A Backstage Look at Intiman’s Technical Theatre and Social Justice AA Degree at Seattle Central College

by Beverly Aarons

Fury-fueled crowds of chanting protestors, clever and insightful picket signs, and collective action to transform or eradicate unjust laws and cultural practices — this is how many see social justice. But when Intiman Theatre began to look for a new home and contemplated how they could advance their mission, they imagined how social justice could be advanced by backstage storytellers — costume designers, lighting designers, sound riggers, set builders, and other technical theatre artists. The answer was a two-year Associate of Arts degree in Technical Theatre for Social Justice (AA-TTSJ) and a partnership with Seattle Central College (SCC). But what does that mean, exactly? Who can participate? And what does social justice in technical theatre really look like? During our telephone interview, Intiman’s Educational Director, Dr. M. Crystal Yingling, gave a sneak peek into the program.

What Is Social Justice in Technical Theatre?

When I first heard of the new theatre-in-residence partnership between Intiman and SCC, my question was, “What does social justice look like in the everyday working lives of technical theatre artists?” Yingling was eager to share her thoughts. She made it clear that she would work closely with each student — up to 40 in each year’s cohort — and students would be responsible for learning about and incorporating social justice into their theatre practice throughout the life of the program and hopefully in their post-graduate professional lives. The first term (out of six terms in two years) students will take an introductory course that explores the question: How can technical theatre play a role in social justice? They will research how theatres currently incorporate social justice into their backstage storytelling practices. And then they will re-imagine those practices and explore how they might improve upon them in their own work. 

“This will be an opportunity for props or set folks (carpenters) to look at how they can make decisions that’s a more environmentally conscious way than theatre currently does,” Yingling said, noting that the program includes an environmental sustainability course. “Or, if someone’s working on costuming, how can costuming be done with a cultural lens? There are religious specifications to some apparel and clothing. So having costumers and technicians know those things and think about those ideas and ensure the clothes that actors wear align with their religious belief systems [is important].”

Who Should Apply?

Technical Theatre for Social Justice isn’t just for recent high school graduates. Yingling said that all ages and experience levels are welcome to apply. Most importantly, Yingling said that applicants should have a commitment to social justice and a willingness to learn how they can be an instrumental part of making the theatre community more inclusive and welcoming. 

“You don’t have to have any training or experience to do this,” Yingling said. “The program is designed to get you those skills. But there’s an essay question [on the application] about social justice and what their belief system is around that.”

Students will need to apply to Seattle Central College, which has an open enrollment policy, and complete the Technical Theatre for Social Justice application. Applicants with a passion for social justice are preferred. 

An Equitable Path

This isn’t Intiman’s first foray into apprenticeship. Since 2017, their STARFISH Project has trained more than 100 South Seattle teens in technical theatre. Some of those students have gone on to enroll in theatre degree programs at predominantly white universities, but the reception they received wasn’t exactly warm. 

“It ended up not being a good fit for any of these students,” Yingling said. “They found the degrees were expensive and not worthwhile. So, a low return on investment. They also found that the environment wasn’t very welcoming.”

Yingling said that the AA-TTSJ program offers youth an opportunity to matriculate from STARFISH into a two-year program that offers individualized attention, access to instructors and mentors who are IATSE union mentors, and an opportunity to build community with their peers.  

“It’s a hybrid cohort model,” Yingling said, “and cohort models statistically have higher retention rates because there’s that sense of community camaraderie. So students will go together as a cohort through all of their coursework with theatre and with other select classes. So each term, they’re working together with the students that they started out with.”

Financial Support 

The total cost of the AA-TTSJ program is $10,000. That’s inexpensive when compared to other theatre degree programs at colleges and universities that might charge as much just for a semester. For eligible students who need it, financial aid, grants, scholarships, and federally backed student loans are available. And for those students who don’t qualify, SCC offers affordable payment plans. Seattle Public School (SPS) students may be eligible for the Seattle Promise scholarship, which will cover 100% of tuition. 

Also, by the end of the degree program, students will have “all of the apprenticeship hours and skills that you need to test into union work and be able to get higher paying jobs, right from school, with minimal debt or no debt when [they’re] done,” Yingling said.

Long Push for Change

Yingling, who has a doctorate in global education, began working with Intiman in 2015. She was passionate about theatre but also education and helping to increase POC access to theatre — on stage and backstage. This passion emerged from her past struggles to gain access. 

“I’m actually retired military,” Yingling said. She did special operations work, which she noted was “very, very male.” As she advanced in her career, she met with resistance from male gatekeepers who resisted giving her jobs that she was qualified for because those positions had been “coded for a male only.” 

“I was working at a U.S. embassy and the ambassador appointed me to this position, so the military’s hands are tied,” Yingling said. Despite the struggle, her work was so exemplary that she was nominated for a “pretty prestigious award.” But the military rejected the honor simply because Yingling is a woman and the job she worked was coded for a man. 

That experience gave Yingling a glimpse into what systemic oppression can look like and how it can derail or stall a person’s journey. She saw that resistance rear its head in the theatre community. 

“I found that one of the main hurdles, honestly, was casting directors around the area,” Yingling said. “Working with casting directors who didn’t think that there were actors of color in Seattle, which was completely bogus. And working with them to see that ‘traditional casting’ is white casting, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Romeo and Juliet don’t have to be a white man and woman with blonde hair and all of these things that you see in your head. And when you read a script, you don’t need to default that the character is white unless it says otherwise. And so doing some of this training with casting directors and other theatre leaders in the area are my primary roles, and I ended up being a networker.”

The AA-TTSJ application is now open until Feb. 1, 2021. Classes will begin in fall of 2021. If COVID-19 restrictions are still in place, a hybrid-virtual plan will be implemented. 

 Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.

Featured image: Cleveland High Students participate in setting up an Intiman Theatre production in 2019. (Photo: Naomi Ishisaka)

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