Orientation Play evolves to welcome the Class of 2020

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.”

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