“Sunday in the Park with George,” opening on Dec. 14 at the University Theatre, will bring undergraduate and graduate performers together in an unusual collaboration.
An examination of artists’ struggles to stay true to their craft while navigating the commercial side of art, the 1984 musical — with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim — looks at the creation of artist Georges Seurat’s masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” To bring together the large cast and crew required by musicals, the show recruited students from multiple Yale schools, said Ethan Heard ’06 DRA ’13, who is directing the show for his senior thesis project this semester.
While most School of Drama productions feature only professional theater students, “Sunday” includes two undergraduates in its cast, others on its creative team and two in its orchestra, which is otherwise composed of and conducted by students from the School of Music.
Heard said that as an undergraduate student, he admired the School of Drama but perceived it as a bubble he could not enter. So when he began to cast “Sunday,” Heard knew that undergraduates might enjoy the chance to act in a graduate school production.
“I knew the undergraduates were out there, and I wanted to reach out,” he said.
Students involved in “Sunday” received the voice and movement training from theater faculty and the physical resources typical in the Drama School, Heard said. Since undergraduate theater productions are largely extracurricular, this level of support was a new experience for the undergraduates involved, he added.
The “Sunday” team also solicited advice from several theater professionals, including Tony Award-winning actress Victoria Clark ’82, whose first Broadway role was in “Sunday,” and the show’s musical conductor Daniel Schlosberg ’10 MUS ’13 was mentored by Michael Starobin, who orchestrated the show for its 1984 premiere.
Catherine Chiocchi ’15, who plays the photographer Louise and is one of two undergraduates in the cast, said the experience has pushed her acting to a higher level. School of Drama shows involve many more hours of rehearsal time than undergraduate productions, Chiocchi said. This added time gave her more space to experiment with her role, rather than performing a given scene the same way during each rehearsal.
“I got to think about all facets of my character,” Chiocchi said. “As actors it’s what we’d like to do all the time. We don’t always have the opportunity.”
Chiocchi added that she thinks many undergraduates would love to have more avenues for involvement with the School of Drama.
Eric Sirakian ’15, the show’s assistant director, said he finds Drama School students’ level of commitment and sense of purpose inspiring.
“It’s a whole different level [than undergraduate theater],” Sirakian said. “These are people who are fully devoted to their very specific craft.”
While “Sunday” is part of School of Drama students’ curricular work, the show remains an extracurricular activity for the team’s undergraduate members. Chiocchi said she was willing to make the necessary sacrifices — which include rehearsing into reading and exam weeks — because participating in a graduate show is such a unique opportunity.
Heard said that while he was initially unsure whether the school had the vocal talent to carry a musical, he is happy with how the show has turned out. Dramaturg Dana Tanner-Kennedy DRA ’14 explained that all Drama School students must sing when auditioning for the acting program and that they all receive some musical training in the acting department. And while the experience of acting in a musical may have felt “a little alien” for some of the Drama School actors at first, Grant said working on “Sunday” has boosted his confidence in his musical theater abilities.
“The same tools we get working on Chekhov or Shakespeare are still useful when we approach Sondheim,” Grant said. “It’s the same thing we do every time we approach a new text.”
Tanner-Kennedy said the lyrics in Sondheim compress so much meaning into every line that they pose a poetic opportunity to actors analogous to that of performing Shakespeare.
“It’s an invitation to be imaginative,” Heard said. “You are singing, [and] you get to unleash in a thrilling, expressive way.”
“Sunday in the Park with George” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985.