President Hennigan hosts follow-up town hall meeting

COPA students gather once again to discuss future of program

Written By Jordyn Hronec, Editor-Elect

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In an anticipated follow-up to a town hall meeting held on Thursday, Nov. 21, President Hennigan met with students of the Conservatory of the Performing Arts (COPA) in the Highmark Theater of the Pittsburgh Playhouse starting at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 3, in order to discuss plans for the near future.

The meeting was held in direct response to the previous meeting where the 2019-2020 Playhouse season’s upcoming production of “Adding Machine: A Musical” was cancelled, due to student and faculty concerns about the show’s racially insensitive content, as well as the lack of a sufficient plan to sensibly rehearse and perform that content. The meeting was also held in compliance with a list of both short-term and long-term demands sent to the President by the COPA Theater Club. The email was sent the day immediately after the meeting and was titled “Diversity, Inclusivity and Equity Initiative.”

The short-term demands listed in the email were as follows:

  • Cancellation of the show Adding Machine: The Musical in writing, and a guarantee that no one on the staff or cast will face repercussions.
  • A guaranteed, written confirmation and date of an open, in-person meeting with University’s President Paul Hennigan, and a detailed description of his influence over the COPA theatre program.
  • A written explanation and statement from Ronald Lindblom to the entire COPA student body about his selection of Adding Machine: The Musical and Parade.
  • A written guarantee that there will be further diversity training for everyone in the Conservatory of Performing Arts Theatre Department.
  • A time and place set for a Conservatory of the Performing Arts Theatre Department meeting on the discussion surrounding Parade.

Long-term demands included revisions to the COPA student handbook, an effort to diversify theater faculty and required “diversity and intimacy training” for all faculty and staff.

The email also stated that if the short-term demands were not met by Monday, Dec. 2, students would be encouraged to “walk-out” of classes. However, with the promise of a meeting with President Hennigan where the other demands would be discussed, a walk-out did not occur. The email was sent from the COPA Theater Club’s president, David Jarzen. Jarzen was also present at the meeting.

At the start of the meeting, Jarzen read aloud two quotes, one pertaining to “art equity” and another to “anti-racist theater.”

President Hennigan then spoke about the decision to cancel “Adding Machine.”

“I wholeheartedly agree with the decision that was made that night,” Hennigan said. “And I want to reiterate that there will be absolutely no repercussions at all to students, faculty or staff associated with the show, or for that matter, any member of our university community who wants to speak out.”

Also present at the meeting were Steven Breese, the Dean and Artistic Director of COPA who held the previous town hall and ultimately made the decision to cancel “Adding Machine,” as well as John Pearson, the university provost, Vanessa Love, the Director of Diversity and Title IX and Lisa Stefanko, the Vice President for Human Resources. 

Breese spoke about the plans he has developed since both his hiring in August and the previous meeting in order to meet the demands and needs of the students. Breese announced that two town hall meetings to discuss the upcoming show “Parade” would be held later in the week, one on Thursday night and one on Friday afternoon. According to Breese, this was planned so that all students could attend, even if they had a Thursday night class.

His plans also included gathering a group of faculty and students to revise the COPA student handbook.

“Halfway through next semester, I want a handbook that we all like and can live with,” Breese said. “We want to move it quickly. But I don’t want to do it so quickly that we make mistakes.”

Breese also announced his plans for how next year’s Playhouse season would be selected. Breese stated that he would be looking to put together a committee, led by Sheila McKenna, the Associate Artistic Director. He stated that the committee would consist of faculty members as well as three, elected senior COPA students. 

“I want students on the committee that are thinking about the best for COPA and for the theater program, not for shows they want to do,” Breese said. “You put seniors on the committee, they will have mentally the most experience and probably the best understanding of the larger world of theater. More importantly, they won’t be the beneficiary of anything they choose.” 

Students suggested that four representatives be chosen rather than three, with one student from each major in the theater department having a seat. Breese stated that he would be open to this suggestion. According to Breese, the next Playhouse season would be announced on April 15, as it is most years.

Stefanko spoke extensively about the need for diversity and inclusivity training for faculty, as well as the hiring process due to student questions regarding the diversity of faculty.

“I think what we are really talking about at Point Park is not just a training event or multiple training events, I think we’re talking about this being a point in time that we can introduce a cultural change at the university that goes beyond a training event,” Stefanko said. She stated that training would become part of a “programmatic change,” which would also include aspects such as “communications planning” and “diversity and inclusion in hiring.”

Throughout the meeting, students aired their grievances with President Hennigan and the upper administration’s conduct. During the meeting, President Hennigan claimed that he was unaware of students’ concerns with the show “Adding Machine.” He also claimed that he had never seen the show or read the play before, and that the show had been selected by the previous Dean and Artistic Director of COPA, Ronald Allan-Lindblom. However, it was also revealed by President Hennigan that he was presented with a list of shows for the season by Lindblom, as well as Lindblom’s reasoning for selecting the shows. 

Pearson spoke on Lindblom’s behalf. Lindblom was not in attendance of the meeting, due to familial medical reasons. Pearson stated that Lindblom’s “criteria” for choosing the show included academic criteria, student training, or how many roles were available in the show and that the show had “won a few awards.”

Ultimately though, President Hennigan came under fire from students for not reading the play “Adding Machine,” before allowing it to be approved.

Students who had been a part of the production were also unhappy with the lack of resources, such as counseling, that were available to them. The students claimed that the on-campus counseling center lacked diversity and availability for every student involved in the production to receive counseling. 

Stefanko assured the students that an email would be sent to them the next day with a solution to this issue.

Students in COPA were also assured that they would be receiving an email within the week asking for their involvement in a “steering committee” chaired by President Hennigan and co-chaired by a student. According to Hennigan, this committee would meet monthly to “make sure that what we talk about tonight actually gets done.” Hennigan also said that the committee would report its progress at following town hall meetings. Stefanko stated that the email would also ask for student involvement in moving forward with “diversity and inclusivity” training for faculty and staff.

During the meeting, Breese stated that during his time as the Dean of COPA, he would be hosting at least two town hall meetings a semester. 

The meeting concluded with President Hennigan thanking the students for their honesty and participation.