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For decades, women have worked behind the scenes for Hasty Pudding Theatricals, Harvard's renowned theater group that bills itself as the world's third-oldest theater organization. But on stage, the burlesque shows have always been a men-only production.

Now that long-held division is coming under challenge by female students at Harvard, who say the practice is discriminatory and badly outdated. And they are making a bid to change it.

In a quick-moving campaign that gained momentum through social media over the past week, at least 17 women at Harvard have signed up for auditions this weekend to perform in what many describe as Harvard's most professional, prestigious production.

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"It's a really incredible opportunity for any aspiring performer," said Megan Jones, a senior who signed up for Saturday's auditions. "There is no equivalent on campus."

The group, which performed its first musical in 1844, is well known for its yearly awards to actors and actresses. It stages a yearly sendup musical that has a 35-show run in Cambridge, with additional dates in New York City and Bermuda, and boasts that such luminaries as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Jack Lemmon have worn drag on the company's stage.

On its website, the group says that from its "humble beginnings in a Harvard dorm room," it has grown into "an original, student-written and composed, full-scale pun-filled musical extravaganza, which culminates each year in an all-male kick line."

But seniors Olivia Miller and Tess Davison, frustrated over being excluded, decided to sign up for the Saturday auditions, and urged others to do the same.

"I think that the Hasty Pudding Theatricals has yet to evolve with the rest of the university," Miller said.

Representatives from the theater group could not be reached for comment Tuesday. The Harvard Crimson, which first reported that the women planned to audition, quoted the group's president, Robert Fitzpatrick, as saying the prospect of adding women to the cast had been a "topic of serious conversation."

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Adding women to the cast would require "structural changes to the production, the company, and our larger institutional traditions," Fitzpatrick said in a statement, according to the newspaper.

Students said they had not formally contacted the theater group — they merely put their names on a signup sheet — and are not sure what to expect during auditions. But Miller and Davison said that many members of the group have expressed support for bringing women into the show.

"What we've heard is that undergraduates overwhelmingly want this to happen," Miller said. "I think the attention this has gotten is going to make some kind of change."

Students said the group's productions typically involve six male characters and six female characters, which are played by men wearing women's clothing. Women could easily dress up to play male characters, they said, without losing any comedic value.

"Women playing men would keep the tradition of the drag show alive," Davison said.

Harvard does not recognize single-gender social groups, such as final clubs. Administrators have been working with leaders of social groups to discuss expectations and ways groups can "better align" with the college's mission, a university official said. Currently, women can play any role in the production other than taking the stage.

Actress and comedian Amy Poehler performed with the male cast of “Mean Girls” as she was honored as Hasty Pudding Theatricals’ Woman of the Year in January.
Actress and comedian Amy Poehler performed with the male cast of “Mean Girls” as she was honored as Hasty Pudding Theatricals’ Woman of the Year in January.Dominick Reuter/Reuters/File

Miller and Davison decided to pursue the auditions this summer when they were writing a script to submit as a candidate for the group's spring show.

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As they developed the characters, they began to think how much fun it would be perform them.

"It doesn't make sense we couldn't be these characters," Miller said.

That women can be closely involved in productions but not allowed to take the stage is galling, students said, particularly given the prominence of the shows.

"There's nothing on campus that's remotely equal to what the Pudding provides," Miller said. The shows are professionally directed and choreographed, students said.

Jones, the senior, said interest in the protest has "blown up" in recent days, and that many students believe the tradition is a relic from a bygone era.

"For women who want to pursue any kind of theater or performance, it's a huge shame and a big mistake," Jones said.

Some students noted that comedian Amy Poehler, named Woman of the Year by the group in January, had raised the issue of women's exclusion. At a celebratory roast in her honor, Poehler absorbed some good-natured ribbing before delivering a pointed message of her own.

"I want to say that it's unsettling that there will be no women on stage tonight," she said, according to a WBUR report. "You know it's time for a change when the Augusta National Golf Club has lapped you in terms of being progressive."


Globe correspondent Felicia Gans contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.