By Felicia Ruff
Each year, when I put “College Professor” and “Wagner College” into TurboTax to describe my profession and my employer, I have a flood of memories. As I type those words, I feel so proud — so proud that I reread it. A lot.
Now, anyone who teaches knows that time passes differently for us. The people in front of you stay the same age, so you assume that you do as well — when, in fact, a decade (or two) has passed.
As I reflect, I realize President Richard Guarasci and I have been doing this college thing together for a while; Richard hired me as a visiting professor in 2001 when he was provost — and, well, I just never left.
This fall, I began my 10th year as department chair and my 17th year as a Wagner professor. Richard and I have been through a lot together. Times haven’t always been easy. We’ve lost some people who were very dear to us. While I am confident that being a college president offers struggles of which I am not aware, he knows many of the unique challenges of being chair of the “drama department.”
But through it all, I can’t escape how proud I am to work at Wagner, to work with leaders like President Guarasci and Provost Lily McNair, each of whom are never satisfied, never rest on past accomplishments, but who are always looking to do better. To be better.
They didn’t turn away. They saw it as an opportunity to do better.
Last year, Provost McNair exemplified this quality to me as she brought issues to the faculty that are hard to talk about. In my church, we call that “real talk.” Lily got us engaged in “real talk” about race and about the way students of color feel on our campus.
These conversations started with our leaders listening to our students. Lily told us that Richard and his wife, Carin, had invited students to their home for a lovely dinner. But they didn’t leave it there — they had “real talk.” And some of what was said was, evidently, hard to hear. But they didn’t turn away. They saw it as an opportunity to do better. To educate. To advocate. And to make change.
In turn, Lily gently but persuasively introduced us to this conversation in a way that we, her colleagues, could hear and reflect on. These were heartfelt conversations. And I was deeply touched when my department drew praise from Lily and from Curtis Wright, dean of campus life and chief diversity officer, for producing Amiri Baraka’s The Dutchman and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 21 Chump Street — two plays that depict some of the difficulties faced by people of color in our society.
This dialogue opened other paths. I am proud that we have hired Rebecca Kelly Arnold ’07, a theater graduate who went on to earn a law degree, to teach a course on race, performance, and activism this fall.
I believe Wagner College Theatre has always been committed to fighting for the individual — particularly regarding sexual orientation, gender identity, as well as differing body types. We don’t recruit a look — we recruit a person.
But last year, our department discovered ways in which we are looking past people with physical disabilities. And we’ve had some “real talk” among our students and faculty. Our department has joined a conversation on what we can do better, not just at our school but in our industry, to represent other stories and other people.
My senior seminar members did their thesis research on disabilities and theater, identifying issues that face commercial theater audiences and producers in New York City, for example.
Earlier this year, theater alums Alex Boniello ’13 and Emilia Martin ’07 were part of a show that “awakened” a consciousness for better access and inclusion among Broadway producers and audiences — the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening, a critically acclaimed staging which was performed simultaneously in American Sign Language and spoken English.
During the spring semester, our department hosted their fellow Spring Awakening actor Ali Stroker to speak to over 200 students packed into Spiro Hall. Some of what she shared was stunning.
We will make changes at Wagner as a result of these conversations.
In 2015, Stroker became the first wheelchair-bound actor to ever perform on a Broadway stage. She said with delight that the producers were proactive about renovating the theater to accommodate her wheelchair. But she also told a very personal story—which she called humiliating—of the company’s trip to the White House to perform in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the ultimate irony, they did not provide wheelchair-accessible transportation to this event.
We will make changes at Wagner as a result of these conversations. But what’s so special to me about Wagner is that we know that when our students leave us, they will make real change. They will find themselves in leadership positions, casting, producing, directing, teaching, and they won’t look past someone based on their color or physical ability.
That’s what makes me excited to do our work together. We at Wagner are privileged to watch as these students grow up to become art makers, arts administrators, and activists — not just arts activists but social activists. Change-makers.
And while, particularly in an election year, people look to politicians and pundits for leadership, I like to remind us that it is the artists and the storytellers who are the true change-makers. They show us what others want to keep hidden. From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Hamilton, from Stanley Drama Award winners Rent (Jonathan Larson, 1993) to Bad Hearts (Mike Bencivenga, 2016), these are stories of people who must be represented.
I am so proud that our department and our College takes the time to listen to one another’s stories. I am particularly grateful that we honor the storytellers and makers of change — our community of theater artists.
Felicia Ruff, Ph.D., is a professor and chair of the Department of Theatre and Speech. This essay is a revised version of the opening remarks she gave at the 2016 Stanley Drama Awards on March 14.