Tisch New Theatre Runs Into Drama

Skirball has put on many performances that send a bold message. The provocative production of "Apollon" by Choreographer Florentina Holzinger ran Feb. 22-23. (Photo by Julia Saliba)

After riding the high of their sold-out production of “Hairspray” at Skirball Theatre, the Tisch New Theatre has been prevented from putting on another show until Fall 2017. Many met the news with devastation, as it was a central student-run club that allows for students from any NYU school to participate in shows of high quality — unlike its counterparts that limit actors and crew members to specific schools or programs.

CAS senior Emilio Madrid-Kuser, a former Tisch student, said that TNT provided opportunities to both Tisch and non-Tisch students who either could not or did not want to perform in Tisch productions — particularly students who were not thrilled with the quality of Tisch shows.

“Out of this drought of high-caliber performance opportunities and the fact that a lot of students could not perform because they were not in a studio at the time … Tisch New Theatre has flourished,” Madrid-Kuser said.

Last spring, members of the club committed infractions that resulted in their suspension. According to a letter sent out by Madrid-Kuser to the NYU community, the club used a Gallatin practice room without permission to hold auditions for their production of “Hairspray,” resulting in the club’s probation. Their second infraction involved using a U-Haul truck instead of an NYU-approved transportation service for moving equipment. The club explained their reasoning had been that the U-Haul only cost $40, and the NYU-approved vendor cost $550.

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Daniel Unitas, TNT President and Tisch junior, said, ”When we are not fully supported like other student groups on campus [in terms of rehearsal space and funding], it has positioned past leadership in situations where they want to save money and cut corners.”

The decision to suspend TNT was made by the Tisch Undergraduate Student Council, a body made of six Tisch students, in Fall 2016. None of the members of TUSC were members of TNT. As a result, members of TNT felt they were in the dark during much of the decision-making process.

“We didn’t really prepare to be suspended,” Unitas said. “The decision [was] made sort of in secret. It’s not like you talk it out, really. You just sort of present your case, and then they convene. 10 days later we got our result … We were genuinely shocked.”

The Tisch administration upheld TUSC’s decision, which John Beckman, NYU spokesperson, defended. “No one is above the rules. So, when Tisch New Theater repeatedly and knowingly violated school rules — in some cases while already on probation for previous infractions — a group of their peers [the Tisch Undergraduate Student Council] ultimately concluded the right thing to do was to suspend TNT for a year. The University is fully supportive of the students’ decision,” Beckman said.

Upon hearing the news of the suspension, Madrid-Kuser began a campaign to rally students to take up the issue with various members of the administration, including Robert Cameron, Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs at Tisch and Todd Pettiford, Director of Student Affairs at Tisch. Madrid-Kuser’s campaign was not formed in conjunction with any TNT board members.

Madrid-Kuser said that whenever students email Cameron to voice concerns, he sends a copy-and-paste response.

Unitas said he was surprised when he saw Cameron’s template response because it was different from what he was personally told by Cameron regarding TNT’s suspension.

“They [the students] are not writing to him about TUSC’s decision, they’re writing to him about his decision to uphold TUSC. He sort of doesn’t get that,” Unitas said. “He was a lot more supportive and open about it [with me], I guess, rather than putting it on TUSC.”

Unitas said that while Cameron said he discussed the issue of TNT’s suspension with Tisch Dean Allyson Green, Green did not recall the conversation when Unitas asked her about it soon after. However, Unitas does not want TNT itself to spearhead a campaign against the Tisch administration.

Several seniors on TNT are upset that they will no longer have a chance to be in a theater production before they graduate.

“As a senior, this would’ve been the last show I would be conducting in Skirball and more sentimentally, at NYU,” Benjamin Weiss, Steinhardt senior, said.

Tisch administration responded to TNT’s concerns via an updated statement from Beckman.

“While we understand that concerns have been raised, it is important to bear in mind that the decision about TNT’s status was made by a student-elected body, the Tisch Undergraduate Student Council, which based its judgment on a thorough review of the club’s actions,” Beckman said. “It’s puzzling to suggest that University administrators should now intervene to reverse a decision made by a representative student body in the absence of new, contrary or additional information. However, in an effort to help the club once it’s reinstated, Tisch’s drama department chair Ruben Polendo will be serving as TNT’s faculty advisor going forward. TNT will also be able to create a production in the fall semester.”

“It shouldn’t be this hard for students to do theater,” Unitas said. “It was a mistake, and we’re all in school to learn and it’s supposed to be educational. We shouldn’t be crushed for our mistakes.”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Jan. 23 print edition. 

Email Natasha Roy and Blair Best at [email protected]

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