Orientation Play Aims for Diversity and Accuracy

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Kimaya Diggs '15 and Allison Hrabar '16 in the Orientation PlayPhoto by Elena Ruyter '14
Kimaya Diggs '15 and Allison Hrabar '16 in the Orientation Play Photo by Elena Ruyter '14

This year’s orientation play capped off a frenetic and fruitful orientation week with a revised, more inclusive cast of characters. Directors Abigail Henderson ’14 and Patrick Ross ’15, who worked closely with the Deans, crafted a script that built on its predecessor with wit, new references (everything from the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” to the film “Despicable Me”), and new sticky situations for its complex characters to find their way out of – sometimes through songs.

“This is the most expansive change [the play] has ever gotten from one year to the next,” said Henderson.

In this year’s production, new characters included Rose (Kimaya Diggs ‘15), a first-generation college student who is insensitive to her roommate’s mental health issues, her roommate Julia (Allison Hrabar ’16), a student diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) who needs to re-examine her privileged life, and Alex (Caleb Jones ’14), a genderqueer student with some religious prejudices . Of course, each character possessed broader identities than the archetypes they represented.

Yes, each character can certainly be boiled down into the aspect of their identity that other people have trouble with and their own specific prejudice. As Ross puts it, “They are all cartoons – that’s just the nature of the play.”

At the same time, however, the play’s characters are responsible for educating the audience about certain identities, and this cast certainly delivered pseudo-Swatties.

“[The play] is supposed to be didactic and it’s supposed to have morals and the freshmen are supposed to come out of it feeling like if they had never met a genderqueer person, that now they had,” Ross said. Certainly, this year’s play preached its messages enthusiastically – from the importance of working through conflict to the inherent worthwhile-ness of every person.

Its characters, however singularly defined, managed to emerge from their quarrels and swawkwardness with a certain wholeness. The audience had been introduced to relatable people, some of whom sometimes felt “overwhelmed, inadequate, and alone,” regardless of their unique backgrounds. And that is a meaningful message to convey.

Each character found themselves in some sort of sticky or painful situation over the course of the two and half hour long show (its length stemming partly from an elaborate “Game of Dorms” video sequence). At one point, Rose and Julia each walk into the room exclaiming about the dorm’s showers – Rose is impressed with their quality, while Julia finds them substandard.

This interaction was suggested by a friend of Henderson’s, after Henderson asked fellow students to send her their stories, especially those who felt “unsafe on campus in some way.” She heard from a wide range of people, and diligently incorporated their thoughts and experiences into the play.

She also sent drafts of scenes out to collaborators to edit for inaccuracies. Her decision to open the writing process to the community stemmed partly from a desire to keep working off of the momentum of Swarthmore’s recent Spring semester, in which listening to all voices became a campus-wide goal.

One example of where this feedback came into play is a scene in which Julia explains her OCD by going into depth about her symptoms. Not only does she display typical compulsive collecting tendencies, but she also pulls out her hair and experiences social anxiety. This look into how an anxiety disorder can affect everyday life set Julia’s character apart from the orientation play’s usual OCD representative, thanks to details provided by real students.

“This year’s audience was particularly interactive, vocal, and supportive,” said Henderson. When Alex first meets their roommate, Lesley (Andrew Gilchrist-Scott ’16), Alex comments, “You’re a dude!”

“Yeah! Are you a dude?” Lesley replies.

“No!” Alex says.

Lesley’s immediate response is “Right on!” and the audience’s cheers were probably audible in the Ville. As Henderson pointed out, this kind of consciousness regarding queer issues was far less prevalent just a few years ago. This year’s play was able to tackle “more subtle things […] like how to be an ally,” while past years have stuck to racism and homophobia, without confronting other types of obstacles.

Another new scene that garnered approval from the audience was one in which Lesley begins to grind with Desdemona (Sophie Miller ’16) without asking at a Paces party. Desdemona pulls away and explains the importance of consent in a rousing, revised cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” (written by Bradley Carter ’15). “C-O-N-S-E-N-T” is a word hopefully no freshman will fail to spell correctly – or consider – in the coming year.

Shout-outs to everyone from Aretha to Smigal from Lord of the Rings pepper the new script. Ross, a Harry Potter enthusiast, recalls watching the orientation play as a freshman and almost falling out of his seat when the first Potter reference dropped.

“We try to fit in as many of those references as possible […] It’s that sort of moment as a freshman, it confirms that you went to the right school.”

One central theme did make the cut from the old version of the play to the new: the semi-comical search for the “admissions mistake.” Almost everyone at Swarthmore doubts themselves at least once during their four years, and Ross and Henderson are no exceptions.

Ross remembers feeling frustrated during his orientation week when he had difficulty understanding a complex numbers-based game. He describes himself as “creatively-minded rather than arithmetically-minded,” and remembers being teased for taking a low-level math class.

In what he sees as a “classic liberal arts moment,” Ross ended up enjoying that class more than some of his humanities courses. He also realized that having creative talents without a strong mathematical background was okay – a proclivity to be embraced rather than ashamed of.

Henderson, too, has had her moment of uncertainty. “There was a time sophomore year that I almost seriously considered transferring, in which I felt really disconnected from the campus and the community,” she said.

She described feeling distraught about incidents of discord on campus. She also felt unable to find a comfortable place in the activist community as a self-described “bridge-builder.”

“I was so good at seeing both sides of everything that I was paralyzed by inaction,” she said.

This past spring, however, introduced her to many people who perfectly voiced her dissatisfactions, and helped to convince her of the good intentions of her fellow students.

“Just seeing all these different people very passionate about making a wonderful space for other people” reminded her why she had come – and belonged – at Swarthmore

Both Ross and Henderson brought their personal experiences to directing this year’s orientation play – and so did many other students who donated their stories in order to create a production that aimed for accuracy in confronting complex issues of identity, conflict, and self-doubt.


  1. There is no way that the “Welcome to Swarthmore” play should be the same length as “2001: A Space Odyssey.” This thing should be an hour, tops. Get the freshmen in and out and on to the next mandatory activity standing between them and consensual fingerblasting. A nation will thank you.

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