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Artist of the Week Daniel Oakes on the Power of Physicality in Theater 

10 mins read
Howard Wang // The Phoenix

When the curtains open and Daniel Oakes ’24 takes to the stage, his rehearsals, research, and reflections take effect in a symbiosis that feels both natural and compelling. Indeed, Daniel not only conveys a character but embodies this constructed person, giving life and depth to what on a script is only a framework of qualities, not yet animated by the magic and suspense of theater. 

“One of the crazy things about acting is that you do so much work [during rehearsal] so that you don’t have to do any work on stage. You do enough work where you know that you are making the character come alive, and you know that you are living in the moment,” Daniel explained of his process.

A theater and biology double major from New York City, Daniel acts mostly in theater but is hoping to continue with more film work. At Swarthmore, Daniel has taken Acting I and Production Ensemble. He acted in last fall’s production ensemble “The Skin of Our Teeth,” as well as “R3TURN: A Palestinian Punk-Pop Musical” in Spring 2022. On campus, he helps with Directing I scenes, improvises in Vertigo-go, and is part of Boy Meets Tractor (BMT), Swarthmore’s sketch comedy group. Off campus this semester, Daniel acted in a play called “Facepaint,” which was part of the Philly Fringe Festival

Daniel started acting in high school. Initially, he worked as a techie, managing light and sound for plays. After this experience, he auditioned for his high school’s production of “Brick” and got in.

“That was the first time I had done acting. I liked it so much that I just wanted to keep auditioning and keep going. And I feel like it’s become such a big part of my life now. It’s really nice to kind of know exactly where it started.”

When considering his Swarthmore productions, Daniel noted that it has been meaningful to have an established period of class time to work and discuss acting with other people interested in the subject, emphasizing that getting to know the cast and director makes the final product more meaningful and rewarding. The significance of community in the process of theater rings true for “R3TURN,” an ambitious musical that tackled themes of identity and place. The project was a semester-long musical directed by Swarthmore alum Zaina Dana ʼ21, who also directed a production in the Philly Fringe Festival. The play was written by recent Swarthmore graduate Fouad Dakwar ʼ22, who had a special major in musical writing. Fouad played the lead and Daniel acted as his comedic relief best friend, Thul, perfecting the role in twelve to fourteen hours a week of rehearsal. 

photo by M. Asli Dukan

The wonderful and positive acting experience under Zaina’s direction did not end there. 

“I got a call from Zaina … and she said, ‘we’re putting together for the Fringe Festival production. You could be a priest, and also a stripper. Would you like to do it?’ And I immediately said yes.”

In this project, all of the actors, as well as the director, were Swarthmore alums. He reflected on their shared hurdles and overall successes. 

“I was able to meet people that I had never met before, but had this sort of shared life experience, because we [all] went to Swat … It was wonderful to just get to deepen those connections. It was really wild because we were running on a pretty tight budget. So there were a lot of moments where we were like, scared about ticket sales and scared about, you know, we’re not getting this right prop and can we afford it? But the end product was so good that it just felt good to let all of that go.”

“Facepaint” was Daniel’s first semi-professional show. Nonetheless, he took on more than a role as an actor. 

“I got to be the sort of head of advertising for Swarthmore, because everyone else had graduated … I was putting up flyers, putting up posters, posting on Facebook, doing Instagram takeovers, just doing so much to try to get people from our college community there. But also the community around the Philly Fringe Festival, and around Norristown, where we performed, really came through.”

It was heartening to Daniel to see a community response of people enthusiastic about coming to see and experience theater. Through this audience comprised of both Swarthmore students and Norristown residents, the play connected different Pennsylvania community members and promoted arts in the area. 

photo by Larry Barnes

Separate from the performed moments of acting, Daniel pondered differences in techniques in acting and what might distinguish acting from other expressions of art. 

“[Compared to other art forms,] acting more obviously feels like there’s no right way … everybody has their different interpretations on how to act. I’ve talked to other people who place the script of whatever they’re doing as the most important thing that they work with. And I like to consider the script as something secondary, and something secondary to creating the character of my body first, but I know that that just doesn’t work for other people … and those people also give incredible performances. So acting is so malleable in a way that I think is distinct from other art forms.”

While Daniel is quite active in different theater groups and courses on campus, he also studies biology and did not hesitate to draw connections between the two. Daniel examined how science can inform art and how he finds overlap and coexistence between theater and biology.

“Strangely, I’m really glad that I’m a double major, because biology has given me a lot to think about in terms of acting. If you’re doing it correctly, your body doesn’t know that you’re acting. And so hormonal changes, neurological changes will just happen, because you are thinking and acting a certain way and thinking and acting almost as a different person, which is really interesting. And then also, I’m a research student in Alexander Baugh’s lab, the bio professor who teaches animal behavior. And so zoology and animal behavior have been really impactful in how I act … I put language and the script, sort of secondary, because I feel that animals don’t have this language and don’t have a grammar or syntax or anything like that, but still convey so much. And so if I can convey a character or a story or a plot, through my body first, it feels more genuine to me than if I’m just focusing on the words.”

Daniel finds inspiration in the physical movements and expression resulting from acting and human expression and aptly relates it to his biology studies. Similarly, the emotion he conveys from the stage can be interpreted by the audience and affect their emotions accordingly. Daniel suggests that anyone can find significance in the process of learning to transform into a new character or experimenting with different stories. Swarthmore’s theater department and many acting troupes are a great place to start. 

“If you haven’t tried acting one, it’s just a wonderful experience … I think to think and sort of try to live as someone else is a kind of eye opening experience, even if you don’t plan to pursue arts in any way. It’s just very good to be able to see things from other people’s perspectives, and acting is a pretty literal way of doing that.”

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