I spent my birthday week in Montclair, New Jersey, helping to organize and run the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival for Region 2. It’s my last year as the workshops coordinator, and I’m proud to say we had over 100 workshops, in every area of theater. We had to cancel a few due to weather issues (we ended Festival half a day early), but the original schedule included workshops in lighting, drafting, acting, movement, dance, slip casting, publicity, musical theater acting, grant writing, OSHA compliance, weapons safety, directing, costuming, combat, dramaturgy, stage management, and more.

Organizing the workshops is my main duty at Festival, and I love it. I’m not great at networking, and being on leadership for the Festival has helped with that. I have a dozen people I know pretty well from working alongside them to plan the thing, and I have a good conversation opener for when I see people in the faculty hospitality later: “How was your workshop?” We then talk about other things, but it’s the opener I struggle with in other situations. It helps that I’ve usually been in communication via email during Festival planning, so they know my name and have some sense of who I am, and I often can remember enough about which workshop they’re doing to be able to ask about the specifics of their work.

The other highlight of Festival is the invited performances. Every year, the Festival sends people out to respond to shows at colleges and universities all over the region. At a response, we watch the show and then talk about it with the cast afterward. It’s not a review, exactly, and it’s also not EVER re-directing the show. It’s usually more a conversation, asking the actors, director, and designers how they arrived at particular decisions, usually naming overall observations about the experience. For some shows, the schools indicate that they are interested in taking the show to Festival, and so we have two respondents, who write a more detailed note to the selection committee. The selection committee meets in early December to invite 6-8 productions that represent the best of college theater in the region, and those shows pack all their stuff in a truck and come to Festival.

Of the six invited shows this time, I was a respondent on two of them. The students recognized me when I ran into them at Festival, and it was so fun to talk with them about everything that had transpired since I saw their shows–figuring out how to fit their show into a different space (in one case, massively different), fund raising, replacing an actor who couldn’t come, etc. They were so excited and so grateful for the opportunity.

We also had a keynote performance by the Q Brothers, of their hiphop remix of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, called Dress the Part. I *loved* it. The energy was super high, it was true to the story, more or less, while also making it contemporary. They clearly know their Shakespeare–it wasn’t one of those things where people think they get Shakespeare enough to riff on him. This was the Real Deal, and I highly encourage any of my Shakespeare nerd friends to check them out.

I was impressed with all of the shows we brought this year. The quality was consistently high. Here’s the rundown of what I saw (PS I shouldn’t have to say it, but my opinions are my own and do not reflect anything official about KCACTF or anybody else):

Antigone, from West Chester University

WCU does consistently strong work. They are often invited to Festival. I’ve responded there and recommended that the play I responded to be invited (I think it was but then they weren’t able to bring it for some reason). This Antigone was a good one, although I think stronger in the technical aspects than in the acting.

The lighting and projection design was brilliant. The projection designer (a student) had created a stop-motion animation to tell the backstory of the play, and projected it on long strips of white fabric which fell and disappeared.

The set had a sweeping, circular ramp with steps set into it. The steps were mostly used for positioning–creating the ability, for example, to have the chorus standing on different levels. I loved the way the blocking and the set worked together. Most characters took long, circular paths up and down this ramp, creating a weighty, formal, and majestic feeling. Late in the play, a messenger has to go out with extreme urgency, and it was the first time that the steps were used as stairs. The directness of that motion startled me; it broke a pattern I hadn’t consciously noticed.

The chorus was very strong. One major accomplishment was that I could understand every word of what they said–a serious challenge when a group of 14 or so people is speaking in unison, with microphones. Their movement was interesting–in both costuming and movement, they were clearly meant to be unified and the same, but they also had individuality that was oddly beautiful.

Another thing that struck me–and I don’t know if this was a production choice, or the translation, or just something that was in the text but I never noticed it before–the guard who brings the news that Antigone is out there burying the body is a clown. A legitimately funny clown, right here in the midst of this intense tragedy. I loved it! And now I’m wondering what other clowns I’m missing in Greek tragedies…

Nice job, WCU! Eager to see what you do next.

Next up was Men in Boats at Bridgewater College.

I responded to this show (AND LOVED IT). As I already wrote a good bit about it, I just want to comment on what was different.

First of all, I’d like to mention how impressed I am with Scott Cole. He is the only full-time member of this theater department at a small college, but he has built an incredible department. The students are active, engaged, and hard-working. They recently finally got a theater major, after years of being a minor within the communications department. He consistently challenges them with interesting material. And this is the second show he’s brought to Festival (the other one was several years ago, a steampunk production of A Dream Play.

This show had some challenges in coming to Festival. In the original production, all of the audience was on stage with the cast, in kind of a triangular thrust configuration, with the apron operating as the upstage area. In other words, they used their massive proscenium house backward. This is something my college theater used to do regularly as well–when your only space is a 500-seat proscenium house, sometimes you have to change things up. At Festival, they had to use the space in a more “normal” way, flipping everything around. I was pleased to see that they put a few dozen chairs onstage, in order to maintain that thrust feeling. But it was still different. One of my favorite moments in the original production was one where an actor rolled off the edge of the stage and had to be rescued. That wasn’t an option in this new configuration. She instead rolled into some fluffy fabric, which worked, but was less cool. I thought generally that their tech looked better in the original space–even the light plot didn’t translate particularly well–BUT the acting felt stronger and clearer at Festival than when I saw it in Bridgewater. I wonder if the actors felt that they had to step it up a notch because everything else was compromised by the move. Or whether the extra couple of months of thinking and working added layers of richness and commitment that weren’t there before.

The other show that I responded to was The Secret in the Wings from West Liberty University. I didn’t see this one at Festival, unfortunately. I just couldn’t make it work with my schedule and trying to fit everything in. That said, I heard from many many people that it went really well. The response from folks, over and over, was “I can’t believe that was all done by students.” Their professor was very proud of them, and I loved how he kept turning the spotlight to the students every time someone assumed it was his work.

Another invited production was The Mystery of Edwin Drood from Montclair State University. I have mixed feelings about this one.

For those who (like me) don’t know anything about it, the concept is that Dickens was working on a story and publishing it in serial form, but died before it could be completed. So the play is a play-within-a-play, with a framing story about a Victorian music hall that is putting on a melodramatic play based on the short story (you with me?), and when it gets to the point where Dickens died, the audience “chooses the ending” by acclaim. There are apparently 18 different endings or something. I thought the production was, by and large, excellently done. Montclair has a great musical theater program, and it showed. The design was on point, the music was perfect, the choreography well-executed.

One thing I hadn’t seen before, but loved, was that the orchestra pit was upstage. It was still a definite pit–the conductor’s head was about at the level of the actors’ feet–but it was upstage of the playing space. This made them part of the action, more. One of the entrances was a sort of bridge that spanned the pit, so the actors would sometimes interact with the musicians as they were entering.

The play, on the other hand, was not great. The music was forgettable, at best, and, while I usually like play-within-a-play stuff, I didn’t love the framing story. But we’re supposed to look at the production, not the material selection, and from that standpoint, this was an excellent one.

Albright College is another institution that generally brings solid work. A Raisin in the Sun was an exceptional piece, even for them.

I had never seen this play performed, although I read it in high school (fun fact: The version I read in high school definitely was Bowdlerized. There was no abortion question! And now I’m wondering what else I don’t know about 20th century theater). It plays exceedingly well. Despite being kind of trapped, like the family, in one small apartment, the play has all manner of color, life, texture, and motion. The actors’ performances had such total commitment that I didn’t blink when they said some of the lines that had dated vocabulary. The audience, consisting mostly of college students, was all in with this story. The response when Benny unveiled her natural hair was incredible. The actors just had to stop the show and wait for it to settle. They waited for a long time. This show, which one would hope would feel like ancient history by now, instead felt super relevant. The design team could have chosen to make it a 21st century setting, and other than adjusting for inflation, it would have worked. They didn’t, but they could have. The reality and present-ness of the script were painfully unchanged.

The last show of the weekend was All My Sons from Grove City College. This is another show I hadn’t ever seen in performance, although I had read it for various classes over the years.

The acting was pretty good, and I enjoyed a lot of the design elements, but this one felt so much less present than the others. I should note that I’m responding to the material, not the acting as such. Some lines were painful to hear, and I think difficult for the actors to say, particularly ones that expressly objectified women.

This play was an interesting juxtaposition with Raisin. They’re about the same age, but Raisin still feels deeply relevant, while All My Sons feels dated. I want to live in a world where Raisin feels absolutely as ready for the shelf as All My Sons does. We have a long way to go. But based on the student responses to both of these shows, I think we’re well on our way there. And so that’s one thing theater does: In holding the mirror up to nature, it shows us where we are, where we’ve been, and how long the road is in both directions.

If there’s anything I hope college students took away from this festival, it’s that.

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