It’s not often that atheism, Christianity, broadcast journalism, swords, and light sabers collide spectacularly in one short play—as was the case in a theater production staged by Eli Dupree ’13 in April.
In his Battle for the Existence of God!, “The main character believes in a God,” explained the student playwright, “but since she believes that God created hell and allows people to suffer there, she concludes that God is evil and therefore that the most important thing to do is to defeat him—on TV, in front of a live audience.”
The play was one of five that, together with an original dance piece, made up Colby’s 2013 New Works Festival. Representing the creative energies of 50 students—playwrights, actors, dancers, choreographers, and designers—the festival was the result of work begun as far back as the fall 2012 semester.
The brainchild of Associate Professor and Chair of Theater and Dance Lynne Conner, the New Works Festival was initiated in 2009 to provide Colby students with what Conner called “a curricular opportunity for creative research.” Comparing this to experimentation by biology professors, she refers to “creative laboratories,” in which students can work closely with faculty and then publish results—in a performance.
“The New Works Festival represents one of the clearest representations of the kind of experiential lab work done in the humanities,” said Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Lori Kletzer. “The stage is where ideas and theories get worked out.”
On two nights in April, Colby audiences witnessed the culmination of those ideas and theories. Four of the five plays—With Love, The Time That Is Given Us, Let’s Go Home, and Battle for the Existence of God!—were written by students. Fishtank Poem, Fishtank Song was the creation of Professor Emeritus Richard Sewell. Subject matter ranged from Dupree’s interpretations of religious belief to familial struggle and death. The dance performance CrazyLonelyYellow was choreographed by Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance Annie Kloppenberg with the collaboration of her students.
It took a village—or at least a number of classes—to put the festival together. Participating were Conner’s New Works Practicum; Kloppenberg’s Collaborative Company; composer and sound designer Peter de Klerk’s Introduction to Electronic Music, in charge of writing music for the preshow and intermission; and Technical Director John Ervin’s Stagecraft I, in which the finer points of light hanging, prop assembly, and set construction were addressed. The design students who worked on the festival were Adjunct Associate Professor of Theater and
Dance Jim Thurston’s research assistants and students working on independent projects. More students served as play directors, dancers, and actors.
Emily Post ’15, who acted in With Love, also served as an associate light designer. For Post, lighting is “sculpting and shaping the stage, manipulating the eye. I have to think very artistically as well as mathematically.” “If I had lit all five plays, it would not have been as rich or as textural or as interpretive as it was with the student designers helping out,” said Thurston, the faculty scenographer. “Their world is different from mine, just generationally. They come up with really great solutions.”
For choreographer Kloppenberg, it’s exciting to have students with varied backgrounds. “They reference information from other classes, and that informs our creative practice together,” she said. As they worked with Kloppenberg to develop choreography for CrazyLonelyYellow, students read the inspiration for the production, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, then wrote their own pieces about loneliness and feelings of craziness. That led to building of movement structures, improvising, and editing. The final product was what Kloppenberg called “an evening-length piece,” the staging and creation of which is “a pretty uncommon experience for undergraduates,” she said.
The experience for Jack Gobillot ’14, who acted in With Love and wrote Let’s Go Home, meant learning when to let go. “I very quickly wanted to give up control,” he said, “so that when I saw it again I could recognize it as my own but not my own—so I could see how someone else interprets it.”
Playing a middle-aged mother in Fishtank Poem, Fishtank Song presented a challenge for Margaret Sargent ’14, who also served as a producer for the festival. “I’m twenty-one; she’s early forties,” she explained. “I came in as a freshman and played a lot of hot young things, so having different concerns pushed me very far outside my comfort zone.”
Sargent, who was in Conner’s New Works Practicum, said the course was new territory. Students planned auditions, she said, did the marketing, and were crew chiefs during set changes.
As a student producer, actor (in Battle for the Existence of God!), and dancer (in CrazyLonelyYellow), Sujie Zhu ’14 studied the role of producers in “the aesthetics of a production,” learned marketing strategy, and participated in a flash mob in Pulver Pavilion to promote the festival. She also became adept at onstage improvising, which was both nerve-racking and exciting. “Your brain is really working to find new places,” she said.
That kind of task is what students seem to crave. “They’re given a course where they learn what producers in a professional context do and then put that book learning into practice,” said Conner. “It’s an experiential learning course where the stakes are very high—a major performance event where hundreds of people are attending.”