On Friday, Nov. 17, family, friends and past and current students of Theater Artist-In-Residence Dona Werner Freeman gathered after the Continue reading “Alumni night celebrates beloved director”
After 19 years of teaching and directing, Theater Artist-in-Residence Dona Werner Freeman ’80 is in the process of giving the St. Olaf community Continue reading ““Mother Courage” triumphs with substance and spectacle”
One of my closest friends, Christine Menge ’18, and I are in the midst of an Independent Research project exploring many different schools of actor training. Since the start of the semester, we have read six different training methods and practiced them in a studio, using either a selected scene or monologues that we prepared. Though I expected to learn quite a lot from our project, I could not have predicted the utility an applicability of this knowledge off the stage. I am finding that many of the principles touted by the practitioners we read contribute to a healthy lifestyle, and I believe that increasing my skill on stage is linked to becoming a healthier person, both physically and mentally.
Many practitioners of actor training reprimand actors’ propensities for neglecting their acting partners. They notice that actors tend to prepare a very specific way of acting a scene and do their best to recreate this exact way whenever they perform. Instead, they recommend acting truthfully by listening carefully to the input of one’s scene partner and responding in character. Though this requires a hefty amount of preparation to assemble an idea of the character and their actions, it ultimately creates a more compelling theatrical moment. Similarly, I challenge myself to act more truthfully in the moments in my life, and attempt to listen to what people are saying without any preconceptions of what they will or should say. An important element to this is releasing fear about both the past and the future. English director and actor Declan Donellan claims that fear attempts to rule the past using shame and the future using anxiety and anticipation. This rings true for me especially on the stage, but additionally in life as I attempt to recover from the workaholic perfectionism instilled in me by high school and St. Olaf.
Furthermore, physical exercises help actors to get in touch with their body and their physical capabilities. These exercises sometimes resemble workouts but usually manifest as stretches that warm up and engage one’s body. I have found these extraordinarily helpful in improving my relationship with my body. I am more confident and knowledgeable in what my body can do, and my body image has only positively increased.
Lastly, Christine and I found one of Sanford Meisner’s acting techniques incredibly helpful in our own relationship. The exercise, though simply structured, represents quite a large challenge in execution. Two people sit across from each other, and speak observations about each other, one at a time. In response to an observation, the observed person will repeat the observation, adding either “I am…” or “I am not…” to the beginning. The exercise requires careful listening and attentiveness. Christine and I, in our observations of each other, came to a few of realizations about the ways in which we interact with each other and people in general. We were having a very intense dialogue about nothing other than our relationship and current state of body and mind. I highly recommend this exercise not only for actors, but also for those wishing to become much closer friends.
Frequently in the arts we talk about the tortured artist, how this has been the norm in the past and whether there is still an expectation of this now. But it is refreshing to come to an understanding of healthy art as originating from a healthy person, body and mind. Taking care of one’s self represents one of the best ways to become a better artist, and I might suggest, a better person on all levels.
The official St. Olaf Theater Department season began last weekend with a production of “Be Here Now,” directed by Dr. Karen Peterson Wilson in Haugen Theater. Supposedly based on Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” the story indeed revolves around three sisters orphaned after their parents’ deaths. At first, the sisters are all in various stages of dissatisfaction with their love lives, which seems to be the focus of the show. The oldest sister, Olivia (Jacqueline Radke ’18), pines after her sister Michelle’s (Sabrina Wieczorek ’20) fiancé, Patrick (Lucas Hering ’21), and ends up dating him. Michelle, as uninterested in her fiancé as her sister is obsessed, starts a fling with a soldier named Jim (Tyler Seufert ’19), and eventually leaves Patrick. All this happens while the youngest sister Izzy (Veronica Silva ’20) moves between a never seen boyfriend to Zeke (Ch’aska Farber ’21) and travels to New Zealand and back. Opposite Chekhov’s play, “Be Here Now” ends not with the three sisters’ uncertain futures, but with hopeful futures as all the sisters happily embrace the man of their choice.
“Be Here Now” was originally commissioned in 2013 from playwright Carson Kreitzer by the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and Kreitzer has been developing the play since then. During the rehearsal process, Kreitzer came to campus on at least one occasion to give a small playwriting master class. Not many of the department shows produced at St. Olaf boast the opportunity to work with a living playwright, and the experience must have been incredibly informative for those working on the production. But as for the performance I saw, I found the show lacking.
Kreitzer’s script severely disappoints. Whether a product of underdevelopment or overdevelopment, the script communicates its ideas with bland and generic neutrality. Seemingly, Kreitzer is unable to say anything about anything through her script. She didn’t develop any major themes to open a modern dialogue. Even Kreitzer’s one attempt for social commentary was unclear. The brief movement piece at the beginning of the play in which the characters walked around stage staring into their phones and bumping into each other lost its meaning in the confusion of the script.
Kreitzer’s inability to write compelling dialogue for her characters shows in her incessant use of monologues. For a script with so little to say, the monologues occur with a surprisingly high frequency. Furthermore, Kreitzer’s play moves much too quickly between scenes too short and too abstract to convey multi-dimensional characters. As a result, the characters all fall into cliched tropes and stereotypes. Additionally, though the set and projection designers do their best to evoke location, the incredibly quick motion leaves the audience feeling unsure as to time and place, creating an unfortunately abstract world.
As a result of Kreitzer’s disappointing writing, the actors got short shifted in the production. Though they put forth an admirable effort, the script gives them hardly any material to go on. They fight to imbue their one-dimensional characters with more depth, but many of the lines ended up coming out flat and uninspiring.
Only exacerbating the already fragmented and unfocused script, the transitions between scenes add too much time onto the performance. For scenes that last barely a minute, transitions should have been shorter. Instead, lights fade to black and back up with no particular urgency while a song segment fades in and out. Since, for most transitions, there are no actual scenery changes, the light fades and songs seem unneccesary and take time that should have been used to further expand the characters through whatever means possible.
Despite the script’s disappointments, the projection design showed promise. There were four screens in Haugen, one on each wall of the room. Since the stage was set up thrust-style with audiences on three quarters of the playing space, most of the screens were behind audience members, which ended up being less distracting than I expected. The projections were mainly static images with some short soundless videos divided between them, which were occasionally effective. I appreciated the video of a train speeding through a green countryside supporting a monologue in which a character daydreams about such a situation. Additionally, when Silva’s character in the play goes on her surprise trip to New Zealand and finds herself on the beach with a beach projection. I found the sunshine and blue light pouring over my shoulder effective as indicative of location. For one of the last scenes with Silva’s characters, in which she practices a native New Zealand art known as Poi, one of the screens displayed live capture video. Though I was unsure of the idea being communicated, it was an impressive advance in screen projection at St. Olaf.
However, the screen projection fell flat in its use of supporting images. During many of the monologues, the screens simply parroted back ideas or images that the characters mentioned. For example, when a character mentioned that they felt something was missing, the screen behind them simply displayed a stock picture of a puzzle with one piece removed. Or again when the same character mentioned their grandmother’s hands, an image of older hands appeared behind them. This use of projection sells itself short. Lighting and sound design ideally introduce some creative license of their own apart from their base requirement of reinforcing the performance, and projection possesses the same potential.
Overall the show, while boldly attempting to fit the script onto real bodies in a real space, failed to do so not entirely on its own merits, but rather those of the play. Often in a playwright’s career drafts are produced that never see continual performance not because of the playwright’s inability but simply because certain ideas either ferment too long or end up solidifying into something less compelling than intended. In this case, it is worth serious consideration whether “Be Here Now” fits into this category.
I think most of us have heard the sentiments that art, now more than ever in the midst of Donald Trump’s presidency, must and should respond to racial discrimination. Continue reading “The importance of inclusivity in the theater”