This past weekend, students in this academic year’s acting capstone performed in a production of “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.” by British playwright Alice Birch. The entire project, culminating in four runs of the show in the LPAC Frear Ensemble Theater with a production crew of over 25 students and faculty, took place over the course of two semesters and began with theater majors Sarah Branch ’17 and Rex Chang ’17 working with Philadelphia-based director Alex Torra to select a play.
“In the fall semester, the students and professor read a lot of plays to find a play that would challenge them as actors. For me, it’s also about finding a play that I feel excited to work on, that feels in line with my artistic interest while simultaneously addressing their pedagogic needs,” said Torra.
The script, newly-published in August of last year, is radical in both content and form. “Revolt” explores the experiences of womanhood in the 21st century. The play is also unique in that it gives very little technical direction, and the lines of the first and third acts are not distinguished by characters. As a result, which actress says which line is left open to interpretation.
“You have to go through the script and figure out who says what, so each production is different depending on how you interpret the script …. That was a lot of the beginning of the rehearsal process, just figuring out who says what, which is different than most plays that you’re going to work on, and had more of a feel of devised theatre,” Branch said.
Devised theatre, which is where Torra focuses most of his professional work, is a type of theatre in which an ensemble of actors develop an original work together instead of performing the work of a playwright. This play’s intentionally open-ended nature required a similar expression of creative freedom on the part of the ensemble, thus aligning the project with Torra’s skills and experience.
“This play landed in a sweet spot. There was a powerful text that gave us clues as to how it was to be presented, but [the students, designer, and I] had a lot of artistic license to make choices that we felt amplified the play and would be powerful for the audience … We did this collaboratively, making proposals to each other about what we thought would be good for the show,”Torra said.
An ensemble comprised of Branch, Chang, Citlali Pizarro ’20, and Emily Uhlmann ’19 portrayed several different characters that parodied patriarchal norms in language and everyday life while also addressing trauma in more somber scenes. Branch, for example, portrayed a stereotypical misogynist businessman at one point, but also delivered a monologue on sexual assault and the invaded borders of the female body.
As an actress, Branch felt the production both drew from her previous training at Swarthmore and continued to challenge her.
“It really challenged me to dig deeper into comedy and tragedy — or rather, realism — within one show,” said Branch.
The production was also challenging in how relevant it was. The outcome of last year’s election was part of the final decision to perform Birch’s play, which has only become increasingly appropriate under the Trump presidency.
“When we chose it, we chose it at the very end of the fall semester, so after the election, and we thought it felt super apt …. The show had a lot of personal significance, and being vulnerable enough to go into rehearsal everyday and access what I would generally choose to kind of put aside and deal with later was also a huge challenge but an incredibly rewarding one. It felt bigger than just me personally,” said Branch.
Displays of resistance in the real world, such as the Women’s March on Washington, informed creative decisions in the play. Specific scenes or dialogues were accompanied by large signs on a whiteboard that resembled the signs of protesters at the marches. During the scene in which a character expresses her frustration at her partner’s marriage proposal, the whiteboard read, “Revolutionize the World (Do Not Marry),” literally urging the audience to revolt. Elements such as this speak to the original message of play: it is ultimately a call to action.
While the play’s dialogue often mimicked normal speech patterns, the design of the set and various creative decisions consistently reminded the audience that they were watching a theatrical performance. The visibility of the actors throughout the play, even when they were not performing, is an example of this, and returns to the play’s radical message.
“[The actors] are stand-ins for us, people, and specifically women, trying to revolt, using scripts and words that we know or try on, and … those things, eventually, fail us. It felt right, then, to be able to see the actors at all times and to reveal all the components of the theatrical mechanism,” said Torra.
Creative decisions such as this one ultimately enabled audience members to reflexively engage with the play and its dialogues.
“Something happens on stage and you laugh at it, and then you’re like, ‘Why am I laughing at that?’ Those small things, that’s what makes a play really good,” said Branch.
Branch, who is also completing a special major in Education and Sociology, felt that more could have been done in the script to address different dimensions of feminism.
“I wish it more explicitly talked about intersectional feminism and race’s relationship to feminism. I think we were lucky enough to have people of color be in the show so just by virtue of their positionality we [implicitly] addressed that component.”
Ultimately, Branch was satisfied with the play and how it fit into her time at Swarthmore.
“I only have good things to say about this process and about this play. It was exactly what I needed at this point in time, and it felt like just a really important thing to end my theater major with,” said Branch.
While this year’s acting capstone has run its course, students of all disciplines are encouraged to attend future performances sponsored by the theater department, which are always free.