Founded in 2000, the CRLT Players was the first theatre company in the country focused on performing for faculty and graduate students around issues of teaching and learning. At the time of its launch within CRLT, the Players repertoire consisted of a single sketch, a part-time director, and a group of volunteer actors. Today, the theatre program includes four full-time staff, a troupe of 40+ student and professional actors, a repertoire comprising 15 sketches, and has performed for 58,000 audience members since its inception. A result of years of multi-faceted collaborations across U-M, the growth and success of the Players is grounded in the creative vision of its two artistic directors - Jeffrey Steiger, founding artistic director who led the company until 2012 and Dr. Sara Armstrong, who took over as director of the CRLT Theatre Program that same year – as well as the dedication and talent of the staff and performers who have contributed to the program over the past 20+ years.
Origin and Growth
The program has its roots in a 1997 Sloan Foundation grant to the U-M Women in Science and Engineering Program and the Graduate Experience Project at the University of Michigan. The original Sloan Foundation grant funded the development of an interactive theatre workshop aimed at addressing the “chilly climate” for women in STEM classrooms. When Sloan funding ended in 2000, CRLT adopted this program because the sketch resonated so strongly with instructors. Nationally, the use of theatre for faculty development purposes was unusual: though there were theatre troupes on many college campuses, they typically targeted undergraduate student audiences, and the Players was the only full theatre program in the U.S. that performed primarily for faculty and GSIs to improve instruction.
The program quickly drew enthusiastic support on campus that led to funding commitments from the deans of the two colleges with the largest undergraduate enrollments (College of Engineering and College of Literature, Science, and the Arts), as well as the Provost's Office. This budget allowed CRLT to hire the founding artistic director as a full-time CRLT staff member, and he in turn recruited a pool of local student and professional actors.
The program has steadily expanded its repertoire to meet the needs of U-M faculty, GSIs, and academic leaders. In 2002 when the Players partnered with UM ADVANCE on an NSF Institutional Transformation grant, leading to a number of sketches focused on departmental climate with a particular focus on gender. Further expansions of the repertoire included a program to support medical student skill development around delivering serious news (2005) and a range of sketches on teaching and learning topics focused on the ways in which instructors can more meaningfully contribute to an equitable and inclusive learning environment for students, peers, and colleagues. These include the introduction of vignette-based sketches similar to the work of the Neofuturists theatre company in Chicago (2011) now performed regularly at orientations for new faculty and GSIs; supporting students facing mental health challenges (2016), responding to microagressions (2017), and fostering belonging for first-generation college students in teaching and learning environments (2018). Most recently (2019) the Players partnered with UM's Organizational Learning on a set of sketches, asynchronous modules, and follow-up programs for academic leaders and departments as part of UM’s strategic focus on creating climates resistant to sexual harassment.
Former CRLT Executive Director and Associate Vice Provost Connie Cook brought the Players to the Center. She worked closely with then Senior Vice Provost Lester Monts to build support for the program across campus, including a close collaboration with Dr. Abby Stewart, founding director of UM's ADVANCE Program. Jeffrey Steiger served as the founding artistic director from 2000-2012, during which time he was responsible for developing scripts and facilitating Players sessions. Dr. Sara Armstrong took over that role when she was hired as artistic director in 2012. She has continued to expand the Players repertoire and facilitate sketch performances. She currently serves on CRLT's Senior Leadership Team, and has overseen an expansion of the Theatre Program's staff to include two full-time administrative positions (Recruitment Manager and Rehearsal Director, Company Manager) as well as an assistant director.
National and International Appearances
Word of the success of the program spread quickly after their inception, and the CRLT Players soon became a national resource. Their first off-campus engagement took place in 2002 when the troupe performed for a faculty audience at North Carolina State University. Since then, the Players have performed at 74 campuses and 27 conferences, including several performances for program officers at the National Science Foundation in Washington DC and three appearances at the national conference for educational developers, POD. The troupe's travel has also included international appearances: they were invited to perform for the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education national conference in Windsor, Ontario (2008); for the League of European Research Universities Gender Conference in Zurich, Switzerland (2018); and for Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, via video conference (2021).
Recognition and Publications
The excellence of the Players' work has been recognized by several awards since their founding. They received the UM Alumnae Association Birthday Greeting Award in 2004, the TIAA-CREFF Hesburgh Certificate of Excellence in 2006, and UM's Distinguished Diversity Leaders Award in 2017.