Author: suther1

A menu of upcoming theater this semester

Everyone knows that April showers bring May flowers. But here at Olaf, January gray days bring spring semester plays. Theater blossoms in spring on The Hill just as plentifully as flowers, and this spring is no exception. In fact, the selection of theatrical delights seems to grow continually as the weeks pass, and the menu contains something for everyone. Comedy, tragedy, really weird stuff that makes you feel cosmically unimportant – it’s all here. If I may, I’ll show you the specials.

1. Banana Sunday (“Krapp’s Last Tape” and “Rockaby”)

Who says you can’t start the meal with dessert? For the St. Olaf Theater Department’s spring show in Haugen Theater, Joanna McLarnan ’17 is directing two one-act plays by Samuel Beckett: “Krapp’s Last Tape” and “Rockaby,” and Beckett is quite a sugar rush. Expect bananas (no kidding, there will be bananas), ethereal visuals and provoking auditory experiences.

2. Nigiri Sushi (“Fresh Faces”)

In case you have not yet seen any first years this academic year, this is your chance. “Fresh Faces” is the chance for musical theater-inclined first years to show St. Olaf just how skillfully they can simultaneously sing and dance. Directed by Dario Villalobos ’18 and Gabby Dominique ’17 through DeepEnd, it’s guaranteed to be an inspiring performance.

3. Cheesy Grits (“August: Osage County”)

If the springtime is a little too sunny and relationships are going a little too well, maybe we all need to be reminded of life’s hardships. “August: Osage County” tells the story of a fractured Oklahoma family forced back together over a family death. But don’t let the gravity of the premise push you away. This award-winning play written by Tracy Letts and directed by the latest addition to the theater department faculty, Professor Michelle Gibbs, is not one to miss.

4. Chicken and Waffles (Quade One Act Festival)

Just like this classic soul food, the one acts of the Quade One Act Festival might not seem to go together at first look, but upon first taste they meld beautifully. This festival is the culminating project of the Intermediate Directing class, and there will be 11 one-acts of all kinds over three nights.

5. Steak Tartar (InBlack)

The talented members of InBlack write and perform their own original sketches. If you haven’t heard of them, waste no time in getting a ticket and finding a seat. Prepare yourself for a night of comedy and rebellious fun.

6. Caprese Salad (“Romeo vs. Juliet”)

Myswyken Salad Theater Company, the one and the same that performed “A Very Potter Musical” last semester, will be presenting an adapted version of “Romeo and Juliet.” I’ve heard there will be a sports team and cheerleaders involved.

7. Ghost Pepper Chili (“Bitch of Living”)

Becca Thavis ’17 will be directing this cabaret-style show in conjunction with the Wellness Center, tackling those elements of life that bring us all down. Laughing and crying are on the docket for the night.

8. Soup in a Bread Bowl (DeepEnd)

The oldest student-run theater company on campus, DeepEnd, offers student directors opportunities to produce shows. Though the shows have not yet been picked for the semester, keep an eye open for audition and show posters.

9. Spaghetti and Meatballs (Muse Project)

Muse Project is the newest theater company on campus, and has already successfully produced “Twelfth Night” and “Lysistrata.” The company is committed to magnifying female and femme-presenting voices onstage and off. Word has it that they are producing Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” so get ready to delve into more scansion and gender politics.

suther1@stolaf.edu

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Stage fright still affliction, despite experience

Now, dear reader, let’s get something straight. I am primarily an actor, and I have been acting continuously since I was 12 years old. One would think that after performing for nearly eight years, I would have grown out of the infamous feeling of stage fright. After all, I have faced that fear quite a few times. Shouldn’t I be past stage fright by now? Have I not achieved the level of adult maturity where I no longer feel any fear?

In case you missed the subtext here, I still get stage fright and I’m just a little bitter about it. As I’ve gotten older it actually seems to get worse. Stage fright doesn’t just happen during shows, though, let no one mistake. It really starts about a week or two before the show opens. Worries of missed entrances, forgotten lines and embarrassing costume malfunctions start appearing and floating through my head. Next comes the inevitable dream (or three, if the production is stressful enough) in which I wake up shaking in embarrassment after watching myself try to perform my role while totally naked.

Of course there then come the backstage jitters. In the few moments before entrances onto the stage, time always seems to be moving at the speed of both lighting and molasses. Suddenly that first line seems a lot more difficult to remember. That sweat that I can feel under my costume has got to be showing somewhere.

The third and most well-known stage fright comes when I finally get on stage. I would liken the feeling of walking on stage to cresting the hill on a rollercoaster. The pit that has been forming in my stomach before my entrance drops suddenly, and I can only think about the exact moment that I am in, nothing before or after.

I suppose one of the reasons that my stage fright has gotten worse is that my fear has only been affirmed by my experience. Missed entrances happen quite frequently, to varying degrees. I once had a fellow actor miss their entrance by a very long five minutes. Missed lines happen even more frequently, at least two or three times a show, if not much more.

Additionally, mishaps from the realms of projections, lights, sound, props and set pieces happen even more. On stage I’ve broken set pieces, accidentally kicked a wall in, torn expensive stage fabric, etc. Believe it or not, there is an incredibly large amount of things that can go wrong on a live stage.

The possibility of failure is always present on stage, in innumerable forms. Stage fright will never be gone, and it exists partially for good reason: to keep performers aware of their environment and constantly ready to solve problems.

I do find it funny, though, that even the most seasoned theater professionals experience stage fright. It’s an inescapable feeling. Try it sometime.

suther1@stolaf.edu

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Representing diversity in theater

Earlier this semester, students in the Beginning Directing class – myself included – went to see “The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up” by Carla Ching, produced by Mu Performing Arts at the University of Minnesota. Our instructor for the class, Randy Reyes, directed the show and is currently Mu’s Artistic Director.

The show was incredibly well-done; Reyes’ direction and the actors’ performances impressed the entire class. The play depicts two Asian-American children, Diana and Max, whose parents cheat on their respective spouses with each other. Throughout the play, the narrative jumps between childhood, high school, college and early adulthood, reinforced by an imaginative and kinetic set filled with cardboard boxes.

In class discussion, Reyes pointed out to the class the really important reason for doing this play: that it depicts Asian-American individuals without expecting them to answer for the “Asian-American experience.” While the characters’ races clearly influenced their life and their experience of the world around them, the show did not focus on this alone. Rather, it was a story that had two Asian-American characters as the leads. This is not something that happens often enough. Often when minority actors are cast in plays, the only parts for them are grossly stereotyped or supporting roles. White men have dominated the industry since it began, leading to horrid under-representation of other experiences. Ching’s play is so important because it is at the head of a new movement to expand theater and finally represent minorities, women, non-heterosexual people and other-abled people in our theaters.

Thinking back through the plays I have acted in and helped to produce, an appallingly small number are not written by white men. Clearly this is something that needs to change. White men are not the only ones who have worthwhile shows to stage. Theater should belong to everyone, not just the ones in positions of higher power. That is why Twin Cities theaters like Mu Performing Arts and Penumbra Theater are so important. They do their best to represent Asian-American and African-American stories in ways that the theater industry simply has not before now. Support of these theater programs is vital to fostering an ethical and wholesome theater scene in the Twin Cities.

In the meantime, what can we do at St. Olaf to represent other stories? Since we are not a racially diverse campus, it is not always possible for us to truthfully and respectfully represent other races. However, we can strive to produce more work by women and non-heterosexual playwrights truthfully. In addition, bringing theater artists like Randy Reyes to campus helps theater students to receive different viewpoints and spread awareness of programs like Mu Performing Arts.

suther1@stolaf.edu

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Technology given a bad rap in the theater world

We’ve all heard it before. Someone in the room starts complaining about how technology messes everything up and destroys human connection. Usually the person complaining either doesn’t fully understand how to use technology or doesn’t know its full positive impact.

But theater artists especially are guilty of this technology-bashing behavior. Too often have I witnessed conversations between theater artists that have devolved into complaints about how “People have no attention span anymore!” and, “It’s hard to keep audiences engaged when they are on their phones!”

It does seem to be true that as technology becomes more prevalent in our society, the collective attention span shortens. Whether or not this bodes well for society does not really concern me. After all, it will continue to occur with the increasing development of technology and I can’t change that even if I wanted to.

It’s the penchant of theater artists to blame technology for what they see as artistically illiterate audiences that concerns me. These bemoaning artists have adopted a privileged attitude that audiences owe a play their attention and that an inattentive audience is somehow morally deficit. Neither of these has ever been the case and never should be.

The digital age, as with any other age, brings its societal changes. But it isn’t killing the arts, especially not the theater arts. It is simply a shift in the norms of the modern era. People are obviously still interested in performance and studio art, as indicated by the still incredibly vibrant artistic scenes across the world. While the nature of the modern theater audience might be changing, the theater artist should not expend energy complaining about this change, but rather adapt the theatrical form to this new audience.

Technology forces the theater arts to adapt, and not entirely in negative ways. In fact, the theater has profited immensely from the technological advances of our time. Sound design has blossomed into a fascinating and popular field, lighting design has achieved greater simplicity and flexibility, and forays into on-stage projection have yielded promising results. As theater artists it is our duty, and quite frankly our only option, to accept the changes of our time and carefully guide our art into new directions. At the end of the show, we don’t make theater for ourselves. We make theater for an audience to see. If our audience doesn’t prefer us to their phones when in our theaters, we need to recognize this warning sign that we are growing stagnant in our creativity.

Honestly, if a play cannot pull an audience from their phones it isn’t really worth doing. Theater artists must always fight for people’s attention: This has never not been true. If Facebook is more compelling than the live story being told on stage, exactly how compelling is that live story? There will always be those weird people that will still habitually check their phones – those corporate types that can’t be disconnected for more than 15 minutes, or the odd ducks that read books during plays. But if ever an entire audience ignores a play, it speaks volumes about the play itself. We should be crafting live stories impossible to discover anywhere else. If we cannot, we shouldn’t be doing theater.

Another part of the reason artists bemoan technology is out of fear of losing attention, and I understand this sentiment. I won’t pretend I haven’t felt and acted similarly at times. But the proper response is not to blame a societal change too monumental to control, but to adapt to it. It’s true that adaptation can feel extraordinarily sad. It seems like a loss to need to change the way things are and move away from some of the old traditions. But with every adaptation, just as an old tradition is retired, a new tradition is established. And it’s a beautiful thing to be able to take part in the establishment of a new tradition.

suther1@stolaf.edu

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Which genre is superior?

In a summer frenzy of impulse purchases, I bought around 30 plays considered part of the classical theatrical repertory. I read plays like Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, Long Days Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill and Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht. All of these plays are dark and tragic.

I found that many of the famous playwrights tend to write tragedies. Though, of course, some such as Moliere and Wilde break this trend with their definitively humorous writing. But this seems to be a comedic exception to the tragic rule.

Why should tragedy be considered the superior genre? I have yet to hear a compelling case arguing that it is somehow morally superior to feel sad rather than happy. Though happiness is still considered frivolous by some, this is a masochistic, antiquated and foolishly stoic idea. Laughter is not only advantageous to personal health, but also a beneficial communal practice that unites people of all backgrounds and identities.

Even if the argument is less moralistic and more concerned with effective conveyance of theme, I still disagree. Heavy subjects should be explored through art, but I question if it is always necessary to treat these subjects with tragic seriousness to convey their depth. For every comedy that fails to convey any sort of theme, there has been a tragedy that did exactly the same. Occasionally, I think there are themes that comedies are actually better equipped to handle. For example, lampooning social issues in comedic ways can be quite effective. When people laugh, they often have to ask themselves what they are laughing at and why. Putting social issues on stage forces people to think about them, even through laughter. Comedy can point out quite easily the ridiculous situations in which any society finds itself.

However, few plays are strictly tragic or comedic. Most combine certain elements from each genre. Many tragedies have no trouble mixing comedic scenes in with an otherwise tragic plot. For example, the first act of Romeo and Juliet reads much like a comedy. Romeo is not a romantic; he’s a child who doesn’t know how to cope with his feelings. His love for Juliet follows merely from their proximity, not any sort of special connection between them, and his friends mock him ceaselessly for forgetting them and deifying his crushes. However, when Mercutio dies, the mood of the play takes a dramatic turn, ending in the infamous tomb scene. The light, comedic mood serves to contrast the bleak ending.

And to a certain extent, comedies also use tragic elements. For the majority of comedies, audiences do not laugh throughout the shows. There do need to be some tragic moments that contrast with the bits and jokes. For example, in The Taming of The Shrew, Shakespeare includes Katherine’s strange, moralistic monologue at the very end. It isn’t comedic, but it belongs in the play just as much as any other scene.

Theater must mix and accept both comedy and tragedy and let stories be what they are: reflections of humanity. Comedy, while traditionally underappreciated, has just as much power as tragedy does. Comedy is not frivolity. Tragedy is not superior.

suther1@stolaf.edu

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