Right On Track

Posted: March 11, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

Last night, I attended a staged reading of a new theatrical piece written by my friend and former colleague, H.V. Cramond, and her coworker Cayenene Sullivan entitled Tenure Track: A Musical.

Witnessing any creative process from its inception is thrilling, and I was impressed by the results of their work. As a staged reading, it was a preview of what is to come should they be successful in securing a large-scale production, which I fully hope they are. The initial writing and staging was supported by a GoFundMe campaign. They achieved their fundraising goal of $2,000, used to rent theater space, and pay the actors, musicians, and director involved in this early stage in the evolution of their play.

The musical presents a satirical, and thus utterly honest, look at the state of higher education. Anyone who has occasion to encounter the collegiate system, whether as students or through their college-aged children, suspects that there are more than a few aspects of higher education in need of repair. Most everyone I know who works in higher education would argue (after a drink or two) that the system may be quite completely broken. It is this sad reality that feeds the dark humor in the musical.

tenuretrackThe primary purpose of the play is to reveal the struggle endured by adjunct instructors at colleges and universities across America. It is an intellectual and academic double-bind, creating a set of dependencies and abuses indicative of a deeply flawed relationship, and fodder for some potentially great theater. The universities use adjuncts to save money while the adjuncts continue teaching in the vain hope that someday, their tenure will come.

The play features a protagonist in just such an unhappy situation. P. S. Latte, played by Elizabeth Elston Shiry, is a longtime adjunct in the English Department at Garbanzo University, which is situated in a major Midwestern metropolis. She has worked diligently as an instructor for ten years, teaching, publishing, and serving on committees, including the preposterously named (and right on target) ‘Office of First Year Sustainable Technology Experience Projects.’ She even finds time to write a work of racy historical fiction called The Shame of Sister Agatha. This woman is trying really hard, so hard that she neglects her purposefully ideal boyfriend, Allessandro, played by Andrew Spatafora, who knits, cooks, and supports his partner, a pleasing gender reversal. Nevertheless I wish his character had a bit more depth, mostly so the “perfect partner” as type, regardless of gender, gets phased out of modern drama.

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This button served as entry to the performance.

One of the crucial hardships adjuncts face is economic instability, addressed in the opening musical number “The Couch Song” an all-too accurate portrayal of the types of luxuries an adjunct cannot afford, even furniture.

Of the remaining musical numbers, the best feature duets or most of the cast, the classroom conflicts well wrought in pairings and groups made jaunty by a big musical feel.

Like any satire, the play is raw and real, funny and sad. Many jokes elicited exasperated guffaws rather than laughs from the audience, a majority having experienced similar career frustrations.

The rest of the cast is filled with academic types, the sardonic and sassy librarian, Betty, (no doubt inspired by me) and brilliantly embodied by Sarah Beth Tanner. The older, full-time member of the English department no longer pretends to be interested in academic standards. The dean is a horny sycophant, and the provost an even broader caricature of out-of-touch administrators. Sadly, all of these characters are thoroughly believable.

Did I mention the puppets?

The key crisis, and the one that holds P.S. back from attaining the long-desired full time position, involves a disappointed and entitled student, Sarah Lawrence Snow, each line delivered with smug perfection by Hillary Sigale, another standout from the cast. The student is unhappy with her grade and happens to be the daughter of the provost. In the end, Sarah gets her way, and her “A,” and P.S. Latte leaves academia, the spoiled dean abandoned to the onslaught of student grade complaints.

There is a lot to look forward to in the promised full production. I’d venture to guess that this ambitious piece would give American college students something to discuss in literature classes, should they ever learn how to do so.

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