The University of Minnesota’s Xperimental Theatre program, known colloquially as the X, is shutting down in order to rethink its approach to student-run theater. The announcement came in a statement emailed to theater and dance students March 23 and was further clarified at a meeting in Rarig Center on Friday afternoon.
For 15 years, the Xperimental Theatre has operated out of the black-box theater in Rarig Center, producing a season of free productions selected by a student-elected board of directors. All work at the X is completely student-created with minimal influence from faculty advisers.
Although officially recognized as a University student group, the X receives its $3,000 funding from the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance and maintains an office within Rarig, according to Xperimental Theatre business manager Peter Rusk.
In their statement last week, the X student board said they will not accept student proposals for next year’s productions, nor will they be holding the usual student board elections. The board then announced the Friday meeting open to all students, faculty and staff to discuss their decision.
To open the meeting, department chair Carl Flink addressed the students seated in a circle on the stage of the Whiting Proscenium Theatre. Fink emphasized that the decision to dissolve the Xperimental Theatre organization was not based on budgetary concerns but was decided completely by the student board.
“I was, in many of ways, just as surprised as many of you,” he said.
The X was founded to create acting, directing and design opportunities for undergraduates who were passed over for roles in main stage shows in favor of graduate students. Since the graduate acting and directing programs have been replaced by a BFA program, which has its own separate series of shows, BA students now have the opportunities in main stage productions that were lacking before and have lost interest in productions at the X, according to the student board.
“It’s not about little systematic things for us,” said Natalia Hokin, a senior theater student who serves as volunteer coordinator and head of audience services on the X board. “It’s not about numbers. It’s about giving students the power every single year to create something for themselves.”
Although student board elections are held every year, the X board said these changes weren’t enough to reshape the organization.
“There’s a lot of power in having structure that isn’t questioned,” said Rusk. “We’re trying to take a step back and say, ‘If we get rid of that, what can we make in its place?’”
Emotions were running high at the meeting as discussion turned to the future of student-run theater without the X.
“At this point, I’ve come to an acknowledgment that the X is done,” said Nico Swenson, a theater sophomore in the BA program, after the meeting.
Swenson has been involved with three shows at the X, including last semester’s “The Great(er) American Pasttime,” which he wrote and directed. He was set to direct a performance for this year’s “24 Hour Theatre” event at the X in January, but the show was canceled when some of the committed actors failed to attend rehearsal.
Swenson echoed the concerns of others at the meeting about the Xperimental Theatre’s value to non-majors and new freshmen, who still have difficulty getting involved in main stage productions.
“We can’t say that the X is an organization for freshmen and non-majors. I don’t think that’s true,” Hokin said on Sunday. “I think what we are trying to make is an organization where participation is from people who actually care. It shouldn’t be people who are doing this because they have some extra time on their hands and this is all that they can find.”
Many students at Friday’s meeting also expressed concern about opportunities for students interested in theater technology and design. These students are still reliant on the X since the University still offers an MFA in those areas.
“I was planning my semester around volunteering as a designer for all different design areas for the X,” Swenson said. “Though I’m sad that opportunity is gone, it gives me the power and the incentive and the opportunity to create those opportunities for myself.”
Hokin also stressed the need for self-motivation within the theater department.
“Whether or not the structure exists, [designers] are still needed to make a show happen. You don’t need the X structure to make art; you don’t need the X structure to run a light board,” she said. “We’re removing the structure — we’re not removing opportunity.”
Hokin, along with two other X board members, will graduate in May. Production manager Jared Zeigler and three other voting board members will return to the University next fall. All members of the student board will maintain their regular office hours though the end of their term and lend their support to whatever new organization develops.
Zeigler has begun work on a new model for student-run theater, but he said he is not ready to share it with the department at large. Zeigler also said some students have started a Facebook group to continue the discussion from Friday’s meeting and to start to shape a new organization.
It is too early to know whether this new student theater group would be able or even choose to retain the Xperimental Theatre’s current funding, offices or performance space.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what people are willing to create,” Swenson said.
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