Six weeks, four plays: Theatre Studies class takes scripts from inception to performance

By  KAT MALLARY ’17

Assistant Arts Editor

by Hannah Degner '15 Photography Editor 

by Hannah Degner ’15 Photography Editor

A month and a half isn’t a lot of time to take a blank piece of paper to a complete onstage production. But that’s exactly what two groups have accomplished with “Things My Mother Taught Me,” a drama about the relationship between mothers and their daughters, and “More Strange than True,” a comedy about love in real life and onstage.

Both of the plays were created by combining elements from four different plays. Theater Studies 203 began with students reading 20 or 30 plays, selecting their favorites and pasting them together to make original stories —all with only minor alterations to the text. “Things My Mother Taught Me” combines elements from “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry, “Fences” by August Wilson, “Master Harold and the Boys” by Athol Fugard and “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen. “More Strange than True” is a compilation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare, “Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Luigi Pirandello, “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” by Christopher Durang.

The groups of four students took separate approaches to compiling their original work—the production crew of “Things My Mother Taught Me” began with plays they liked, all dramas with a clear message. “We picked really honest plays,” Jennifer Stryker ’17 said. “We wanted a play with a heart behind it.”  From that followed the desire to try “gender-bending” some of the character roles—changing the characters from male to female—in response to the fact that most of the playwrights they had studied were male.

In contrast, the production crew of “More Strange than True” knew one thing: it wanted to produce a comedy. The rest of the play grew from that, evolving as they began to write a play-within-a-play. Their play follows a theater company trying to put together a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in one week.

Characters also developed very differently in each play. In “Things My Mother Taught Me,” the characters are a combination and reinterpretation of characters in the four constituent plays. Creating consistent, naturally developing characters was a challenge, because parts of the characters and their relationships came from all of the works. The characters in “More Strange than True” are practically the opposite—characters plucked straight out of their original surroundings and recast in a new work.

Obviously, taking a play from inception to performance in about six weeks, and casting only volunteering student actors from outside of the class, isn’t easy. Both groups acknowledged that the road to the stage was a challenging one, partly because, between four people, each group had to fill the roles of director, producer, stage manager, lighting manager, props manager, costume designer, sound manager and more. Group members often had to take multiple roles in the production. Julia Chase ’17, the director of “More Strange than True” filled four roles. Some group members even chose to give themselves more responsibility than mandated by the project. Angela Sun ’17, in addition to her first responsibility as costume designer, also decided to compose original music for her production.

In addition to these responsibilities, the groups also had to tackle the perennial problem of casting a show with both male and female roles at Wellesley, where the only students to audition are women. However, gender bending didn’t frighten either group. Members of each group are involved in the Shakespeare Society, which has never shied away from having a woman play a man, and that experience helped them embrace their male roles. Some of the actors even admitted having learned a great deal from their male roles. Jessica Forden ’17, who plays a Nigerian man in “Things My Mother Taught Me” said that she has grown as an actor from her role. “I consider myself a feminist,” she said, “and I had to learn how to play my oppressor, a dominant male.”

“Things My Mother Taught Me,” also had to grapple with the idea of suspending the audience’s racial disbelief: all of the plays selected confronted issues of race, and their final production follows a Nigerian-American character. Even though, as Katharine Liang ’17 described it, they “wanted to step out of the [politically  correct] mindframe,” they also didn’t want to convey a race, just create well-rounded characters.

Luckily, the two groups didn’t have to face these tough questions completely alone. They had the support of Nora Hussey, the professor teaching the course. Although some students described feeling blindly thrown into the process of putting the play together, Katharine Liang ’17 explained that Professor Hussey allowed them to “wander around enough so that they felt like they were doing their own thing.”

On Dec. 11 and 13, the house lights will go down and the spotlight will shine on the actors in both Theater Studies 203 productions. The audience will watch the characters going through their lines, but the real work of the course will hopefully be nearly invisible. The lessons from the production process were in “the nitty-gritty,” Sun said. To a crew of nearly all first years putting on a show in a new theater with an unfamiliar system, translating the details contained within “Things My Mother Taught Me” and “More Strange than True” to production was the toughest part of the project.

“Things My Mother Taught Me” will be performed on Wednesday, Dec. 11, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. in the Ruth Nagel Jones Theater. “More Strange than True” will be performed on Friday, Dec. 13, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., also in the Ruth Nagel Jones Theater. Admission to both plays is free.

Kat Mallary is a first-year from New York City and Vermont currently trying to major in everything. She also rides for the Wellesley Equestrian Team and reads too many books about English grammar. 

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