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Amazing Talent at the Playwright’s Festival

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Last weekend Swarthmore’s Drama Board put on a Playwrights festival in Olde Club. This event featured five plays and writers, six directors, 22 different actors, and also the help of many other students. Walking into Olde Club, one could notice the cozy and packed space and feel excited by the murmurs of anticipation. A completely student-run and  produced event, everyone in the audience was eagerly waiting to see a friend, a hallmate, or maybe a sibling.

The first play Revisionism, was a sweet and hilarious twist on excuses for not turning in your homework. Dynamic and full of the classic Swattie spirit that is slightly strange, quirky, and creative, this play by Rebecca Rosenthal left audience members chuckling and relating. The next play Cohra, by Nader Helmy, was a play about being a black sheep, the cult of FIFA, immigrant masculinity; it was a play about outsiders. It opened with a touching scene between an immigrant father and son watching a football match that struck a chord with many audience members.

The third play New Year’s Spirits was a hilarious play about a ghost who was damned to a home with a quirky old-fashioned couple, a younger frustrated brother, and the curse that the ghost needs them to break. Next was the play Bees by Emma Pernudi-Moon, a haunting play about how swarms of bees constantly seek help with no one– not a bartender, nurse, or psychiatrist– responding to help. Finally The Mortality Play, written by Alex Kingsley ’20 is about how two angels accidentally kill God, and how they try to cover it up. It was both wonderfully poignant and hilariously rich.

Overall, the plays blew up Olde Club. People were laughing and so impressed by the work that everyone put in.

“It was amazing,” said Mariko Kamiya ’19, “I didn’t even realize that there was so much talent in all these students.”

The process too, of creating these productions was one of true bonding and giving. Every play seemed to have a great dynamic, that enjoyed themselves.  

“I felt like I have a new family. We worked so hard and had so much fun doing it,” said Dakota Gibbs ’19 who played God in The Mortality Play, “I couldn’t help but be proud of my fellow Swatties and their amazing talents.”

Madeleine Feldman ’17, one of the leaders of Drama Board who helped put the Playwrights Festival together also felt both awed and satisfied with the two day festival.

“I feel really really happy and satisfied after our two days of performances – after about a month and a half of meeting writers and directors, pairing them, holding auditions, and having rehearsals, the performances each went phenomenally,” said Feldman.

Feldman also expressed that she thought that this was a great sign for theater at the college.

“It makes me feel really hopeful for the future of Swarthmore’s art scene, and theater scene especially, to see how many people were willing to dedicate their time to making a brand-new piece of theater come to life,” said Feldman.

This is extremely exciting since the Drama Board hasn’t been as present in recent years. Feldman expressed that she and the board realized that much of the student body did not know of the Drama Board and its resources. She and her fellow board members dug into Drama Board’s history and found that years ago Drama Board held up to eight shows per year versus the three or four that have been happening in recent years. The birth of the Playwright’s Festival came from the motivation to change that, and push forward the theater scene at Swarthmore.

“We wanted to change that–- see if anyone new was interested in making theater with us,” said Feldman, “The vision was that we could have a low-key, fun learning experience for those interested in getting involved in theater or just trying it out: writers could write a short script, first-time directors would direct them, and along the way we would offer short workshops to introduce those folks to how to make theater at Swarthmore – how to work with actors, schedule them, stage a scene, get props for the show, etc. And for anyone interested in trying acting, this could be a perfect first experience!”

It was a surprise to many that many of these students were first-time performers, and the hope from the Drama Board is that this will inspire other students.

“It was such a beautiful experience,” said Tristan Cates ’20, “and very courageous for the first-time performers, I couldn’t tell at all.”

This type of humorous and playful energy was resonant and one could tell that the festival brought a lot of joy and inspiration to the community.

“The Swat community not only got great performances, lines and laughs, but an example of what we can do when we put our talents together,” said Gibbs, “And what did I get? I got to be God. It doesn’t get better than that right?”

The Playwright’s Festival truly brought people together in a creative, playful and beautifully executed way. Everyone left the event replenished.

“From this experience I personally gained a new love for & faith in Swatties – again, the amount of people who came through and trusted in this idea was amazing, and we were so lucky that they made it happen – and it reaffirmed my love for theater. My best memories of Swarthmore are the times where I’ve connected with other students and collaborated to make something I couldn’t have dreamed of without the other – and this was definitely a time to remember,” said Feldman, “I believe that theater is a necessary and powerful medium here at Swat – for escape into a different world, for meeting new friends, for collaborating and building trust with others.”

 

Theater Students “Revolt” in Acting Capstone

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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.

Building Communities in Yellow Stockings

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As the lights dim in Upper Tarble, the last of the audience members take their seats, and murmurs fade away into silence. The actors are scattered behind the curtain, some peeking through its narrow seam as others tightly clutch their props, preparing to bring them on stage. Mohammad Boozarjomehri ’19 then welcomes the audience, asking them to silence their phones. Then, midway through his sentence, his energy and voice sharply increase.

“So buckle your seats for the Elizabethan ride of a lifetime!” he declares.

He closes the curtain, leaving the audience in uproar. As the actors try to maintain their focus, Boozarjomehri recollects himself and walks through the curtain to commence the show with his opening line.

“All the world’s a stage.”

Thus began the Yellow Stocking Players’ Night of Scenes, an annual performance done by the Yellow Stockings shakespeare troupe with funding by the Drama Board.  This year, under the guidance of playwright/dramatist Emma Remsberg ’17 and stage manager Emily Kennedy ‘19, the theme for the show was performance in daily life. Within the plays ; Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and their characters, director Remsberg wanted to explore how people try to be who they are not, as well as the motives and consequences involved. This theme was evident during the party in the Much Ado About Nothing scenes where the characters’ faces were masked but their emotions even more so, and in the actual performances being done by the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“I wanted to explore performance in our daily lives, but particularly its motives and consequences. What drives people to disguise themselves like that, and is it successful? In our scenes, it usually isn’t—I tried not to be too heavy-handed with this, because our show was a comedy, but that kind of performance proved to be largely destructive, and even the scenes that ended happily were left without full resolution,” said Remsberg.

This year’s Night of Scenes began back in September with auditions in Trotter Hall. Remsberg, Kennedy, and a Drama Board liaison, chose the cast members for the show, with all current graduating years represented. From there, cast members attended rehearsals scheduled every week, and worked towards being off script by the end of fall break. During those rehearsals, stage positions were given, lines were memorized, characters were formed, and at times emotion and stress levels were high. Tessa Hannigan ’20, who played the role of Hamlet and Actor 9, recalls the difficulties she faced during that time.  

“For me, the process of bringing my character to life was marked as the process of diving in without knowing what I was doing, simply trusting a feeling of who my Hamlet was and could be. Lines took a long time to memorize but the most important step I had to take in becoming my character was embracing the fear of failure and jumping in!” said Hannigan.

As the days until the performance narrowed, the actors warmed up, acted, and worked more as a community, with the guidance of Remsberg and Kennedy. Two months after the initial audition, Remsberg and Kennedy, the self proclaimed “mothers” of the group, look on as the actors take their final bows, and conclude their final performance of The Yellow Stocking’s Night of Scenes.

“There is nothing more incredible than being able to sit back and watch the progress a group of individuals who come together with the common goal of producing a show and see what they become. I have the honor of watching my actors grow as actors, but also as people in general, and there’s nothing else I love more!” said Kennedy.

Among those who attended one of the four scheduled performances, was Ming Ray Xu ‘20 who attended the Saturday matinee.   

 “I don’t read a lot of Shakespeare, but I enjoyed the blending of its themes of performance and the convincing portrayals by the actors. Even though the story did not strictly adhere to previous Shakespeare stories I have read, the acting allowed me to follow what was going on for the majority of the play. I am definitely open to watching more Shakespeare in the future…if Yellow Stockings puts it on ” said Xu.

Production ensemble won’t say “As You Like It”

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Directed by Professor Alex Torra of the department of theater, “As You Like It” gave audiences a rare chance to hear Shakespeare’s work performed in the dialect in which it was originally staged. The theater department’s latest production ran for four shows over the weekend of Nov. 11, featuring students taking Torra’s Production Ensemble course.

The decision to perform the play in Original Pronunciation was made by Torra, as Original Pronunciation and Shakespeare over the years are part of Torra’s ongoing research. In 2007, he became the first American to stage a show in Original Pronunciation, and several other production companies have since followed in his stead. Still, Torra explained, plays in Original Pronunciation are uncommon.

This particular staging of “As You Like It” was no easy feat. As with any theatrical production, the cast and crew faced a variety of obstacles, including only running the entire show from start to finish once before opening night and a last-minute change in casting.

“This is a funny experience for me because I’m really the dialect coach, but one of our students unfortunately got sick, and so I stepped in this week to play this part,” said Marla Burkholder, who played Oliver.

Despite the late notice, Burkholder agreed to take on the role of the malicious elder brother of the young lover Orlando, who was played by Catherine Campo, a sophomore at Bryn Mawr. According to Campo, the language of the play itself was another challenge.

“We all had a really hard time understanding it at first, and learning the dialect was such a difficult process, … but it was definitely worth it, and to have accomplished this, … I mean, I think it’s incredible,” said Campo.

The cast was initially worried that the audience would not be able to understand what was being said.

“There’s both the thickness of the language, and then adding that unfamiliar sound [of the Original Pronunciation] on top of that is, like, tricky,” Burkholder said.

However, the amount that the audience was able to appreciate pleased the cast and crew. Torra expected some of the more obscure, time period-specific jokes to go over the audience’s heads, and he found their reactions surprising.

“The plays are old. They’re from another time, and in a way, the work on the Original Pronunciation acknowledges that, … by saying that it belongs to another time [and another place] … It relieves a bit of pressure, and actually, when you relieve that pressure, you can hear more,” he said.

While most of the cast and crew were Swarthmore students and faculty members, Campo was not the only one from a different college in the Tri-Co: Margot Wisel, who played Jacques, and Emma Wells, who played Celia, are a junior and senior respectively at Bryn Mawr, and Assistant Scenic Designer Yoshi Nomura is a senior at Haverford.

Though she is not a student, Stage Manager Anne Ketcham was also new to Swarthmore. Scott Cassidy ’20, who has worked with her before and served as Production Manager, invited her to join the team as rehearsals had already begun, but the ensemble still lacked a stage manager. As it had been a while since Ketcham last worked with college students, she particularly enjoyed the cast’s energy, as she said professional actors tend to lose that enthusiasm.

“[The students are] all so excited to be doing the show, … and it’s cool because they’re learning about theater, and theater’s such a passion of mine that it’s nice to see people excited about it again,” she said.

Other crew members, who are part of the theater department faculty, were Scenic Designer Matt Saunders, Lighting Designer James Murphy, Sound Designer Elizabeth Atkinson and Costume Designer Laila Swanson. Additionally, Cassidy’s brother, Brett Cassidy, choreographed the two fight sequences in the play, and Rachel Pomerantz ’19 served as the assistant stage manager.

Besides his role as the Assistant Director, Simon Bloch ’17 appeared onstage in the roles of four different secondary characters, most notably the macho, mustachioed Charles. Marissa Cohen ’17 and Clarissa Grundstein ’20 also alternated between four secondary characters each, whilst Kendell Byrd ’17 was double-cast as both Duke Senior and his brother, Duke Frederick, and Elizabeth Balch-Crystal ’19 starred as the fair Rosalind.

The other cast members were Max Marckel ’19 (Touchstone), John Wojciehowski ’19 (Adam, Silvius), and Alex Kingsley ’20 (Amiens, Audrey). Kingsley’s role as Amiens led her to learn to play the accordion to accompany the songs in the show, which were sung by the cast.

The set design was unique in its simplicity, featuring elements such as a deer head mounted on the wall, love poems pinned to tree trunks, a small chandelier, and mulch strewn across the stage. The costumes were just as creative: Bloch appeared in a purple wrestling suit for his role as Charles, and Byrd, Wojciehowski, and Wisel wore hats crocheted with ears during their brief stint as sheep. With these technical aspects to support the acting, a tale of exile, hidden identities, and romance from 400 years ago was brought to life on LPAC’s Pearson-Hall Theater stage.

Following the success of “As You Like It,” Torra has high hopes for the future of theater at Swarthmore.

“The world is going through a lot of things right now; it has been for some time, and … it’s fun to do the Shakespeare play. It’s fun to enter this world, … but can we challenge ourselves to be introducing students and the community to what theater can do, as opposed to what it once was? So, that’s the thing I’m processing pretty deeply,” he said.

Surface Tension showcases strong women, circus arts

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This past weekend, a crowd of nearly 100 people gathered on the top floor of Neighborhood House for Surface Tension, a FringeArts Festival performance that features both social commentary and acrobatic interpretation. The show was produced by Tangle, an all-female aerial dance company founded by Swarthmore College alum Lauren Rile Smith ’08. Surface Tension highlights daily concerns in the modern world, from finding relationships in the digital age to landing a dream job.

The lights dimmed, and viewers were presented with nothing but the sight of several aerial hoops and aerial silk.

“September is a time for new beginnings,” declared one of the characters into the vast and empty darkness.

The audience was then placed into the lives of three individuals who excitedly awaited the clean slate that the new month would bring. One started a new job after graduating from school and planned her future at the office, deciding what kind of person she wants to be from that point on. Another delved into the world of Tinder, eager to find her soulmate. The last individual, an online advice columnist and blogger, helped others with their problems in an unconventional attempt at finding herself.

September was supposed to be a fresh start, but as time progressed, the month became more of a misfortune than a blessing. The new job ended up being too demanding. The character worried that if she acted like herself, she may have been at risk for losing her job. Her boss quite literally “showed her the ropes,” asking her to copy an acrobatics routine to a tee, and because of her inability to do pointe work, she is viewed as incompetent. Everything the individual did was harshly critiqued, and despite her intense desire to do well, she was not perfectly efficient, making her a “bad” employee.

The Tinder relationship that began so well ended up becoming too monotonous and repetitive.

“How do you know if you are in the right story?” both the individual and her partner asked.

The two women perform their individual acrobatics routines at the same time, which provided an interesting contrast to the other trapeze performances. They occupied the same space, but interestingly enough, they did not serve as cohesive units. While they were both comfortable with each other and had similarities, it was evident that they were unsure of whether or not this love was “the one.”

And the advice columnist? She initially saw the ability to write as an amazing experience, one where she was able to play God, but came to the realization that she was being hypocritical as she was not following the advice she worked so hard to preach.

“I don’t need to be happy or fulfilled,” she went on to say. “That comes later right?”

While the show incorporated modern dance, theater, and spoken word, the acrobatics and trapeze provided the most refreshing dynamic for many in the audience. In scenes when life was going well for the individuals, the movements were fluid and smooth, which was emphasized by an upbeat, stress-free music selection. When conflict hit, however, there was an apparent change in the choreography. The music had more angst, the movements became more sharp and direct, and “falling” became a noticeable pattern. The performers would let their bodies fall while maintaining a sense of control in a limited area, like their hands or feet. This detail communicated that moments where we fall do and will occur, but it is important to utilize our strengths to get back up.

The finale of the show tied up some loose ends but overall it provided the audience with a sense of ambiguity, leaving great room for interpretation. The advice columnist gave up her Internet persona for a chance to live on a farm, the couple figured out what did and didn’t work in their relationship, and the newly-employed worker perfected her own routine, one fit for her needs.

Whether these decisions ere long-term solutions or mere quick fixes was left unknown and the show comes to an end with the question, “How do we ever know who we truly are?”

The beauty of Surface Tension lies within the uncertainty that exists in human life and in the play.

Overall, the show generated the message that, sometimes, the plan we make for ourselves isn’t always the plan that actually takes place. This is perfectly acceptable and shouldn’t be seen as a weakness, but rather as a strength. Being able to adapt to the challenges of life is a herculean task, one that should be faced head-on.

Lee Thompson, Tangle aerial acrobatics teacher, performed in Surface Tension as the woman who fought to find love. She explained her appreciation for expressing stories through these mediums because she believes every story is one worth watching. On a social level, however, Thompson loved that she gets to tell strong stories about women that aren’t always funny, but are angry and real.

“Women can do aerials and they can do what they want,” said Thompson. “And they can do it without skimpy clothes or having a certain body figure.”

Lauren Rile Smith resonated with the idea of depicting women’s lives in ways we typically don’t get to see as an audience. She believes that in the media of the 21st century, viewers rarely have the chance to see women’s physical strength or intimate touch between two women.

“In circus arts, someone’s strength is literally depicted,” said Smith. “You don’t get to see that today, so the stage is a really rich place to start.”

Orientation Play evolves to welcome the Class of 2020

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After a week of classes, the Welcome Play, commonly known as the Orientation Play, returned to campus, bringing a candid and cautionary take on campus life for new students and plenty of laughter for the whole audience. The play, traditionally performed in conjunction with the other Orientation programming for first years and transfer students, has long been an entertaining introduction to the culture of the college and a beloved tradition.

The play features a variety of first year characters representing some of the range of identities present on campus, as well as a rapping SAM, an infinitely wise RA, a malevolent Assistant Dean, and a single admissions mistake. The story of the admissions mistake is a humorous way of addressing doubts many new students face, while also incorporating a variety of encouraging and similarly humorous messages about common campus dilemmas. Simon Bloch ’17, a co-director of the play, offered some insight on the intent of the production.

I think the play means different things to different people,” said Bloch. “It might provide first years the context or reinforcement for ideas encountered during orientation: ideas like consent, roommate conflicts, unfair assumptions, gender pronouns, gender non-binary, achieving a healthy work-life balance, sex positivity, asexuality, healthy substance use, and many others.”

To Max Marckel ’19, who played the RA, the play has 3 main messages that promote positive personal health and campus culture.

“Number one: that everyone is a worthwhile person; number two: to take care of yourself; and number three: to take care of others,” he said. ”That’s touched on in a lot of different aspects, like take care of yourself while drinking, in terms of work that you have, take care of others in terms of consent, in terms of respecting where people come from.”

“One of the big messages is to show first years, new students, transfer students, what the Swarthmore community is about. Providing all the fun and awesome and serious aspects of Swarthmore all on one stage,” said Kendell Byrd ’17, another co-director.

To Ben Charo ‘18, the third co-director, a major message of the play came from its characters’ ability to reconcile their differences.

I think ultimately that’s what the show’s about, it’s about being productive in confronting those differences, being open to compromise in certain respects, and also just being open to things that you won’t necessarily understand or realize coming into college,” said Charo.

While the essential plot of the play remains consistent, in many ways the play evolves and grows from year to year in order to fit a new cast and directors as well as incoming class. Additionally, the cast shoots, acts in, directs, and edits video skits each year to play during the play. Many changes to the script, however, do occur as a new set of actors try to figure out how to best portray their characters.

“Traditionally the RA is more of a superhero. You know, coming in just, very, superman-like. This year we changed it to be like a sleep-deprived-senior superhero. So a lot more chill, but still just as wise,” said Marckel.

Byrd, who joined the Orientation Play cast in 2014, was responsible for rewriting almost all of her character’s lines.

“In my sophomore year I was an actor in the play. I played the SAM,” recounted Byrd. “Patrick and Abby, who were directors at that time, after I auditioned and freestyled, wanted to turn the SAM into a rapping role. So then I rewrote all the SAM lines into raps… The RA used to talk in Shakespearean stanzas too, that was cut. They talked in iambic pentameter back in the day.”

Some of the other changes that are  made to the script are done intentionally, to provide new emphasis or perspective in the play.

“Other changes we made include the clarification that hooking-up and having sex are not synonymous, and that taking someone home does not mean that sex is implied or should feel obligatory,” said Bloch.

Some of the biggest changes to the play occurred in the 2014 Orientation Play. Previously, the play was exclusive to first years and was mandatory. The script was required to cover certain information, which was supposed to be provided to the first years. That year, the OSE the directors, Patrick Ross ’15 and Abigail Henderson ’15, were given the option to either produce a mandatory informational video for first years or to produce a play that was not technically part of the orientation and which was open to everyone, but not mandatory. They chose the latter, cut a lot of less entertaining material, and created the play we know today.

This change also represented a break from the OSE. The play would eventually lose its funding from OSE and is currently funded by Drama Board, a student run group which stages a variety of theater productions. In addition, starting that year, the play would officially be known as the “Welcome Play”, a change which has not necessarily been honored or appreciated by the entire student body.

“I think it’s because the Orientation Play is not technically part of the Orientation,” said Charo.

“The only vestigial tension between the play and the administration appears to lie in the name itself (Orientation Play vs Welcome Play), which I find a little silly given how much ownership of the play the student body has taken/been given. Frankly, considering the sheer number of hours our cast/production team puts in, we should be allowed to call it The Velcro Sounds Weird Play if we wanted to,” said Bloch. “Efforts to change the name seem to be motivated by a belief that the play should not be affiliated with Orientation. The majority opinion of the student body and of past generations of directors is that the play should be called the Orientation Play.”

The lack of funding from OSE has not been a source of tension between the play and the administration. Rather, the switch to receive funding from Drama Board has been appreciated by the directors, as it has led to greater independence for the play.

“I liked it because Drama Board is a board of students, so you get more student voice now in terms Orientation Play,” said Byrd. “Back in the day, Patrick and Abigail would have to communicate with admin, and try to get meetings in, and now you have this diverse student board, overseeing it and representing student ideas, values, and goals for the Orientation Play. And the Orientation play is mainly for the students, so I really like that.”

“In my two years as a director, the administration has been quite supportive. Andrew Barclay, the new head of the OSE, has been very supportive and transparent through this year’s process,” said Bloch. “This year and last year, the play was almost entirely student-run, with the exception of LPAC’s support, hard work, and incredible professionalism.”

The increased student ownership of the Orientation Play also brings increased responsibility. The play touches on several sensitive topics and the students’ involved have a degree of responsibility for their portrayal of those topics. This year’s play brought one such incident, in which a student was not satisfied with the way in which one character, Theresa, who begins the play in a non-sexual long term romantic relationship, was portrayed.

“There was a Facebook post right after the play ended about the fact that asexuality wasn’t mentioned in relation to Theresa,” said Charos.

During last year’s play, the character did specifically mention asexuality. This was a new change advocated for by several people involved in the production, including the actor who played Theresa, Maddy Feldman ’17.

“We had the conversation about, ‘hey, if she’s think like this, if she’s talking like this, why don’t we just put in the terms asexual and demisexual,” said Feldman. “It was about introducing the terms and also about representation. She’s always talking about this, there are people on this campus who identify as asexual and demisexual, and this play is important for representation purposes as well as introducing people to the spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations.”

The decision was also supported by Bloch, who was also a co-director last year, and regrets the absence of the terminology in this year’s production.

“It shed light on an important identity and one that deserves a voice on this campus, and it showed that the decision not to have sex doesn’t have to be something you’re ‘just waiting to figure out’,” said Bloch. “To be perfectly honest, the line addition we made last year explicitly labeling Theresa’s asexuality was a change that was accidentally left out of the revised version of this year’s script. It was my mistake, and I take responsibility; it was an oversight rather than a choice.”

In addition, Charo pointed out that there are some other elements of the play’s message, which, while well intentioned, may be imperfect. He pointed out the numerous instances in which the play intentionally inverts stereotypes, such as the Christian student who is trans-friendly, but also questioned the implications of these inversions.

“I think what the show is trying to do with those kind of odd, unusual scenarios is suggest that being open to the avoidance of assumption is important no matter what. And I think that there are some thorny questions there, like is it really the job of somebody who is in the minority to be open at all times?” said Charos.

Unfortunately, due to the relatively short length and the nature of the play, there are definite limits to the nuance with which the play can treat these subjects. Despite this, the co-directors strive each year to send the best message they feel they can, and they welcome input from the greater campus community.

“It’s important to note that the play aims to tackle a lot in two hours — in the process, we make unfair simplifications and fail to address certain nuances, all for the sake of making the play digestible and entertaining,” said Bloch. “If you feel that an identity or other issue has been left out of the conversation or not handled appropriately, please share your thoughts with us.”

While the form and content of next year’s play will be unknown until next fall, the current cast and directors foresee a bright future for this Swarthmore tradition.

I expect that he [Barclay] will be even more instrumental next year (since he just got here!) in helping facilitate some of the logistical overhead and in bridging the students’ vision with the necessary resources,” said Bloch.

“I hope the Orientation play could be back in Orientation week, still hopefully in LPAC,” said Byrd. “I really hope the Orientation play serves to educate as well as, hopefully — if people are having a rough day before or a rough time adjusting to Swarthmore — make them feel more included into the community, and also just brighten up their day.”

Review: Peter Pan and the Starcatcher at Walnut Street Theatre

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A warm wash of light reveals an elaborate set. A number of four-by-fours erupt from the stage floor to create a second level. Miscellaneous objects — trunks, barrels, rugs, rope — adorn the stage. Simple chandeliers hang over the set. In the center of the stage, there is a lamp with a single light bulb.

Such is the top-of-the-show set for “Peter and the Starcatcher,” Walnut Street Theatre’s current running production. The play is Rick Elice’s adaptation of the first novel in a series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, and takes place before the events of J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” The play explains how Peter Pan came to be the boy that never grew up, how Captain Hook lost his right hand, where Tinker Bell originated, and many other aspects of the original story by Barrie. The production is also notable for casting Swarthmore’s own Micaela Shuchman ’16 for the role of Molly, who plays a major part in Peter Pan’s origins.

Smoke begins to cloud the air, and the lights dim. As the show begins, the actors come out on stage and introduce themselves. Impressively, each actor begins and ends the play with the same intense physicality and high energy, rendering the performance an engaging one. This consistent level of energy also highlighted the play’s humorous elements, warranting multiple laughs from the audience.

While the play is comedic, it borrows many elements from Brechtian theatre, which is intended to obscure the audience’s emotional involvement with characters, and instead provoke reflective detachment. In the simplest of terms, this is accomplished not by breaking the fourth wall but acting as if there never was one to begin with. This might mean engaging with the audience, as Smee, played by Aaron Cromie, did when he flirted with an audience member.

It can also mean an assertion that the performance is just that — a performance. This assertion was made multiple times throughout “Peter and the Starcatcher.” At one point in the play, Molly and her nana, Mrs. Bumbrake, are having a conversation in their cabin aboard the ship “Neverland.” The rest of the actors lined up with their backs to the audience to form a wall mid-stage, swaying together and emitting squeaks to emulate the sounds and movements of a ship at sea.

“I believe that as people, we sort of lose the ability to play,” said Shuchman. “So, I really appreciated this play because I think at the heart of it is that question, ‘How do we keep the great parts of being children in our heart even though most of us have to grow up?’”

This central idea of playfulness is incorporated into the design of the show, specifically in the set. At first, it seems like the set features a conglomeration of objects simply to be used throughout the play. This remains true. Nevertheless, it soon becomes obvious through the actors’ engagement with the set pieces and how they are incorporated into the story that it is set in an attic, where children play and imagine stories amongst old furniture and trinkets.

Some choices made in the play — usually either by the director or the playwright — were questionable. First, Shuchman’s role was the only role played by a woman. Even Mrs. Bumbrake is played by a man, which the audience found funny; this in itself was a tacit dehumanization and devalidation of trans women as men in drag. Men dominated this performance.

“This was something I struggled with,” said Shuchman. “At the same time, I guess what I tried to do was make the most of what I had. I had to make my character as strong as possible and put out the message there about Molly and how strong she is as a woman in an environment with only men.

Additionally, the original story of Peter Pan includes an indigenous group living on the island of Neverland — though this is now cut out of most productions of the story. “Peter and the Starcatcher,” as the prequel to that story, also featured an indigenous group called the Mollusks. The Mollusks, garbed in colored leaves, safari hats, and cricket bats looked almost like marooned Englishmen. However, they spoke gibberish and had names like “Fighting Prawn” and “Hawking Clam” — which seemed to refer to the English translations of Native American names in a comedic way. The similarities between the cricket bats and the macuahuitl, a Mayan weapon, also seemed to play into this connection between the Mollusks and indigenous groups.

Tessa Chambers ’19, who is Native and a member of Swarthmore Indigenous Students Association (formerly known as Native American Students Association, or NASA), saw the play with the Philip Evans Scholars Program. She felt so uncomfortable by the portrayal of the indigenous group that she walked out of the show.

“It’s not my job to sit there and peacefully be complicit in racism against my own people,” said Chambers. “Even though it was based on a book, those were casting and directorial decisions … I think that when things are portrayed as forms of entertainment, people think that they can just digest it without being critical … It also has to do with how Native issues are never talked about.”

Shuchman also described the discomfort members of the cast felt about this portrayal of the Mollusks. They had hours-long discussions about it during rehearsals, but ultimately, the director made the final decision about what was depicted and how.

What we decided to justify it as actors was that the entire crux of the play was young children playing around in an attic,” said Shuchman. “So what we tried to portray was how a child would imagine mollusks or shells coming to life, playing with their voices and their language….But I’m not sure that was communicated in the best way at the end of the production.”

Despite these problematic directorial decisions, Shuchman noted that the rehearsal process was in general quite collaborative. Although Shuchman was the rookie thespian of the group, everyone respected her input and made her feel welcome to the world of professional theatre a world she hopes to fully join after she leaves Swarthmore.

“It’s been great to be able to do both of those things,” said Shuchman on being both in school and a professional theatre production. “I’ve been able to get the experience of what the world outside of Swarthmore is going to be like while also still getting to be here and see my friends and do the work I want to do here.”

“Peter and the Starcatcher” is running until May 1st on Walnut Street Theatre’s Mainstage.

Michelle Johnson ’16 directs Chekhov’s “The Seagull”

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Last weekend, the play “The Seagull,” written by Anton Chekhov, translated by Paul Schmidt, and directed by Michelle Johnson ’16, was performed in the Frear Theater in LPAC. Upon entering the dark performance space, the audience was greeted with Russian folk music that was both uplifting and humorous. The space was designed so that the audience sat around the stage on three sides, and the room was buzzing with light conversation in anticipation.

“I’ve never went to a play here, and honestly I didn’t know what to expect,” said Stephanie Chen ’19. “But it really surprised me and I loved it.”

To Johnson, the play by Chekov reflects both her personal artistic growth as well as her next steps in life.  

“I specifically chose ‘The Seagull’ because as I prepare to redefine myself in post-grad life, I relate a lot to the need to find meaning in my relationships and identity as an artist but also in finding ways to laugh at my own absurdities sometimes,” said Johnson.

The play clearly had varying moods that was felt by the audience. At times it was humorous, and at times it was tragic.  

“I personally loved the last scene, when I don’t know how many years later, the characters have shifted and grown,” said Chen. “It was extremely emotional and that was felt by the entire room.”

As an actress, Elizabeth Balch-Crystal ’19, who played one of the main characters, Nina, also felt that the emotional shifts were extremely prominent.

“My character, Nina, goes through a huge emotional change on stange,” said Balch-Crystal. “It’s really difficult but really rewarding to work with the character.”

In the middle of the performance the title of the play materialized, when the character Konstantin Treplev, played by Tylor Elliott ’15, carried a dead seagull on stage. The audience was expecting it but for some it was an ambiguous metaphor.

Interestingly, Johnson didn’t intend for it to be as significant and her interpretation of the play is rather one that downplays this romanticization of the metaphor, and is instead more grounded.

“[The characters] base their entire sense of worth on [their relationships and their work], and this absurd pattern of romanticizing culminates in the dead seagull Konstantin kills that everyone treats as a giant metaphor. But honestly, it’s just a dead bird,” said Johnson.

As Balch-Crystal puts it, the seagull was crucial to her character, Nina, even though it was not necessarily supposed to be meaningful for the audience.

“I think for Nina, the seagull metaphor is really central to her emotional journey,” said Balch-Crystal. “I think it also serves as a metaphor for the inevitable destruction of all things, which we see a lot in this play.”

Johnson’s interpretation of the play is really about the starkness of reality in contrast of the poetic and artistic drama.

“I find this tendency to over-romanticize funny and sad but also super relatable, and for me the takeaway is that sometimes it is not a bad thing to check back in with reality,” said Johnson. “Engaging in the relative meaninglessness of an un-romanticized perspective might be difficult, but at least it’s real.”

When approaching the production of the play, Johnson reveals that she wanted to share a special connection with the audience.

“One of my professors, Elizabeth Stevens, always talks about the process of theater as sharing a gift with the audience. So that’s how I approached the production — as an act of sharing with the audience all the warmth, fun, feeling, and meaning the ensemble found during the process,” said Johnson.

Johnson also emphasizes the amount of team-work involved in her process, and the necessity for the cast to have worked together for the play to come to life.

“The overall mood of the play was very fun and very familial,” said Balch-Crystal. “The cast and the production team all got along really well so everyone felt comfortable bouncing ideas and thoughts around.”

“The cast members were so willing to take on the challenge of a difficult script and they all brought so much joy and warmth into rehearsals,” said Johnson. “The script of ‘The Seagull’ by itself is brilliant, but it can only come alive when a group of people dedicate their unique perspectives and energies to a shared project. So overall this experience reaffirmed my desire to make theater based on collective rather than individual experience.”

Despite the fun and the comedic aspects of the play, it ended on a dark note with the death of one of the main characters, Konstantin.

“I was very shocked by the sound of the gunshot,” said Chen. “It really darkened the mood and took us to a very emotional place which seemed much more serious than the rest of the play.”

With that ending note however, Johnson felt that the underlying message was one of simple kindness and forgiveness.

“I wanted the audience to feel that life is both absurd and painful, and it is equally important to laugh at ourselves as it is to show ourselves kindness and forgiveness.”

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