Why artists do the play

Nicholas Franzen ’20 first became interested in acting from his storytelling father and appearing in a fifth-grade production of “Peter Pan” as the father and Captain Hook. / Courtesy of Rachel Wallace

Art, in its essence, is a collaborative process. Even if one person produces the art, there’s still a shared experience created between the artist and the spectator. In theatre, this is no different. The audience doesn’t just see actors on stage. They also get to witness the efforts made by the director over a month of rehearsals, the set a designer spent hours of their time constructing, the words of a playwright that developed after many drafts from a single idea and the hard work of a stage manager who made sure nothing fell apart.

In The Miscellany News’ Sports section, there is a weekly column called “Why We Play.” Here in Arts, we decided to reach out to several Vassar students involved in various production roles in student theatre to understand why they do the play.

Leora Randall-Tavori ’18, president of Merely Players and Unbound, will be directing Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” through Unbound. She originally developed a love for theater in general from her grandmother, seeing shows every year for her birthday or watching VHS recordings of 1950s musicals and old ballets in her grandmother’s living room.

As a playwright, however, Randall-Tavori developed a linguistic fascination from her father: “I’ve always loved words. I’ve been calling myself a ‘word nerd’ since I could read. I grew up listening to my dad tell me stories, and loving how the way that he used language felt like magic. It sounds corny, but it’s true.”

While she only began writing within the last two years, Randall-Tavori has produced a significant amount of work. In addition to helping establish Unbound’s staged reading program, Randall-Tavori has been involved with initiating the TA Reading Series, where once every several weeks there is a reading of someone’s work in progress, and the 24-Hour Play Festival to create a focus on new work in student theatre.

Randall-Tavori discovered her passion for playwriting through a drama class: “I didn’t realize I could combine theater and writing, or that I even wanted to, until I took a playwriting class a little over a year ago, the spring semester of my sophomore year. I don’t know what I expected going into it, but I emerged that semester a different person, with a passion I didn’t think I had.”

“During that course,” she continued, “I had to write a 10-page play a week, and read a published play a week, and I was in heaven. I realized, after much thought, that it was because I was at the intersection of the two things, and the two people, who I loved most.”

Another member of the Executive Board of Unbound, Henery Wyand ’20, has a very broad theatrical experience. He has assumed the roles of actor, costumer, director, choreographer, sound designer, lighting designer and stage manager. He is also props manager of Unbound. This semester, he will be directing Future Waitstaff of America’s production of “Spring Awakening.”

With an illustrious variety of roles, Wyand’s overriding passion is directing, which he first considered after seeing a bad production: “I really became interested in directing when I saw a horrendous high school production of ‘Pippin.’ I was completely horrified by the activities on that stage. I thought of every way each staging choice could be made better. At the same time I was also costuming a production of ‘Pippin,’ and I talked to my high school theatre director and discussed the possibility of me staging a scene in our production of ‘Pippin.’ The next year I had the opportunity to assistant direct the spring musical.”

Leora Randall-Tavori ’18 had her play “Proboscis” performed at a staged reading through Unbound’s new plays program, Process, last spring. This semester, she is directing Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice.” / Courtesy of Leora Randall-Tavori

The chief influences Wyand cited as a director are notable Broadway directors Kenny Leon, George C. Wolfe, Rebecca Taichman and Michael Arden.

Wyand’s motivation for directing “Spring Awakening” this semester aligns with his general aspiration of increasing representation for people of color on stage: “I’ve never seen someone like me represented on a stage before. A major goal of mine is to represent the underrepresented minorities on stage. Theatre at Vassar is very much white focused, especially in terms of the participants. I want to create a space in which people of color are comfortable with being unforgivably themselves. I chose to direct ‘Spring Awakening’ because this is a story anyone can relate to. This musical helped me through many struggles throughout high school and holds a special place in my heart.”

Next, Nicholas Franzen ’20 has acted in multiple student theatre productions, including playing Mephistopheles in Merely Players’ production of Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” last spring. This semester, he will be acting in The Philaletheis Society’s production of David Lind- say-Abaire’s “Fuddy Meers” and the Drama Department’s production of Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart.”

While his first role was in a fifth-grade pro- duction of “Peter Pan,” Franzen’s love for acting stems from his family of raconteurs. When asked who inspires his love for theatre and storytelling, Franzen responded, “I would say my dad. While he’s not an actor, he’s a lawyer so he has to speak for a living. And he’s a fantastic storyteller. Maybe my family in general. My uncle and my father are great storytellers and great entertainers.”

One of Franzen’s favorite parts of student theatre is getting to collaborate with different people. He still holds dear his first production last fall, in Merely Players’ “Antony and Cleopatra,” and the connections he was able to make in preparing that show.

For Franzen, though, acting isn’t just about the connection of a cast, but also the connection made in exploring the compassion and humanity of another person: “I like the ability to empathize with a character and not just understand their troubles, but also really experience them. And I think that actually helps with outside the theatre because then you can hear what someone is saying or hear how someone is acting and try and connect to them as closely as possible. Of course, you don’t try to be them but you can still try and use some of those skills outside as well.”

Designers are often the most overlooked, overworked and underappreciated members of the theatre community. And yet the show couldn’t go on without them.

Lindsay Matheos ’19 is one of the most involved and productive stage managers at Vassar. She has served as stage manager and in other design roles in both student theatre and Drama Department shows and currently serves as the education director of the Vassar Student Theater Tech Conglomerate.

Despite her extensive résumé in production roles, Matheos began taking on a design role after an opportune suggestion from her middle school teacher: “I always did the mandatory musicals that we would do in elementary school, which I always had a great time with. Then, when I went to middle school, I auditioned for a musical and I didn’t get a very good part, which discouraged me from auditioning the next year, even though I like theatre. The director approached me and said, ‘Hey, do you want to be an ASM [Assistant Stage Manager] on the middle school musical?’ I didn’t know what that meant, but I was like, ‘Yeah! I want to be involved and I don’t want to have auditions. This sounds great!’ And then I just really enjoyed stage management and continued to do run crew and stage management throughout high school.”

Besides her work in the theatre community at Vassar, Matheos served as props intern and run crew at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival this summer. She has also traveled to New York City on many occasions to meet with professional stage managers.

It’s in the collaborative nature of theatre that Matheos continues to be a stage manager. “I guess the reason I like stage management is getting to know what’s happening with every aspect of the production and seeing the collaborative process and how you bring a show from before rehearsals through the closing of the show and how every- one’s input and ideas get intermixed into all of that,” she expressed. “I like the collaborative nature and being involved with that. I like interact- ing with people and making sure everyone has a good time and is being heard.”

Pedro Augusto Lima ’21 may be a first-year, but he’s already a set designer for Philaletheis’ “Fuddy Meers” production and has been working with the Drama Department’s technical director Paul O’Connor. Before arriving to Vassar, he had already explored set design in his high school and local community theatre.

When Lima first approached being a set designer, he was able to rely on the experience he gained shadowing his father: “I was immediately drawn to scenery because of my background in construction, having worked in it with my father for years prior to doing drama. The only distinction between simply doing theatre carpentry and design, however, happened when I was given the task to create the torture chair for Gomez’s Grotto in ‘Addams Family.’ The feeling of having a concept brought to life and then used in a production was almost euphoric, and that immediately drew me into design.”

Because of the opportunities and encouragements his high school gave, Lima was able to explore scenic design even further: “In my high school, theatre was huge, and so the process to get in involved interviews and auditions, but it was well worth the effort. I soon was given the opportunity to start designing and planning small parts of the show, like a torture [sequence] in ‘Addams Family’ or a taxi for my school’s annual freshman theatre performance. From then on, I began honing my craft of design by working with both of the directors at my school in order to design larger scale shows. After one semester, I was introduced to many of the community theatres in the area and soon created a name for myself in theatre both inside and outside my school.”

With these theatremakers’ numerous inspirations come aspirations. Some short-term goals are playing a new kind of role or simply getting through their current productions. And then there are long-term goals, like working on Broadway or owning a theatre company with a mission of accessibility. And because of the community and collaboration essential to theatre, others will be there to help them on their journeys, every step of the way.

Beyond the actors on the stage, there are directors guiding rehearsals, designers creating the worlds, playwrights writing the words and stage managers keeping everything together. / Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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