After serving as the production’s director, producer, writer and associate set designer, Carrie Mannino ’20 will see her original play come to life onstage this weekend in the Nick Chapel Theater in Trumbull College.
“The Bench” presents the interactions and evolution of seven characters, the majority of whom are high school students, by exploring moments in which their lives are in flux. Each scene is localized to the titular set piece, a bench, and features minimalist design that allows for a simultaneously natural and dramatic visual focus on the developments of each scene. The story does not track one primary storyline and instead explores the experiences of dating, the struggle to maintain long-distance connections, social connections mediated by technology and deteriorating interpersonal relationships.
All cast members interviewed said that Mannino experiments with natural and clumsy patterns of speech within the play’s dialogue to accurately represent the verbal and emotional stumbles of young adults.
“I love that the text is at times so hilariously awkward that you can instantly be transported back to your high school days and find yourself thinking back to a situation that was probably quite relatable to at least one of the scenes,” said Sana Aslam ’20, who portrays a character named Bailey.
The text’s ability to seemingly teleport its audience back to their high school days can be traced to the play’s origins: Mannino’s piece originated from a 10th-grade assignment to craft a scene for a theater class. Though she had always been a writer, Mannino said she realized that she especially enjoyed developing dialogue and proceeded to write and direct a one-act version of the piece at her high school. The imagined bench on which the show’s action takes place is actually inspired by a specific bench on a commercial street in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Shadyside, where Mannino and many of her classmates congregated after classes.
When Mannino moved to New Haven to begin college, the text of the show continued to grow with her. She noted that some of the scenes in this new version are inspired by her experiences at the end of high school and from her first moments at Yale.
“My ideas for scenes often start with conversations I’ve had in real life, or arguments or problems, and then develop into something hopefully a bit more fictional,” she explained.
The decision to do the show at Yale came to Mannino as a “2 a.m.” thought. After finding herself uninvolved in shows as an actress in the spring theatrical cycle, she took a friend’s casual suggestion to put up her own piece.
The experience of producing a Yale Drama Coalition production has served as an invaluable learning process for Mannino, who potentially hopes to work as a professional playwright and director, and for her cast members.
“I love working on a new show because there’s no precedent or pressure to interpret a moment or character a certain way,” said Esther Ritchin ’20, a staff reporter for YTV, who portrays Antonia. “It’s really a collaboration between the actors and director to find moments of truth within the work.”
The rehearsal process has largely involved candid conversation with the actors about the authenticity of the dialogue and movement and the exploration of the character’s backstories. Though the text is autobiographically inspired, the collaborative nature of the rehearsal process created a current script that has been strongly influenced by the thoughts and suggestions of cast members.
Notably, the cast and crew of “The Bench” features actors from the freshman class, with the exception of Sophia Eller ’17. The process represents a strong collaboration of freshman voices in undergraduate theater-making, one paralleled by the Dramat’s annual Freshman Show, which this year will be Sarah Ruhl’s “Orlando.”
The cast and crew have benefited from this dynamic because the piece focuses on the challenges of moving away from home for the first time, thus lending itself to a young cast of actors.
“Carrie was very open to making changes to the script to reflect our interpretations of our characters but also our input as creative members of the process,” said Sarah Young ’20, who portrays Ally. “It’s exciting to work on a script that’s constantly changing both to reflect our creative insights as actors and to ensure that the message we are putting out into the community is as positive and thoughtful as possible.”
Though the cast and creative team skews younger, performers in “The Bench” said that they are confident that the comedic and relatable script has something to offer to audiences of any age. According to Mannino, the show’s themes of transition and relocation are particularly pertinent to other age groups on Yale’s campus.
“I’m also glad to have some upperclassmen involved, and my one senior actor — Sophia — actually said that some of the same growing-up-and-graduating issues were things she related to now, which made me hopeful that the piece is more universal and relatable, especially to our audience on campus,” she said.
“The Bench” opens this Thursday, March 30, at 8:00 p.m. and will be run through April 1.