By Jake Hyslop
Theater students are outraged and frustrated after Troy Lescher, an associate professor in Cal Poly Humboldt’s theater arts department, has been cast in this semester’s theater production of The Life of Galileo. The casting decision has faced fierce opposition from students within the theater program, who argue that it undermines opportunities for aspiring actors, and raises questions on inclusivity and fairness in casting.
By casting Lescher in the role, the students argue that the department has removed the opportunity for a student to gain valuable learning experience in a leading role. It’s the last straw in a series of decisions and experiences that the students believe have left them unprepared for the world of professional theater.
Lescher declined to be interviewed, but provided a statement in response to his casting.
“When faculty artists and student artists collaborate… students have opportunities to develop knowledge and skills in realistic ways, preparing them for the diverse production experiences they will encounter after graduation. As a member of The Life of Galileo ensemble, I look forward to applying my professional training put and experience to help strengthen student learning; promote learner success; and bring a special and relevant story to life on the university stage.”
Rumors of the casting spread before it was officially announced at the theater program’s “Welcome Back” event on Aug. 24th. Several disgruntled students showed up to challenge the casting decision. Miah Carter, a senior in the program, was among these students.
“We just wanted to, first and foremost, make sure that all the students who are in this program and attending were aware that this is not something that benefits college students,” Carter said.
At the event, the students asked why Lescher was cast before auditions were held. Linda Maxwell, the theater program leader, did the bulk of the responding. One reason for Lescher’s casting was the scope of the lead role.
Cindy Moyer, chair of the Department of Dance, Music, and Theatre, said that Lescher has spent his summer working on the part, and asking a student to put that breadth of work in half a semester isn’t feasible.
Maxwell and Julie Eccles-Benson, the co-director of the show, declined to be interviewed.
Maxwell spent a large part of the meeting blaming the students’ frustration over not being able to audition for the lead role.
“Yeah, I’m mad,” Carter said. “Mad I’m not getting the education I’m paying for, not because I wasn’t cast as the lead in a show. Look at me. I’m a young Black woman. I was never going to be slated to play as Galileo himself.”
Carter wasn’t surprised at the results of the encounter.
“We pretty much expected them to give the reaction they did and the excuses they did,” Carter said. “They didn’t really want to hear us out, which didn’t surprise me.”
Carter suggested that if the faculty knew The Life of Galileo was going to feature a lead role too bulky for a student, they should have chosen a different show that catered more towards student interest.
According to Moyer, the justification for casting a faculty member over affording the opportunity to a student boiled down to how the role of Galileo was too large a workload for a student to handle and how Lescher’s casting afforded an opportunity for collaborative learning.
“For Galileo, the theater faculty thought carefully and felt that this play provided an appropriate opportunity for students to learn by working side-by-side with a professional actor,” Moyer said. “It may be several years before students will get this valuable and exciting opportunity again.”
Ash Quintana, a theater major in his senior year, felt that the faculty had taken away students’ agency. He said that taking away the students’ choice pampers them and doesn’t prepare them for professional theater, where they’ll often have to multitask between theater and work.
The students didn’t accept the collaborative learning rationale provided by the department.
“When it comes to acting, you learn more by doing than by watching somebody,” Quintana said. “If you want a student to learn, put them in that role, and have the resources to guide them to success, instead of just assuming they can’t do it on their own.”
Lescher’s casting is the latest in a series of controversial choices for theater program students. The program once had a season selection committee for choosing future shows, including both faculty and students, but in recent years only two students, including Carter, were on it.
“It was pretty easy for them to dismiss what we were saying,” Carter said. “I do think they made a little bit of effort to be like ‘oh yeah, here, you’re making some good ideas,’ but it never felt like they were actually considering what we wanted to do.”
The season selection committee was disbanded by the fall semester of 2022. The faculty provided no reason why. During that same semester, they emailed a survey to students, to gather their opinions on shows the faculty had already selected for consideration. Many students only recognized Into the Woods, the show slated for Spring 2024, out of four faculty-selected shows.
In Spring 2023, an email announced an in-person show selection meeting. Only one student attended. Carter explained that students didn’t want to bother showing up when they weren’t going to be heard or meaningfully included in any way.
The other big issue theater students have faced is the recent glut of “no-prep” auditions. “No-prep” auditions require no preparation going in, and often involve theater games and activities where the director(s) will cast or send callbacks to performers by judging their contributions. Out of the past five semesters since coming back in-person from the Covid-19 pandemic, four of them have been non-traditional or “no-prep.”
“I’ve been to a couple of those,” said Zoe Estelle Rose, a child development major. “Nonsense, they’re just nonsense auditions. They don’t prepare you for anything.”
When an audition announcement is made with the words “no-prep” attached, many students audibly groan. They don’t feel that actors who attend these auditions are being taught anything useful regarding professional auditions.
“We’re going to graduate and go off and try to audition for a real production,” Carter said. “And we’re going to fail immensely. And when they ask us where we trained, we’re going to say ‘I went to Humboldt where they did no-prep auditions and we could just show up and get casted if we were silly.’”
In Quintana’s advanced acting class this semester, he noted that many students asked to learn how to audition and recite monologues.
“The school is not teaching us how to do that,” Quintana said. “We are not going to be cast in professional shows in the real world.”
Moyer said that these nontraditional auditions have been the result of selected directors, but that in the future the department will address this concern and make sure the students get more professional audition exposure.
The concerned students are speaking out because they don’t want new students to transfer to the department unaware of the issues they’re facing. Both seniors mentioned they wouldn’t have transferred to Humboldt’s theater program if they’d known that going in.
Maxwell has started meeting with the frustrated students to open up a dialogue for making the theater program more inclusive, and cut down on the communication divide between faculty and students going forward.
“I feel like I’m getting a lot of examples of what not to do in a theater program,” Quintana said. “I personally haven’t had too many opportunities to fully learn theater. I’ve been here for two-and-a-half years, and I’m not really going away with that much.”
Here is Lescher’s full statement:
Thank you, Jake, for wanting to share additional context and insight on theatre-making within the Cal Poly Humboldt Theatre Arts (TA) academic program. As a TA Major who has acted on our stage several times, you can attest to the frequency of TA Faculty serving in major creative capacities on mainstage productions. Project-based learning is one of the central components of performing arts education within the Department of Dance, Music & Theatre. When faculty artists and student artists collaborate as choreographers, composers, directors, designers, dancers, musicians, and actors, students have opportunities to develop knowledge and skills in realistic ways, preparing them for the diverse production experiences they will encounter after graduation. As a member of The Life of Galileo ensemble, I look forward to applying my professional training and experience to help strengthen student learning; promote learner success; and bring a special and relevant story to life on the university stage.