CAMBRIDGE — Liz Kantor, a Harvard sophomore, climbed the stairs to the third-floor studio at what the Hasty Pudding calls its “ancestral home” on Saturday afternoon and did something she loves: pour her heart into a rendition of “Joey is a Punk Rocker,” a song from a musical about a high school garage band.
There was an accompanist and a room of people evaluating her, but Kantor wasn’t quite sure what to call it. It was an audition but it was also an act of protest and a show of faith with the nearly 20 other women who had come for the first time to try out for the all-male Hasty Pudding Theatricals, she said. “We weren’t really doing it for a part as much as we were doing it for a purpose,” Kantor said.
After a fast-moving campaign in recent days that drew strength on social media and garnered national attention, the women did not know what to expect when they arrived at Farkas Hall, the Holyoke Street building that has housed the Pudding’s theater and rehearsal spaces since 1888. But late Saturday night the two women who started the campaign, seniors Tess Davison and Olivia Miller, said they received word from the Pudding in an e-mail sent only to the women who auditioned that none of them would be called back for a second audition. If the show were to include women, it would not be this year.
Earlier in the day outside Farkas Hall, senior Nicky Hirschhorn, also a senior, said she auditioned mostly to make a statement. “I’m not a born performer, so I just sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ ” she said.
A cluster of reporters had gathered on the steps, and the university had stationed a security guard by the door to keep the media at bay. Pudding members declined to comment, and most of them slipped in and out a side door, as did the men who auditioned.
But in midafternoon two men climbed the steps around the reporters, one of them apparently on his way to audition.
“I think having guys in drag is funnier than girls in drag, but having one female could be funny,” the other said, before turning to leave as his friend tapped a Harvard ID to unlock the door. “Break a leg.”
But the women said they were warmly received by the cast president and other Pudding members seated behind the audition table.
“That was the amazing part,” Kantor said. “None of us felt like there was any sort of tension or any sort of ‘we don’t want them here.’ ”
The women did not know whether they were being seriously considered for second auditions, but they said they left with the impression that the resistance to change was coming from the alumni board of the troupe, which has been conducting drag performances since 1844. The board’s names are not listed on its website.
They said they felt less like they were storming the gates than singing and acting before peers from Harvard’s wider arts community.
“I felt supported by everyone in the room who was watching,” said Aislinn Brophy, a junior. “They’re the people we make theater with on campus. They’re all our friends.”
The auditions were held less than two weeks after Harvard announced it would allow students to choose preferred gender pronouns. And they came just 36 hours after the Spee Club — one of eight male-only Final Clubs that date back generations — revealed it would consider “all genders” when selecting new members this fall.
Women have been allowed to join the social organization known as the Hasty Pudding Club since the 1970s, and have also been involved for years behind the scenes in the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, serving on the business staff and tech crew and writing scores and scripts. The current campaign took root over the summer, after Davison and Miller joined the competition to write the script for the annual spring show, a men-in-drag performance that counts Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jack Lemmon, and William Weld among its alumni ranks.
When Davison and Miller — who are both active in the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club and are minoring in performing arts — returned to campus, they added their names to the tryout list and encouraged other women to do the same.
“We just felt over the last few years that it’s just really outdated and unfair that this cast for the last, almost 200 years, hasn’t had women,” Davison said Saturday. “So we just decided to shake it up a little bit.”
There has been little apparent pushback on campus, and opposition has largely taken the form of online comments telling the women to start their own organization instead of challenging tradition. An editorial in the Harvard Crimson newspaper Friday called for “the Pudding to stop dragging its feet and open its doors,” noting that no new or existing group could match its alumni network, budget, and prestige.
Last week, Pudding Theatricals president Robert T. Fitzpatrick did not say whether the troupe would add women, but told the Crimson that it had been a “topic of serious conversation” since last spring.
On Thursday, the Pudding issued a statement calling men in drag its “artistic trademark” while acknowledging that the organization is contemplating a future with women on stage.
Still, student and alumni leaders want to “take proper steps and make thoughtful considerations” before doing so, the statement said.