Off-Broadway with the Lucille Lortel Foundation Fellowships in Theatre
A new fellowship is bringing Bennington students to New York City theatre companies to study what it takes to work off-Broadway with reporting by Emma Grillo
When students think of working in theatre, that often begins on stage. As so many in the industry know, there’s far more to working in theatre than performance. One of the College’s newest fellowship programs—The Lucille Lortel Foundation Fellowships in Theatre—was launched in 2018 and gave 12 students the opportunity to work in Field Work Term internships at a range of not-for-profit, off-Broadway theaters in New York City. The Fellowship also enables the students to gain broad knowledge not only about what happens on stage, but off stage as well, through mentoring, a cohort experience, and firsthand access to off-Broadway theatre.
The fellowship is run in partnership with The Lucille Lortel Foundation, whose grant-making mission is to provide support for small and midsize, off-Broadway theatre companies in New York, as well as funding for universities and small theatre organizations. With the encouragement of Bennington College trustees Michael Hecht and Matthew Clark, both of whom also serve on the Lucille Lortel Foundation board, a new idea took shape. For the foundation and Bennington, this fellowship was the first of its kind. While the foundation has funded smaller programs for colleges in the past, it had never before paired with a school to create a fellowship that provided both funding and opportunities for students to live and work in New York. But this new partnership became a clear priority when the foundation saw both the need—and the opportunity—to dually invest in the grantees they support, and in the future off-Broadway talent.
For many Bennington students, interning in New York City is an opportunity they are unable to afford. The city’s infamously high cost of living, where groceries cost between 28 and 39 percent more than the national average and housing costs are some of the highest in the country, prohibits many promising drama students the theatre experience they most benefit from before they leave college.
“The chance to partner with the Lucille Lortel Foundation—a foundation deeply committed to sustaining and supporting the off-Broadway theatre—was an extraordinary way to expand Bennington’s already formidable drama network,” said Paige Bartels, senior vice president for strategic partnerships. “Because Bennington faculty are themselves practitioners who understand deeply theatre-making in all its aspects, they were the ideal partners to work with the Foundation to design the fellowship” said Isabel Roche, provost and dean.
Soon the Lortel Fellowship was born. Working with the drama faculty members at Bennington, the program envisioned a way for all students to have access to working in New York. The fellowship allows students who would otherwise be priced out of spending their Field Work Term in New York City to live and work in the heart and hub of theatre. Because the fellowship is both merit and need based, Lortel Fellows receive generous stipends to meet their expenses for the cost of living in New York. The Fellows are placed in competitive internships with one of the Foundation’s current grantees, work in a range of roles from production and sets to house operations to marketing and development.
Equally important to the fellowship is the chance to see theatre. The Foundation facilitates complimentary tickets to off-Broadway performances—as many as two shows a week, for the seven weeks of the internship. Finally, the fellowship gives the cohort the opportunity to share their experiences with each other and the Foundation staff, who have decades of theatre experience between them, through regular mentoring sessions throughout the fellowship. Fellows discuss with the Foundation staff topics ranging from the business of theatre to networking in the arts and emerging work in off-Broadway theatre.
Edie Salas-Miller ’20, one of the inaugural Fellows, completed her Field Work Term at Cherry Lane Theatre as a production assistant. For her, the most eye-opening part of the experience was how competitive professional auditions can be.
“You see how many different faces casting directors see in a day. But as soon as the right person comes on, you know that they’re getting cast. You see the amount of preparedness they have,” she remembers. For many students the intensity of competition deflates their sense of what is possible. But Salas-Miller was only more drawn to the city after her experience. “To see the drive that everybody in New York has made me realize that New York is where I need to be.”
Indeed some Fellows came away more determined than ever to land in New York to perform in theatre, but it was only after their fellowship that they fully understood what it takes to live and work in the industry. Lucille Lortel Foundation Executive Director George Forbes was most interested in imparting the bigger lesson: what it takes to keep theatre open and operating as a business.
“I think it was very eye-opening to them,” Forbes recalls. “Most of the time in education people are very eager to teach and to learn the art. But it’s not just show art, it’s show business. Everyone who is involved needs to have a relatively high level of understanding of what’s involved.”
At Bennington, because of the required Field Work Term and Plan Process, students are more exposed than usual to the professional application of craft. And that’s essential, Dina Janis (the Lortel Foundation Fellowship faculty coordinator) explained. “You can be studying something and have an idea of what the professional application of what you’re studying might look like, but when you’re actually in a theater, students can see how work is made, how work is marketed, and how theaters sustain themselves and keep themselves afloat.”
In addition to a living stipend and access to what happens behind-the-scenes in the theatre business, Lortel Fellows also were given tickets to see shows almost nightly.
In addition to a living stipend and access to what happens behind-thescenes in the theatre business, Lortel Fellows also were given tickets to see shows almost nightly. Like great writing, great acting so often comes from the exposure to other great performances. But because of the high cost of shows, it’s difficult to see what that looks like in the city.
“Many students go into theatre, but they really have seen very few actual productions because it’s so expensive,” said Janis. “I think the tickets are fabulous because they get a chance to see a very diverse array of some of the top theatre being made right now for free—this access is extraordinarily important, too.”
In most of the Fellows reflections after their Field Work Term, they cite seeing live theatre as one of the greatest benefits of the fellowship. For some, it was the first time they saw professional plays performed. In seeing a diverse array of shows up close, the Fellows could consider production choices, character innovations, and audience reactions—all informing their own work when back in production.
Students met with Forbes and other theatre professionals three times during the course of the program. At these evening gatherings, the last of which was a formal dinner that included board members from both the Lucille Lortel Foundation and Bennington College, students reflected on their internship experiences.
“It was really wonderful that everybody was able to hear everyone else’s questions because there was immediately a lot of ‘Oh yeah, I was thinking about that too’,” said Forbes. “And at the same time, it was a great opportunity for everybody to share their unique experiences that were different from one another, as well as to learn about their experiences as a group.”
For students who attended the program, working in professional theaters, many of which had multimillion dollar annual operating budgets, was an essential part of figuring out if theatre is a profession they want to pursue after graduation. Sam Levit ’18, who interned as a general management intern at The Lark, the Lortel Fellowship solidified his desire to work in theatre after graduation. “It really gave me a sense of what life after Bennington could be like, and what making work professionally could be like,” he said. “Facing graduation six months from the fellowship, having that cohort of people and having that experience definitely made it less intimidating to graduate. It didn’t make it any easier or simpler, but it gave me a sense of ‘oh, this is what it could be like.’ And that was incredibly valuable to me.”
“With the Foundation’s partnership, this immersive experience is now available to all qualified Bennington students, regardless of economic background,” said Bartels. “Equally important, this fellowship is investing in the long-term health of the off-Broadway theatre community by building a pipeline of diverse young playwrights, directors, actors, and set and costume designers who represent the future of off-Broadway talent.”
Both the Lortel Foundation and Bennington College agree that the first year of the program was a success and look forward to continuing to grow the program in new ways—beyond the now 15 students who will participate as 2019 Lucille Lortel Foundation Fellows this year. “We’d love to see the program expand, we’d love there to be more Fellows, we’d love to continue to build on the success of last year,” said Forbes. “And hopefully [students] will form a kind of alumni group in New York that will be supportive, and the program may have the ability to grow through that network as well.”
THE MINT THEATER
Catalina Adragna ’18
Production Office Assistant /House Manager
“My supervisors at Mint have a lot of confidence in me, and as a result they allowed me to jump into tasks, and that helped me define my capabilities. The commitment and dedication from the Lortel Foundation to meet with us one-on-one and offer advice in joining the theatre world was incredible.”
Ronald Anahaw ’19
“My knowledge of how theaters can survive financially has gone from absolutely nothing to understanding how a prominent off-Broadway theater manages to not only stay afloat, but also thrive. I was able to forge meaningful connections with the staff at MCC and value those deeply.”
Joe Coppola ’18
Production Management Intern
“Getting to meet with passionate, successful mentors who invested time, resources, and energy into our success was so gratifying. There are so many different aspects of professional theatre (outside of just directors, writers, actors) that I wasn’t aware of before. Because of the networking I’ve done, the professional world no longer seems intimidating. All it takes is a foot in the door one time, and you can make your career.”
MINT THEATER COMPANY
Tristan Harness ’18
“The fellowship allowed me to live in New York, which never would have been affordable, and I got to see more theatre than I ever have in my life. I essentially took a master course in acting and wardrobe training.”
THE FLEA THEATER
Lilianna Hogan ’18
“It was so rewarding to see different projects go from the rehearsal room to performance. I met so many inspirational people at the theater. I felt very engaged with a community of people passionate about the same thing I’m passionate about. This experienced changed my life.”
THE FLEA THEATER
Lecil James ’18
Technical Director’s Assistant
“The fellowship has offered me the opportunity to dive into the robust, and often intimidating, NYC theatre scene. It provided me with support that many early-career performers and technicians seldom see, and time to develop skills that I will be using for years to come.”
Samuel Levit ’18
General Management Intern
“The FWT really exposed me to the business side of theatre— or rather, how difficult it is to raise and make money in this field. I got to meet some incredible fundraisers this winter who have really piqued my interest in how theatre artists (and administrators) go about making money. The cohort of peers, mentors, colleagues, and artists was invaluable.”
CHERRY LANE THEATRE
Edie Salas-Miller ’20
“I think the most beautiful thing about this fellowship was that I was able to make amazing connections in New York because of the tickets we received to go see theatre. Before this grant, I had never really seen professional theatre. The frequent meetings, and the theater being near enough to each other, meant we all connected and got to be together over FWT.”
LUCILLE LORTEL FOUNDATION
Rebecca Mitzner ’20
“This FWT reaffirmed my ambition to work in theatre finance. Being paid for my work meant that I did not need to work a second job to cover my expenses and could apply a greater focus to my work for the Lortel Foundation. Additionally, it gave me confidence that the work I was doing was valuable to the Foundation.”
Luluwama Mulalu ’18
“The cohort of fellow peers offered support and strength. Having a group of people who are going through similar processes made it easier to thrive—I never felt alone. I met a lot of amazing people who hold the potential for future networking opportunities. The fellowship offered exposure and experience—some of the best teachers. ”
RATTLESTICK PLAYWRIGHTS THEATER
Annie Stone ’19
Marketing and Community Outreach Intern
“Rattlestick is different from other theatre in the way it actively seeks out connections among communities. They strive to create opportunities for people who might not usually see theatre. This internship has pushed me to study all different kinds of theatre rather than just the Western canon.”
Phoebe VanDusen ’19
“The most meaningful aspect of the fellowship was the ability to see a range of offBroadway shows at no cost. It was overwhelmingly valuable to be able to observe what kind of theatre is being produced and supported at this time. I was able to learn so much about how a theatre company functions based on the work they chose to produce.”