Behind the Scenes

November 7, 2013

There’s always something cool happening in the Department of Theatre, but these days, it’s all about trying something new.

Instead of four main stage shows per year, which has been the tradition at Denison, there now will be two traditional productions (Middletown and Malvolio for the 2013-14 season) and two festivals—the “Fall Festival,” which just occurred during Big Red Weekend, and a “Spring Thing” in April.

The change is part of “reconceptualizing our productions as laboratories,” says Theatre Department Chair Kirk Combe.

Sure, it creates a fun and frenzied set of back-to-back opening nights, but it’s part of something larger—a pedagogical experiment in offering more opportunities for students.

“…we have been able to include many different students, and showcase different talents than the ones people previously saw in our main productions.”

“For quite some time,” explains Associate Professor of Theatre Peter Pauze, “we have been concerned that we were not providing enough in the way of theatre production opportunities for our students, and particularly that we weren’t offering enough variety of opportunity.”

Combe notes, “We were doing four major productions a year, and I don’t know of any other liberal arts school that puts on that many big shows—that’s a lot.” It was a model that provided a number of acting opportunities throughout the year, but there was little room for students to gain experience with other aspects of theatre.

The festival program has opened up a broad array of new opportunities for students to play meaningful roles in all areas of theatre production.

“While we’ve always had student actors in our plays,” Pauze adds, “we only occasionally have had student scenic, lighting, or costume designers, and we’ve almost never had opportunities for student directors or producers or playwrights.”

Producers Will Brackenbury ’15 of Cincinnati, Ohio, and Jeremy Hollis ’16 of Montgomery Village, Md., have had their hands full coordinating practice schedules for three different casts, but were pleased with the final product. Brackenbury believes that the new format has helped to generate and sustain greater interest in the department.

“In previous years, many freshmen would audition for the fall main stage productions, but when they were not cast, would often lose interest,” he says. “With the huge number of roles for the Fall Festival, though, we have been able to include many different students and showcase different talents than the ones people previously saw in our main productions.”

Other talents have been revealed, as well—especially among the three student directors this fall. A Night of Shakespeare’s Comedic Couples showcased Devin Daro ’14 (Wickliffe, Ohio) directing The Taming of the Shrew and Grace McQueeny ’14 (Chicago, Ill.) giving Much Ado About Nothing a distinctly Denison twist by incorporating plenty of bluegrass.

Brackenbury directed Familiar Strangers, which was even written by recent Denison grad Hongyi Tian ’13, who’s currently pursuing an M.F.A. in playwriting at Columbia University. Cherrie Xia ’17, who grew up in Nanjing, China, feels that Tian’s tale of a teenager in the Chinese education system accurately portrays the experiences of many Chinese high school students.

“It was really heavy and difficult to sit through at times,” admits Nancy Gaytan ’16 of Chicago, Ill., “but I still enjoyed every minute of it. I thought it was great.”

“We still think there is great value in students working directly with faculty artists and professional guest artists,” Pauze says, “so we will continue to use that more traditional model for some of our productions, but we’re very pleased that the new festival model is providing a far greater variety of opportunities for our student theatre artists. So far, it seems to be working very, very well.”

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