The poster with a black background and a huge collaged [m] taking up most of the rectangle is now attracting attention almost everywhere on campus. At the bottom of the m-shape, small white letters explain to the audience that a student production called [m] will be showing on Oct. 30-31 and Nov. 1 at 8:00 p.m. in the Mary Virginia Heinlein Stage in the Martel Theater. This production is the Drama Department senior project of six seniors: Andrea Negrete, Kelly Schuster, Madie Oldfield, Meropi Papastergiou, Taylor Dalton and Thomas Lawler.
The final fruit of their creative and artistic efforts since last semester, [m], is an ensemble project that explores constructions of gender and sanity in art. Through the juxtaposition of contemporary feminist and queer voices, the production attempts to trace the history and genealogy of the man-made archetypes of women and of the resistances and critiques from women against these assumptions.
The six ensemble members, who conceived this idea as early as the end of last semester, felt a necessity to speak about these matters.
“We had to create our own show,” Madeleine Oldfield ’14 wrote in an emailed statement. “We needed to speak about women and sanity and the ways in which women have been portrayed, so we created a show that attempts to reflect that.”
Their faculty advisor, Professor of Drama Gabrielle Cody, saw this felt urgency as a result of deep reflections and personal experiences as female actors. “These are all students who are thinking very deeply about questions of gender, identity, history and lineage. And also, as female actors, you’re so typecasted in certain ways. In fact, they did this exercise called ‘letter to your typecast.’ They are profoundly aware that women are pigeonholed in our culture, especially in terms of representation. And they are interested in breaking those modes and representational pattern. To say ‘this is who I am and I will not be restricted to what the culture sees me as.’” said Cody.
In order to address this necessity, the ensemble members decided to use the means of devising theater. A devised theater work is a form of theater where the script originates not from a writer or writers, but from collaborative work by the performers. The artists felt that this form would allow them to deal with significant issues and to express themselves in an original way. “We met at the end of last semester and discussed what we could like to do for our senior project,” Oldfield wrote. “After reading a few plays, we decided that just performing a play wouldn’t be enough. We had to create our own show.”
As they went further into this process of teamwork radically different from traditional theater, the performers realized that it could be as challenging as it is rewarding. “My experience working on this production has been unlike any process I have been involved in before. We make decisions as a group, and that has been a welcomed challenge. Reaching consensus forces us to look at our decisions through a critical lens, and pushes us to create a more dynamic, thought-provoking piece of theatre,” said Oldfield.
Moreover, the collaborative nature of the production process brought changes to many traditional theatrical roles. For Collin Knopp-Schwyn ’16, the stage manager of [m], the production of [m] rendered many of the traditional duties of a stage manager moot, while introducing new meanings to this role at the same time.
“To record blocking notes, you need to have a script to associate a line with a position onstage. The script for [m] wasn’t fully assembled until the week before tech week (when we add all the lights and sounds) so for most of the process I was making up my role as stage manager while we built the play. I took copious notes, but these tended to capture ideas more than stage positions because ideas were all we had to work with for much of the rehearsal process. Also, in most shows, the stage manager’s role is devoid of artistic input; not so for [m] which allowed me the opportunity to work as an ensemble member in building this beautiful, grotesque piece of theater.”
Joan Gerardi, the box office manager, also worked differently when arranging seats and planning the showcase for [m].
“Because it is a devised piece, they were working on what the set would look like,” Gerardi exaplained. “And they were designing it in a very non-traditional format. We’re not doing it in a proscenium style theater, but in a created space that is on the stage of the theater. So the way guests are going to enter the stage and the seating arrangements are all very different.”
In addition to collaboration and improvisation, the production is also an accumulation of a variety of sources and artistic media.
“We collaged texts in this piece, bringing together historical texts and contemporary pieces, putting them in conversation with each other. We also melded artistic mediums, like theatrical texts and visual art pieces, into the same performance,” Oldfield explained.
Cody sees this choice of collage as an effective way of conveying the intended message of critique and resistances.
“I think the idea of resistance and critique is very strongly felt throughout the piece,” Cody emphasized. “Part of the critique is reclaiming texts or roles written for women by men of periods when women were not portrayed on stage. So performances of women without a referent. In other cases, texts or poetry by women who’re dealing with the subjectivity of what it means for women to create outside of institutional approval.”