Student art flourishes in FWA’s “Grey Gardens”

Pictured above, Little Edie (played by Becca Slotkin ’18) receives the news that her father will not attend her engagement party, to the dismay of her family and future husband. Courtesy of Lindsay Matheos

Artists experience life on this campus in a way that is unique. Their work is involved, intensive and more often than not, it’s informed by ongoing collective efforts. While we are quick to hear about a victorious sports team here at Vassar, for instance, goings-on within the art community can be sometimes overlooked. The idea of a student-artist is sometimes forgotten by the campus community.

Watching Unbound’s production “Grey Gardens: The Musical” last week reaffirmed my view of the stakes of artistic performance and the rigor of being a student-artist.

As if academic and personal life at Vassar wasn’t already a handful, artists all over campus add another responsibility by choosing to participate in productions and presentations.

“Grey Gardens” director John Rezes ’18 shared his understanding of what it means to be a student-artist: “I think it means knowing that my passion is creating theatre with lovely people and understanding that at Vassar there has been a shift away from the fun of student art to a sense of near obligation to create. With ‘Grey Gardens,’ I really wanted to reclaim the fun and the ‘whatever happens, happens’ mentality.”

“Grey Gardens: The Musical” was performed in the Mug last week. The show depicts the dysfunctional relationship between Big and Little Edie, relatives of Jackie Kennedy. Courtesy of Lindsay Matheos
“Grey Gardens: The Musical” was performed in the Mug last week. The show depicts the dysfunctional relationship between Big and Little Edie, relatives of Jackie Kennedy. Courtesy of Lindsay Matheos

While actor and musical accompanist George Luton ’19 does not have a set definition of what it means to be a student-artist, he shared: “What I do know is that being an artist on this campus seems to be a way of life—a nonstop way of life … My work is never complete, and there is always something coming up.”

Because artists are most often validated by their participation, many feel constant pressure. This idea was not news to actress Daisy Walker ’18. She agreed, “Being a student-artist is definitely an all-consuming thing, or at least something that verges on all-consuming.”

A rehearsal and performance schedule calls on an incredible amount of physical and emotional energy. Balancing this alongside academic performance is a given, and yet it is a constant struggle for many artists. Walker explained, “Often the art I’m working on is not at all connected with academics. While working on a Drama Department show is technically a class, student theatre is an extracurricular.” She continued, “I often wish I could responsibly prioritize my creative pursuits more than I feel I am able to, or that they had more acknowledgment as a really all-consuming activity, but ah well.” In spite of the frustrations intrinsic to being invalidated by multiple academic communities, artists persevere and stick with their craft. Walker added, “We do it because we love it, even when it’s exhausting and stressful, and there’s something really great about that!”

Designers and actors involved in the creation of “Grey Gardens” displayed an impressive level of commitment to the challenging piece. Speaking to the level of responsibility required in maintaining the integrity of the characters’ lives, Rezes remarked, “In light of recent political events, it became more important than ever, in my mind, to show an honest representation of family and love and femme power … From day one, I knew that I wanted to reclaim the story of ‘Grey Gardens’ from the vices of the male gaze and the vicious grasp of objectification. The mere production of this musical risks furthering the sensationalism surrounding very real pain. I did not want to contribute to that. We wanted to give Edith and Edie a fair portrayal … The least we could do was show how truly real and daringly transgressive they were.”

This director was not alone in his challenging responsibility to honest portrayals. As an actor and musician, Luton also struggled with the unique nature of his role in the show. He explained, “I’ve been in many situations that required singing and playing simultaneously. However, this particular role was challenging because it required staying in character through the entire piece. I was more than just an accompanist in view of the audience. I very much enjoyed exploring my character’s presence, both as a human being and as a ghost, trapped in an old house, his voice playing through a dusty record. Staying in character was an effort to play from my own mind.”

The piece did not appear to be easy for anyone involved. Walker admitted, “‘Grey Gardens’ is probably the most challenging of any other show I’ve worked on before. Being onstage for so long, and switching between characters at intermission was definitely exhausting. Especially because we did four shows within 24 hours, by the end of the weekend I was basically asleep, but it was very rewarding and really cool to just live in the world of ‘Grey Gardens’ so intensely for that period of time. A lot of physical and mental stamina definitely has to go into a show like this!”

There is no exaggeration here. This two-and-ahalf-hour piece had people crawling on the floor as cats, playing instruments, tearing up exorbitant amounts of newspaper and singing plenty of songs. A musical like this does not come together on its own. It takes a kind of creative grit to sing a solo number as if there is a full band and chorus behind you. It takes a special kind of stamina to tell a story as sad as “Grey Gardens” in a way that energetically engages a full audience throughout the most serious moments.

At the end of a production, it is important to look back and give attention to some of the highlights of the overwhelming process. In this light, Rezes remarked, “[In rehearsal] empathy and honesty would illicit the most extraordinary reactions in my mind. We were constantly exploring and experimenting with the characters, and some things would last, some were extremely ephemeral. But, like I always say, true theatre is just as transient.”

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