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- Remarks from the Chair: The last word from Penny Remsen
- UMass Theater reaches out to the next generation of students
- Ilana Ransom Toeplitz wins a coveted Drama League Fellow spot
- Meeting industry heavy weights: Ilana Ransom Toeplitz shares reflections on Professionals Week
This is it: my last note from the chair to you, our extended theater family! (Brace yourselves — I have a lot I want to tell you about!)
I leave with mixed feelings. On the one hand, being chair means being a tireless advocate for all we do — and that can get tiring. I am ready to go back to “just” teaching for a while and am looking forward to doing some lighting design again.
On the other hand, all that hard work was for a really good cause. After all, I’ve ALWAYS been a proud advocate for all we achieve here. It was incredibly rewarding to be able to use the voice I had as chair to tackle a number of pressing issues and dream projects.
I’m pleased that on my watch, we were able to renovate the Curtain Theater as well as the house and lobby of the Rand Theater. Both projects improved the learning experience of our students and the theater experience of our audience members. We also upgraded the Upper Rand Lobby into the Upper Rand Studio, which was a big help to performance classes.
In my time as chair I was fortunate to meet a number of our generous donors, and I loved getting to know them and finding out what drives their generosity. I’m forever grateful to the wonderful Susan and Larry Benedict for the scholarship they established to honor outstanding design and technical students, and I can’t say thank you enough to Stephen Driscoll for the BADA Scholarship, which covers tuition and airfare to enable UMass students to attend the British American Drama Academy’s Midsummer in Oxford program. Kisses to these wonderful folks and to every single one of you who funded the MinuteFunds, bought the seats, and otherwise supported us in a million ways.
The past seven years have seen a stunning variety of mainstage shows, the creation of a new Play Lab, collaborations with internationally-renowned artists, and hundreds of presentations of student work. It was my honor and privilege to serve a talented, hard-working, dedicated group of students, faculty, and staff and to help them get what they needed to succeed.
Taking over for me will be Gina Kaufmann. She’ll tell you a little bit about her plans in the next issue of Stages, but in the meantime I hope you’ll join me in extending a warm welcome to her as she starts this new position!
If you’re not quite ready to move on from the year that was, I want to alert you to an interesting document we’ve uploaded to our website, the department’s 2015-2016 Year In Review. You’ll find information about our past season; what faculty, staff, and students were up to; and details about projects we took on. The PDF is available for download — as are the past years’ issues — and we invite you to take a look.
Mentioned in those pages are a number of high-achieving alumni, and I want to single out for praise three guys who represented us beautifully on Broadway this year and were nominated for Tony Awards. David Korins ’99 received a nod for his Hamilton set, Justin Townsend ’97 for his lighting designs of The Humans and American Psycho, and Ben Stanton ’00 for his lighting design work on Spring Awakening. They got all sorts of (well-deserved) coverage, and you can read some of the stories from local media online.
Looking ahead now, I want to take this opportunity to tell you about our new season. It’s going to be an inspiring, challenging, beautiful series of shows. We’re still leaning heavily on the development and presentation of ground-breaking new work. We are also looking at older works through a contemporary lens, to see what that perspective reveals to us.
Without further ado, here are the shows; click here for details about each show!
Written by Molière, adapted by Constance Congdon ‘82G
Directed by Mary Corinne Miller
October 19, Half-Price Preview at 7:30 pm
October 21, October 22, October 27, October 28, and October 29, at 7:30 pm
October 26, Student Matinee at 10:00 am
October 29, at 2:00 pm
Written by Milan Dragicevich
With music by Tim Eriksen
Directed by Nikita Milivojevic
November 30, Half-Price Preview at 7:30 pm
December 2, December 3, December 7, December 8, December 9, and December 10 at 7:30 pm
December 10 at 2:00 pm
Written by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Christina Pellegrini
Directed by Christina Pellegrini
February 22, Half-Price Preview at 7:30 pm
February 24, February 25, March 1, March 2, March 3, and March 4 at 7:30 pm
March 4 at 2 pm
UMass New Play Lab
Produced by Claudia Nolan and Ifa Bayeza
Directed by Ifa Bayeza
March 30, April 1, 2017 and April 6, at 7:30 pm
April 8 at 2:00 pm
The Happiest Song Plays Last
Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Directed by Jennifer Onopa
April 5, Half-Price Preview at 7:30 pm
April 7, April 8, April 12, April 13, April 14, and April 15 at 7:30 pm
Saturday, April 15 at 2 pm
Ta’zieh — Between two rivers
Conceived by Nikoo Mamdoohi and Q-Mars Haeri
Written by Q-Mars Haeri and Ifa Bayeza
Directed by Nikoo Mamdoohi
Off Site Location to be announced
April 27 and 28 at 7:30 pm
April 29 at 2 pm
We hope you’ll join us for a show!
When she officially takes over, chair Gina Kaufmann will tell you more about her goals for her time in the position, but until she does, we're not telling tales to let you know that one of the things she has already begun to focus on as her time in the role of Undergraduate Program Director is the stepping up of recruitment efforts. She hopes to reach out to students who are under-represented in the department, and she hopes to reach out to students when they're just starting to think about college. To that end, she and graduate student Jen Onopa started working on ways to reach out to local schools, and we asked Jen to write up a report for you on what they've done so far.
This year the Department of Theater began exploring opportunities to engage with groups of secondary students from the greater Springfield area. The purposes for this were both to expand the department’s current community engagement work and to increase recruitment of underrepresented groups of students within the department.
In the spring semester, MFA directing candidate Jen Onopa, a former teacher in the New York City public schools, worked with Professor Gina Kaufmann to meet with several key stakeholders within the UMass community to investigate effective ways in which to align with current university diversity recruitment initiatives as well as to meet community needs.
As part of this initiative, the Department of Theater hosted a group of high school students from Springfield’s Renaissance Charter school in April 2016, through a college visitation program established by Leykia Brill, Assistant Provost of Diversity. Over 50 students attended a workshop in the Curtain Theater facilitated by Jen Onopa along with undergraduate acting students Mallory Kassoy and Miguel Angel Paredes that included theater games, a performance by the undergraduate actors, and a discussion about issues in the scene and the students’ questions about college life.
In May, 2016, through a partnership with Bridget Hynes and Tyson Rose of the UMass Upward Bound program, the Department of Theater facilitated another workshop with ten students from Springfield’s High School of Commerce. The Upward Bound program supports the development of academic and social-emotional skills for students who might not traditionally be considered college-bound. Onopa designed the theater devising workshop to accommodate key aspects of the work that the Upward Bound staff had been doing with the high school students, including a focus on decision-making. Co-facilitating the workshop were two undergraduate theater students, Anderson Lara and Miguel Angel Paredes.
Due to the success of both the hosting and visiting theater workshops, the Department of Theater will continue these partnerships in the coming school year and will explore additional ways to engage neighboring communities, ranging from initiating an additional secondary school partnership in Holyoke, a community college partnership, and investigate what it would take to initiate a summer high school theater institute. Additionally, the department is considering tailoring high school visiting workshops that are thematically connected to the mainstage season.
No one would have blamed Ilana Ransom Toeplitz a few years ago for needing a moment or ten to recover from a series of misfortunes in her life — losing her job and boyfriend in short order, followed by her father’s illness and then, sadly, his passing. Toeplitz, however, turned out to be the kind of woman who read that string of events as a sign to get serious about pursuing her dreams. To wit: after several years of racking up internships, assistant directing, and directing credits, she has secured a spot as one of the 2016 Drama League Directing Fellows. Toeplitz is the Leo Shull New Musicals Fellow, the only musicals-focused director in the group, and will participate in a year-long program that includes mentoring, working with an established director in a musical theater lab, and producing her own work.
“I’ve been working toward this for 5 or 6 years, and I pinch myself every day,” Toeplitz said. She described participating in the program as akin to “a 10-year jumpstart” on a directing career, since the program’s alumni are a veritable who’s who of Broadway professionals, adding that they are “a family that will always have your back.”
“That kind of support for directors is invaluable because we don’t get that. I’m incredibly proud to be a part of (the program),” she said.
Getting to New York
When Toeplitz graduated from UMass with a BDIC in Artistic Direction and Arts Management, she had plans to head to New York City as soon as possible. Instead, the aforementioned circumstances kept her in Massachusetts, and she pursued work with local companies — she was assistant-directing and in technical rehearsal with the Huntington Theatre in Boston when she got the word her father died. After she finished dealing with everything she needed to address in the wake of his passing, she embarked on what she calls “Ilana’s Regional Tour.”
“I wanted to get to know the regional theater scene. So I packed up my dad’s Subaru Forester with different bins labelled by weather conditions, and got an internship at Signature Theatre — where I’ll be returning in August as part of my fellowship,” Toeplitz said. Over the following 18 months, she found internships in 6 different cities. “I found places to stay on an interns’ budget of $100/week by calling in favors, cat-sitting, doing whatever I had to do to be there.”
She was in assistant choreographing at the Pittsburgh CLO when she got a call to assistant-direct the Keen Company's Off-Broadway "revisal" of Marry Me A Little, a musical written by Stephen Sondheim. As amazing an opportunity as it was, assistant directing a Stephen Sondheim piece is still no guarantee you’re going to be a hop, skip, and jump away from directing on Broadway. However, Toeplitz built a friendship with the choreographer of the show, Dan Knechtges, a Broadway veteran.
“He was incredibly generous and basically wrote down a list of 20 names and said, ‘I’m going to introduce you to these people’,” she said. “Through him I met Leigh Silverman who directed Violet on Broadway, which I assistant directed.”
As she was assisting more established directors, Toeplitz was also seeking out her own opportunities, including a concert presentation of the musical version of Reefer Madness, starring Alan Cumming.
“It just started as an idea with my friends because I wanted to do a show at 54 Below, and then once we talked to the writers and brought Christian Campbell on board, it ballooned, and then Alan Cumming got on board, and then it just became something that was way bigger than anything I’d ever imagined!” Toeplitz said.
At the same time, she was working on Violet.
“My off-Broadway directing debut with Alan Cumming opened hours before my Broadway show, which is a great problem to have!” she said.
A good Fellowship
All this time, however, Toeplitz had her eye on the Drama League program.
“When I had just graduated and I was in that apartment in Boston eating black beans out of a can and watching Netflix, I googled Directing Program and I was like, ‘Oh, there’s this one with the Drama League,’ and I didn’t realize what a big deal it was. So I applied and it was like …” Toeplitz made a derisive noise as she recalled that first application.
With more experience, she realized what a big deal it was and put more effort into the next application. It was on her third try that she got in. She will spend a year in the program before, as she joked, passing on the tiara to the next Fellow.
The first part of the program is already under her belt. In May, all the Fellows participated in Professionals Week, when, as the name implies, they spent a week meeting with professionals in the field.
“Even though it’s ended I feel like it’s still going because I’ve gotten a lot of second and third meetings from it,” Toeplitz said. In fact, just before we went to publish, she emailed that one of the second/third meetings she took post-professionals week has led to a gig directing and choreographing her first national tour this fall!
During the same week, she attended the Drama League Awards, which she described as “kind of like director prom. They announce you as one of the future directors of America and everybody in this whole giant ballroom applauds you.”
Later this summer, part three of her Fellowship will be a trip to Signature Theater in Arlington, VA, to work on two new musicals with director Joe Calarco.
The formal program ends in the fall. "The Drama League is producing a night of my own direction with the intention of introducing me to the Broadway/Regional theatre community. I'll be directing an evening of musical theatre tailored to show my strengths as a director/choreographer, specifically of new musicals and musical comedy. I keep joking around saying that it's my 'Director's Debutante Ball',” Toeplitz said.
She’s not ready to say what she’ll do, although she does know that it will be new work. “I’m speed dating a lot of really, really exciting writers, and I’m beginning to get a vision of what I want to do,” she said.
When asked what she had brought with her from UMass Theater that helped her toward her current successes, Toeplitz was quick with an answer: “Teaching initiative, and wanting to be your own engine.”
“(Acclaimed musical director) Susan Stroman always says you can’t wait for the phone to ring, you have to do it yourself,” she said, “and I think UMass does a great job of setting up parameters for you, but then it’s up to you and your initiative to make things actually happen, which is a great skill to have. You’re not always going to have a prescribed course and curriculum, definitely not in this industry.”
She also credited UMass’s liberal arts approach — Toeplitz found a huge value in the set design classes she took with Professor Emeritus Miguel Romero. “I’m a huge believer that as a director that you should just know as many vocabularies as you can. It helped me become a better communicator and artist.”
(Photo of Ilana Ransom Toeplitz by Lidia Arriagada-García)
Meeting industry heavy weights: Reflections on Professionals Week
Like so many things, we learned about Toeplitz’s time in the Drama League Directing Fellows program on facebook. As part of the program, she blogged about her experience during Professionals Week, when the fellows get a chance to talk to mentors in the field, and posted it in a status update. It’s a lively and fun post, and we asked if we could excerpt it, so here’s her introduction — click over to read the rest of the post on the Drama League blog.
Professionals Week was one of the most exhilarating, edifying, rewarding, exhausting weeks of my life.
Read the whole blog post at: http://dramaleague.org/blogs/directors-project/professionals-week-musings
A message from Penny
We were saddened this spring to learn that Miguel Romero’s husband, Paul Sheren, passed away suddenly. Miguel and Paul had been partnered for many years when Massachusetts ruled in favor marriage equality. Nonetheless, they got married the very day Massachusetts made it legal, and remained devoted to each other until the day of Paul’s passing. After making a life together in western Massachusetts for many years, they and their dog Hershey moved back to New York City after Miguel’s retirement and enjoyed the return to life in the city.
Paul was always a vocal supporter of Miguel’s work and of the efforts of the Department of Theater in general, and I always enjoyed seeing him at department functions. Paul was a warm, caring, generous person, and he will be sorely missed as a member of our extended UMass Theater community. My heartfelt condolences to Miguel on Paul’s passing.
Naomi Bennett '01 caught us up on a whole bunch of stuff going on in her life: "A lot has happened since I sent an update: In 2011 I left New England to get my M.F.A. in Television, Film and Theatre production (graduated June 2015) at CSULA. While I was in L.A. I had the chance to study with alumna Tanya Kane-Parry (who is a professor at CSULA), directed for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (nominated two years in a row for Best in Dance and Physical Theatre), and dabbled in projection design. In 2015 I drove cross-county to move to Baton Rouge, and have now finished my first year at LSU for my PhD in Communication Studies with a focus in Performance Studies. This fall I will be directing for our black box season, exploring long distance intimacy and performance via social media. My show will be devised and performed through long distance, computer-mediated social media platforms."
Pioneer Valley theater folks can see fellow alumna Toby Bercovici's directing work this summer, alongside a number of alumnae actors. She co-adapts and directs The Life and Death of Queen Margaret featuring the work of UMASS undergraduate alumni Linda Tardif, Kate Hare, and Annelise Nielsen. It performs at Smith College July 29-31 and August 5-6. In the Fall, the production will tour to Colby College, where Bercovici is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater.
We heard from California-based alumnus Greg Hoyt that he appeared in the world premiere of a play called The Engine of Our Ruin by Jason Wells and at the Victory Theatre Center in Burbank.
Emily Courville '99 checked in with a run down of what she's been doing: "After a few years at Hartford Stage Company as their production electrician and moonlighting with local 84 as a light board programmer, I moved on to work for an analysis/software company supporting non profits. 12 years later, i now work directly for a non profit, The Humane Society of the United States, as a Senior Director of Analytics and Research. Random skills gained from my theater degree have made me a much more well rounded project, process and product manager than many of my peers. And I was able to redesign the layout of the offices and cubicles to maximize available work spaces and the flow between departments. No one has asked me to sew anything yet, though I did offer."
Graduate student Claudia Nolan let us know that a member of our extended theater family, MJ Kaufman, just had their play Eat and You Belong to Us put on the Kilroys List, which, as Claudia points out, "is such an awesome recognition and honor."
What are you doing this summer? Send us your updates so we can include them in the next Stages issue! Cool projects, babies, new jobs, awesome honors — we'd love to brag about all you amazing people are accomplishing. Send Us Updates!
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