to see, direct and perform, and often these are not public domain. That costs money. The space itself costs money. Publicizing the show so people know to come costs money. Even selling the tickets costs money. If we don’t have that money, we cannot support either the students in our club or the community both inside and outside our campus that attends our shows.

This is before considering sets, lights and costumes, all of which we have stripped down to almost no-budget or eliminated. Our poor costumers routinely make do with $50 or less and we draw almost exclusively now from our actors’ own closets. So why do it? Why try to do Rent now with no money? We could do Shakespeare for less, and in fact, we have done it before. But we believe in both the timeliness of Rent in this community at this time and in our directors’ vision for the production. Yes, we are all students, but that is why we believe this will work. Mitchell Vanlandingham and Lizzie Tremaine, director and musical director respectively, both believe very strongly that as students we are in a unique place to reach out to the larger Davis community. Rent is not merely popular, Mitchell and Lizzie have said. “We want to use Rent as a forum to address injustices concerning race, sexuality, and HIV. Our hope is that we can start a dialogue with the community and the university about these issues that lasts long after the final curtain has come down.” They feel that they have something to say, and it is our goal to provide the platform for that artistic expression to reach the community.

Although 301 is a student club and a large part of our goal is to provide performance opportunities to our peers, the creation of that art needs to serve the larger community. Theater is a world of give and take, and we are dependent on our audience to appreciate the work we do just as it is our duty to entertain them. So we will do Rent to the best of our ability. We have compromised and saved, but only so far as we can do so without sacrificing the quality of the show. We have set up fundraisers, including a Kickstarter (search “Studio 301 RENT” at kickstarter.com) and will continue to put any money we make back into our production to make it as good as it can be.

HANNAH SHARAFIAN can be reached at hannah.sharafian@gmail.com. UYEN CAO can be reached at arts@theaggie.org. To donate to STUDIO 301 to help them fund for shows like Rent, visit kickstarter.com/projects/1822147039/studio-301s-rent-at-uc-davis?ref=live or sites.google.com/site/studio301productions.

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