Theater studies majors experiment with senior projects

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Photo by Adrian Rodrigues.

Months before facing the challenges of life after graduation, many seniors in the theater studies major are already braving uncharted territory within their own senior projects.

Twenty-four out of 25 senior theater studies majors are pursuing a performance-type approach to their senior essay this academic year. All seven seniors interviewed said that a major element of their production was entirely unknown to them before the start of the project. Andrew Freeburg ’14, a student in the major, noted that instead of presenting a type of production he is familiar with, he and many of his peers are applying their skills to performance areas beyond their comfort zones.

“Instead of doing what we have practiced, we are doing weird stuff that we have never tried before,” Freeburg said. “We owe it to ourselves and to the program to do something novel.”

Freeburg will be working as the production designer on the same senior project production as Jen Kramer ’14, another theater studies major. The performance, titled “Wander,” will stage the plot through a series of magic acts, Kramer said. She noted that she does not recall any senior projects from past years that have directly explored magic in performance. The project’s adviser, associate professor of theater studies Deb Margolin, said she had never advised a magician prior to this production. Freeburg said he has never worked on a magic-based production and barely understands how magic works in general, adding that this project is so original that not even the University administrators overseeing it know how to approach the production process.

“I wanted to do something unprecedented both for me and ideally for theater at Yale,” Freeburg said.

Connor Lounsbury ’14 said he also wanted to stage a type of show not usually seen at Yale while exploring themes they have never grappled with before. He said he eventually decided on acting in a production of Martin Sherman’s “Bent,” which premiered last Friday, a play that centers on the love between two gay men in the Dachau concentration camp during the Holocaust. Lounsbury said he has never seen a play with such a peculiar storyline performed at Yale, adding that he had also never dealt with overtly romantic themes in any of his earlier performances.

Christine Shaw ’14, who wrote and acted in her project “The Water Play,” which was put on last month, said she had never written a full-length play before her senior project. After spending the summer of 2012 attending an acting program in Italy that focused on European mime techniques, Shaw said she was frustrated with her inability to document the work she did that summer. As a result, she decided to base “The Water Play” on short, comedic skits she performed as part of the program.

For three students interviewed, the set design of their production also raised technical challenges they had never faced before. Freeburg and Kramer said that “Wander” will require a background that creates the effect of illusion to complement the “magic” element of the production. But Freeburg noted that this task is incredibly difficult because he has never designed such a set before and is not aware of any existing formal guidelines on how to create one. Eden Ohayon ’14, who performed August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” in her own kitchen as her senior project, said the Undergraduate Production Office raised some concerns with her production because of the unique venue.

Theater studies Director of Undergraduate Studies Dominika Laster said that over the past several years, senior projects have become more diverse in terms of the methods students use to explore their interests. Sterling Professor of Theater and English Joseph Roach said he has been working with his advisee, Clio Contogenis ’14, on incorporating large amounts of multimedia technology in a modernized adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” that features a cast of only two actors. Shaw, on the other hand, said her production contained no advanced technology because it was heavily influenced by her mime training, which focuses primarily on human interactions with physical — not virtual — objects.

Though no seniors interviewed said they could name any direct similarities between the pool of senior project productions for this year, Irene Casey ’14 said she thinks that most students select productions that will pose an unfamiliar challenge. Spencer Klavan ’14, who is working with Casey and Maggie Ditre ’14 on a performance of Paul Rudnick ’77’s play “Valhalla” for their project, said they chose the play because it is set in two entirely different worlds — the kingdom of Ludwig of Bavaria and Texas in the 1940s — which make the piece extremely difficult to stage. He added that the desire to be challenged pushed him and Casey to extreme ends, recalling a time when they spent hours in the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library pulling random plays off the shelves, hoping they would find a piece that fit their objective. Lounsbury explained that he came up with the idea for his production after conducting numerous Google searches for pieces with uncommon storylines.

The next performance of a senior project production will be this Thursday’s showing of “Bent” by Martin Sherman at the Whitney Theater.

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