Forty freshmen worked on this year’s Yale University Dramatic Association production of “Orlando,” tackling themes of gender and storytelling through a play whose protagonist reconciles several competing identities.
For the 2017 Dramat Freshman Show, Director Aparna Nair-Kanneganti ’20 and producer Liana Van Nostrand ’20 — a staff writer for the News — chose playwright Sarah Ruhl’s “Orlando,” which is adapted from a Virginia Woolf novel of the same name. The production follows the titular character’s journey through space and time, from Queen Elizabeth’s court to the 20th century, confronting questions of gender and identity, as he suddenly wakes up as a woman midway through the play. Freshman involved with the production said the monthslong process of putting the show together was a valuable learning experience, as it was the first time many of them held leadership positions in Yale’s theater community.
“It is both a challenge and the beauty of FroShow that everyone is still learning and still experimenting because that can lead sometimes to moments of creativity or just perspectives that aren’t coming from someone who’s done the same type of work a million times over,” Van Nostrand said.
Nair-Kanneganti said the play was especially technically difficult because of its many transitions and large time span, both of which allowed for the involvement of many students. She added that being able to see the actors bond with each other, and subsequently with the audience, was one of the most rewarding parts of her experience as director.
Similarly, Madi Cupp-Enyard ’20, who played Orlando, said she was happy that the audience was able to pick up on the play’s themes of gender, sexuality and social structures. She added that she was pleasantly surprised to see how many of the “woke” jokes the audience responded to immediately, as there had been some concern in rehearsals that the play was too fast-moving and dense for audiences to fully grasp. It was both rewarding and difficult to work only with freshmen, she noted, but the production was a more valuable learning experience overall because of it.
“My mentor said that directing a play is a little bit lonely, but if it’s lonely, you’re doing right because you need to make sure that the cast has a bond and the cast has a bond without you,” Nair-Kanneganti said. “To see the way [the actors] collaborated and how smoothly they were able to do so and all without me being there — if I hadn’t been there, it would have gone just as well — it felt like I had really done my job at that moment.”
Technical aspects of the production, like the set design, also allowed the crew to exercise creativity in its approach. Set designer Lina Kapp ’20 said Ruhl included guiding principles for the set in the play, writing that it should “evoke playfulness, emptiness, metaphor and transformation.” Kapp said she kept these principles in mind, especially when creating the set’s focal point, a cutout of an oak tree decorated with abstract colorful swirls. Other set design pieces included period furniture, large empty spaces for actors to fill and a versatile wheeled platform that serves as a ship, a stage and a bedroom at various points.
The conceptions of gender and sex are different today than they were during Woolf’s time, Van Nostrand said, making the original premise of the play less radical than it would have been a century ago. She added that it might have been difficult for a modern audience to apply the historical framework that does not distinguish between gender and biological sex, further complicating the already-nuanced play.
Other members of the cast and crew agreed that the show’s themes surrounding gender and identity evolve and change over time. Technical Director Hafsa Abdi ’20 said that the play means different things to different people. Orlando ends the show with the line “I am about to understand …” and the audience is left to fill in the rest on their own, she said. This gives people the opportunity to reflect and think about what Orlando — both the character and the play — is trying to say.
Cupp-Enyard said that she realized in performances that she and Orlando share many experiences, especially once Orlando becomes a woman midway through the play. These insights enabled her to bring her own perspective to the role, she noted.
“Orlando is a person,” Abdi said. “I am a person. You are a person. This show captures the journey of an individual to understand the duality of the human desire to be both oneself and the expectation of oneself. The way I see it, the Dramat chose this show because today, identity is under fire and the best way to protect it is to try to understand yourself and others.”
The show ran for four performances between April 6 and 8.