The director of the spring Mainstage production, “Rent,” has resigned due to negative reactions to his team’s callback list.
On Nov. 30, Barbara Wolfe, director of the undergraduate theatre program, announced that the original director for the spring production of “Rent,” David Wynen — an assistant professor of theater — stepped down from the director position. Wolfe made the announcement via the theatre department’s email listserv, writing that the production will now be overseen by a team consisting of Brandon Wright, an assistant theater professor, and Tommy Iafrate, the director of musical theater.
While the reason for Wynen’s resignation was initially unclear in Wolfe’s email, Wynen said it was due to the negative feedback his team received from auditioning students once the callback list was released. In the original version of “Rent,” characters featured many different sexual, racial and religious identities, which some students believe Wynen and his creative team did not take into account after the callback list was released.
Patrick Saint Ange, the theatre department’s undergraduate representative and a senior double-majoring in sociology and English, said several “concerned” students reached out to him once the callback list was posted.
“The general consensus was that the callback list showed a lack of diversity,” Saint Ange wrote in an email. “This is concerning as ‘Rent’ specifically depicts characters diverse in racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as sexual orientations. Many students were expecting the callback list to be more courageous and in line with the new messaging and identity the department has been trying to develop.”
In a memo to theatre department’s students, Wynen explained how he was not allowed to ask students to self-identify during the auditioning process, following University policy. Wynen emphasized that he followed the auditioning process — according to the department’s handbook — and created the callback list with several other creative team members.
“I was expressedly [sic] told through University policy that I could not ask the students to self-identify in any way,” Wynen wrote in the memo. “Since the issue with ‘Rent,’ the theatre department has gained permission to change this rule.”
Saint Ange said the department held a meeting on Nov. 21 to find solutions for the student concerns, but before deciding on anything, Wynen resigned.
“The students had valid questions and concerns,” Wynen wrote. “At the time of my resignation from the production, I felt I could not honor the students’ concerns and this production of ‘Rent’ while working with the theatre department policies as instructed. These policies concerned self-identification, casting, auditions and callbacks and their operation.”
Students who auditioned and were called back will still remain on the list, Wolfe said, but those who had not already auditioned may do so now “under the new circumstances.”
Jared Wofse, a senior double-majoring in musical theatre and electrical engineering, said that while he agrees Wynen’s callback list was ethically not diverse, he believes it was due to the director prioritizing musical talent over representation.
“It appeared that he was not as concerned with the idea of diversity, despite certain characters calling for that,” Wofse wrote in an email. “Instead, it appeared he was more concerned with the actor’s overall ability without a holistic regard of how those diverse identities play a role in that character’s existence in the show. However, we as actors all understand if there is someone who properly fits the acting vision over someone who fits the character’s life circumstances they will be chosen, but we ideally would love to see both be honored all at once.”
Suggestions presented at the department meeting included having an impartial third-party at all auditions and callbacks, allowing called-back actors to choose which character they would like to read for and giving students the option to self-identify before auditioning for roles.
Saint Ange said Wynen had been a vocal supporter of @weseeyou_binghamton, an Instagram account that had two years ago criticized a play students felt was “racially insensitive.”
“I have reason to believe Professor Wynen feared a similar backlash, and when he had heard that a meeting took place without him present, he resigned,” Saint Ange wrote. “I wish he had taken the time to read our concerns and potential solutions before resigning, as I genuinely believe Professor Wynen cares about his students and is in no opposition to our suggestions.”