Last weekend, the Frear Ensemble Theater buzzed with excitement as students, faculty, and community members arrived to view the widely advertised senior thesis play AIRSWIMMING, a historical drama set in Ireland in the 1920s. Starring theater honors majors Michelle Johnson ’16 and Michaela Shuchman ’16, the play showed four times last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, each performance garnering an impressive turnout.
Based on a true story, Charlotte Jones’ drama AIRSWIMMING recounts the experiences of two Irish women who are sent to a mental asylum. Labeled “criminally insane”, Persephone Baker and Dora Kitson spend 50 years in the hospital completely cut off from the outside world with only each other for company. The play follows the development of their relationship from when they meet as young women to when they are finally discharged in the 1970s. Both Johnson and Shuchman gave moving performances reflecting their hard work and their love of theater.
This particular play appealed to Johnson and Shuchman because, as they explained, it was very important to them to choose a show with two strong female leads with equal parts. They said that they spent over half of the fall semester reading and discussing plays searching for one to fit those requirements.
“I read [AIRSWIMMING] first…and I was like ‘I don’t know — I think this might be a good one,” Shuchman said. “And then our director read it and was like ‘Yeah, this is the one.’”
Both Johnson and Shuchman are honors theater majors and are extremely dedicated to their passion for performance. The two actresses described the honors theater major, which consists of three preparations: one seminar and two practicals. Shuchman explained that a student chooses two areas of focus for the practicals, which can be acting, directing, dramaturgy, playwriting, solo performance or a design thesis. Johnson opted for a directing practical, and Shuchman chose solo performance. Both also elected to take acting.
AIRSWIMMING was the collaboration of their acting practicals, and both the directing and solo performance practicals will come later in the spring semester. Johnson and Shuchman had intensive rehearsal schedules leading up to their acting collaboration, but their individual practicals for their major creates some variation between their calendars.
Johnson estimates a typical week for her coursework includes a minimum of 12 hours per week for her directing thesis in addition to the 26 hours per week required for the AIRSWIMMING rehearsals. Shuchman explained that her rehearsal schedule differs a bit from Johnson’s due to a show she is performing in outside of the college.
Although it’s an intense schedule, both Johnson and Shuchman insist that they love the program and their coursework. They are fully devoted to their passion, and the honors theater major provides the time and space for them to hone in on theater without needing to worry about other classes.
“It doesn’t feel like a requirement,” Johnson expressed. “It feels like they’re giving us an opportunity to do what we love.”
Shuchman added that the department of Theater is an amazing department and that it does much for the students by providing funding, performance space, marketing and advising. There is also a tremendous amount of interaction between the students and their professional examiners, who come to watch their projects and provide feedback. The examiners equip theater majors with a number of local contacts in the Philadelphia theater scene that help students start out strong in the performance business following graduation. Shuchman expressed her enthusiasm to be working under the guidance of local director Alex Torra who she emphasized is a wonderful contact to have in the local theater scene.
Both Johnson and Shuchman came to the college with impressive backgrounds in performance. Shuchman began acting at the age of eight and performed all throughout her elementary and middle school years in school plays and in local professional productions in Philadelphia. This spring she will appear in a production of “Peter and the Starcatcher” at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. The play will run nine shows per week for six weeks. Shuchman professed a deep gratitude towards everyone who supported her pursuit of performance and helped her in the balancing act between academic work and acting.
Like Shuchman, Johnson also started acting at a young age. She began performing when she was seven years old, and in high school she attended a performing arts school in New Haven where she spent 18 hours per week majoring in theater. Throughout her schooling career she also performed professionally in “Shakespeare in the Park” in New Haven.
Johnson and Shuchman began working together during their first semester at college, performing together in a Drama Board production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” They were roommates in their sophomore year and have remained friends and hallmates in their junior and senior years. Both actresses stressed how important it is to have a friend to perform with.
“Michelle challenges me because she’s so good,” Shuchman emphasized. “Something that’s really magical about theater is that when you work with really incredible actors you become better.”
Both Johnson and Shuchman gave special recognition to their dramaturg Rosie McInnes ’16 — a senior at Bryn Mawr College — and their director Elizabeth Stevens. Johnson highlighted the enthusiasm and dedication of both McInnes and Stevens and thanked them for everything they contributed to AIRSWIMMING.