During the first week of March, students and alumnae involved in the coeducation theater project gathered for an early run-through of the show.
Frank Wojciechowski
As coeducation marks a milestone, student and alumni artists look back

While the facts of what led to undergraduate coeducation at Princeton are well documented, theater professor Jane Cox had a different focus in mind when she came up with a way to honor the 50-year anniversary. She wanted to showcase the stories of a variety of women from those early classes through an evening of performances created by a group of students and alumnae.

“The reason I wanted to do the piece is to help our students to have a sense of themselves,” Cox said. This was an opportunity to connect multiple generations of Princeton women and to see the vast differences and surprising similarities of their experiences, she added. 

After Cox ironed out the details with Suzanne Agins ’97, a lecturer in theater and director of the project, the two put out a call to students and alumnae who work in the arts. They ultimately chose seven teams and asked each to pick an alumna from a list to be the subject of a 10-minute performance piece. A bonus performance organized by choreographer Jill Sigman ’89 *98 would showcase a broad group of alumnae representing each decade since coeducation began. 

Choosing which women to feature proved difficult because all of the candidates had interesting stories. The groups were drawn to women who shared their interests and had experiences they felt could be represented on stage.

Paige Allen ’21, an English major pursuing certificates in theater, creative writing, and journalism, and her artist mentor, Ronee Penoi ’07, chose Carla Gail Wilson ’71 as their subject. Wilson, who is Jewish and black, was one of 12 black women in the first group of undergraduate women. 

“I was interested in looking at how those identities shape how one exists in a space like Princeton, which especially then [and] still now, but historically has been so rigid, so white, so male, so straight, so normative,” said Allen. “I am personally interested in highlighting stories that haven’t been given [their] due.” 

Wilson had a difficult time at Princeton. “We say this is breaking the glass ceiling,” Allen said, “but what does that actually feel like for the person who has to break that glass?” She hoped to capture those feelings in her performance. 

After spending time researching, the groups met and interviewed their subjects during winter recess. Patricia Chen ’20, Rosamond van Wingerden ’20, and Gwynn MacDonald ’87 traveled to Florida to interview Helena Novakova ’72. She had left the former Czechoslovakia for a better life and lived with Professor James Billington ’50 and his family during part of her time at the University. 

After Princeton, Novakova went into education and taught all over the world. “Walking into her home was like being in a visual installation of this person’s life,” MacDonald said of the collection of items representing the countries Novakova lived in throughout the years. The group spent a weekend with Novakova, collecting about 15 hours of audio material. 

“The reason I wanted to do the piece is to help our students to have a sense of themselves.” — Jane Cox, director, Program in Theater

Once the spring semester started, most of the students working on the project enrolled in a class held on Friday afternoons. This is when the real work began, said Agins. During that time students focused on workshopping drafts, rewriting scenes, and meeting with other artists for inspiration — all part of the creative process. 

Each week, the documentary-style theater projects continued to take shape. Some groups decided to create scenes or perform poetry and spoken words, while others were creating movement-based performances. There were also several students who were working on a parallel project, to create an archive of all the material they had collected. They’ve been reaching out to the more than 70 women who were not chosen as subjects, to ask about their stories. This “research material is actually irreplaceable,” Cox said. She hopes to display some of their findings at the performance and wants to work with Mudd Library to preserve the research beyond this project.

The first week of March, the groups gathered for their first run-through of the show. Even though many details were not finalized, it was an opportunity to see the variety of experiences and approaches of these performances in one sitting. Although the stories were very different, common themes emerged, including stories of sexual assault and harassment, feelings of isolation, and definitions of success. This helped them settle on a name for the evening: “All Her Power” — a lyric from the original version of “Old Nassau.” 

Glenna Galarion ’21 and her mentor Whitney Mosery ’08 interviewed Tina De Varon ’78, who is a singer and songwriter. In 2011, De Varon wrote about her experience with sexual assault on campus in a 2011 story for the Christian Science Monitor.

Galarion, who is also a singer, decided to create a song using a loop station to amplify the collective experiences of women who experienced sexual violence on campus. “How could I have gone through the same experience she did, 50 years later, in a place that was supposed to have progressed?” she asked.

Each week, the projects continued to take shape. Some groups decided to create scenes or perform poetry and spoken words, while others were creating movement-based performances. All of them stem from documentary-style theater, drawing on the material they gathered from meeting and researching the subjects.

Performances were originally scheduled to begin April 3, but have been moved to the fall semester following University guidelines for students to leave campus to minimize the risk of the 2019 novel coronavirus. Classes will continue virtually. Cox said groups likely will spend the remainder of the semester finalizing their pieces.

This is an expanded version of a story from the April 22, 2020, issue.