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- Remarks from the Chair
- Remembering production manager Kaz Reed
- Donny Johns: Making a New Musical
- Actor and activist Meredith Wells onstage in Donny Johns
Well, we have wrapped up an incredible semester! First of all, I want to thank everyone who contributed to the successful Minutefund, which raised money for our Fridays at Four career talks. We appreciate your support as we strive to inform students about their career options, introduce them to players in the field, and offer them networking opportunities.
Although the Minutefund is over, there are many other ways you can support this department with a gift, and I want to appeal to you to think of us as you make your year-end charitable donations. We have a number of funds to help our students and if you haven’t Marked Your Spot yet, it’s not too late — we still have seats available.
For those of you who have already Marked Your Spot, the seat plaques are installed. Please let us know when you’re on campus so we can show you to your seat!
Our fall shows, David Adjmi’s pointed Marie Antoinette and the brand-new, home-grown musical Donny Johns, were amazing. I was very proud of our production of Donny Johns, created by professor Gina Kaufmann and Harley Erdman with composer Aaron Jones. All of the performances of this workshop production were sold out, and the feedback sessions after each show were valuable in shaping its future direction. Aaron was a delight and his music is fantastic — he was a great addition to our theater family this fall.
I’m proud of the fact that we took a risk with this production. I think it’s an example of our philosophy of trying new things, of building interesting productions — whether of new musicals or classic plays — rather than trotting out clichés. I think I speak for the department when I say that we’re more interested in artistic challenges than sure things at the box office. (Read more about the show below.)
We continue taking those risks next semester with Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information and the UMass New Play Lab with Stephanie Swirsky and our wonderful playwright in residence, Kim Euell. We close out the year with the topically-relevant Collidescope, which I mentioned in our last issue. (See our mainstage page for more about all of these shows.)
On a sad note, we lost a dear department member, former production manager Kaz Reed, on Nov. 8. I have such great memories of working with Kaz. She was on the search committee that hired me and was the second person I met when I arrived on campus (The late Doris Abramson was the first). Touring the building with Kaz, I immediately felt like we had been working together for years. We clicked right away and as we toured the building, the conversation we had about production and teaching made me feel that I would be in good hands here, an impression later years confirmed. She was thoughtful and kind, yet a perfectionist professional who was so good at negotiating logistics, managing, and teaching stage managers.
I was really sad when Kaz had to leave the department due to health problems, and I was sad that she had to live with those health problems up until the time of her death. Our condolences go to her spouse, Anne Marie DiGiacomo, who took such good care of Kaz during their time together. (You can read remembrances from Kaz's colleagues and students below.)
On that note, I want to wish you all the best this season. Good people are precious, and so is our time here with friends and family. I hope you are surrounded by loved ones this season, and I wish you a wonderful year ahead.
As Penny noted above, we had sad news this fall about the passing of a valued former member of the department, production manager Karen (Kaz) Reed.
We reached out to some of her former colleagues and students and they shared their thoughts about her.
Kaz Reed: A commanding presence with a gentle voice. As extraordinarily competent as she was deeply caring. A woman who gave tirelessly and often at great personal expense to make others feel valued. Kaz brought out the best in us. I have always felt that Kaz was in the top tier of the many wonderful people with whom I was privileged to work at UMass. A prized colleague and a dear friend.
— Julian Olf, professor emeritus
Kaz Reed was the ideal Production Manager: cool under fire, warm and funny in a pinch. She was like justice in action, balanced, truthful, fair. But she was also this amazing person who kept a larger human perspective going no matter what. She never lost sight of people and what they might be feeling or caring about. Did that gift come from her own quiet struggle with severe physical pain, something she kept mostly to herself? Or out of the hard fight she had fought to be who she was? I think so. Kaz was a very big person, and so talented. It was our privilege to know and work with her.
— Dick Trousdell, professor emeritus
Kaz was the very best: A tough no-nonsense professional, a meticulous, demanding yet endlessly patient teacher of stage management, and above all, a warm human being with a superb sense of humor. When a serious health problem forced her to leave us, we were heartbroken. All of us who knew and loved her can only feel the same at the news of her death. Requiescat in pace, dear Kaz.
— Ed Golden, professor emeritus
Kaz Reed also left her mark on the group of alumnae who worked locally and nationally as Sleeveless Theater for many years: Kate Nugent, Lisa Channer, KD Halpin and Maureen Futtner. Two Sleeveless alumnae shared the following.
I first encountered Kaz Reed in the hallway at 112 FAC in 1985, when I was a freshman Theater major and she was teaching Stage Management. I would pass her and Penny Remsen between classes nearly every day; Penny would always call out a booming greeting to me and Kaz would give me a warm, serious nod. I was insanely intimidated by both of them, but moreso by Kaz — she had such a quiet, graceful gravitas as she walked by, balancing her thick stage manager binder and a People’s Market coffee effortlessly.
Fast-forward four years - KD Halpin, Lisa Channer, Maureen Futtner and I had formed Sleeveless Theater after graduation and needed a stage manager to work on our first touring gig at SUNY/New Paltz. Lisa and Maureen actually had the chutzpah to ask Kaz and she said yes. We couldn’t believe she wanted to work with us. When it came time to pick roommates for the B & B rooms that SUNY had booked for us, I got paired with Kaz and my pre-show nerves were not about the show but about sharing a room with such a serious grown-up.
As we turned out the lights in our sleeping room, we heard the settling noises of the old house, including rattling windows and creaking floors. At one point, the door to our room shifted in the door jam and it sounded like someone was trying to get in. Kaz Reed, the serious, intimidating uber-professional stage manager, let out a cartoon-squirrel squeal like nothing I had ever heard. After a shocked pause, we both dissolved into giggles. We whispered and giggled well into the night.
Over the next eight years, Kaz and I were roomies on several national tours and I am so grateful I got to learn from her by day and laugh with her at night.
— Kate Nugent
Kaz Reed. “Kaz Reed Upon Her Steed.” That’s what we used to call her. She came to our rescue like a gallant knight, performance after performance. She was a consummate professional, and I used to brag to peers that we had “the best stage manager in all the land.” Professional acumen aside, my biggest impression of Kaz goes much deeper. Her warmth, her personal generosity, far wiser than her years dictated, and one of those rare friends where I could truthfully say, “she knows me better than I know myself.” Perhaps those qualities made her so excellent at her career. Or was it that she was the kindest person this side of the Mississippi? Or that she had the greatest laugh in the universe?
— K.D. Halpin
Alumnus Joe Salvatore wrote about Kaz in his blog as part of a regular feature he calls Artists I Admire and kindly gave us permission to rerun the piece here.
Artists I admire: Kaz Reed, originator of "skit in the skit house"
In 1999, I made my first interview theatre play with my friend and performance partner Kate Nugent. The play was called fag/hag, and over the next 15 months, we performed that show in Massachusetts, Connecticut, St. Louis, New York, and Philadelphia.
At every step of the way, we were held and guided by our stage manager, Kaz Reed. Kate had worked with Kaz on a number of projects, so they already had a great relationship. Yet they welcomed me as a collaborator with open arms. Little did I know that Kaz would become a real mentor for me as I re-learned how to be a performer in a show and as I transitioned to a new life in New York City. Kaz always had our backs in rehearsal and performance (even when I managed to fall off the stage in St. Louis in a black out), and often times that meant just the right amount of humor to lighten the mood. The three of us sometimes found ourselves crying with laughter, and Kaz rocked back and forth behind her stage manager's table, her incredibly organized space within the chaotic space of creation.
Kaz originated one of the most important sentiments of my career that I use on every project I work on now. I was really nervous about doing the show. I was playing eight people, I hadn't acted in a long time, and it was the first time I was really touring with something as a co-writer and performer. Whenever I started to feel overwhelmed with anxiety, Kaz simply reminded me that it was "just another skit in the skit house." That simple recognition that we were not curing cancer, solving world problems, or running for President reminded me that I needed to relax. I always laughed when she said it, and I've used it countless times since to lift myself out of anxiety in a creative process. I remember standing in the concert hall at the Kennedy Center, frantically working through the tech for the show that I made with the U. S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts, and I managed to calm myself down with "it's just a skit in a skit house." Albeit a skit in a big-ass and important skit house, but a skit house nonetheless. Thank you, Kaz.
There are a number of other memorable Kaz-isms that make their way into my everyday vernacular or memory, but one of her other important contributions to my life came when she introduced me to the work of Pema Chodron. My transition to living in NYC had its ups and downs, and some of the downs were particularly low. When I was really struggling, Kaz recommended one of Chodron's books called When Things Fall Apart, and it gave me a lot of solace in that moment and many moments that followed.
Kaz found and practiced Shambhala Buddhism and eventually moved to Boulder, Colorado to be closer to the center there. One day Kaz explained to me the belief that death was more of a transition than an ending, and that how one lived one's life would directly affect how smooth or rough that transition would be. I don't remember all of the particulars of the conversation, but I remember that Kaz talked about working through difficult things in this part of life and that this would hopefully make for a smoother transition. Those things that we haven't worked through we have to face at the end, and those are the moments that make for a bumpy ride to the next stage. I've never forgotten that sentiment, although there are times when I've been better at practicing it than others.
Kaz moved on to the next stage on November 8 after a long illness. I had lost contact with her after that intensive 15 months, although I never forgot the lessons I learned from her, both about being an artist and being a human being. Thankfully, I got a message to her and her partner Anne Marie before she moved on, and my friend Kate was able to see her as well. I learned of Kaz's passing while I was working on a new project in Ireland, and I had the pleasure of sitting with my collaborator Jenny Macdonald and telling her stories about Kaz, realizing just how grateful I am that she entered my life and changed so many things about it. For all of those reasons, Kaz Reed is the artist I admire for this week. I hope her transition to the next stage has been smooth and filled with grace and peace.
Originally published Nov. 13, 2015. Reprinted with permission from Joe Salvatore's blog. http://www.joesalvatore.com/blog/2015/11/13/artists-i-admire-kaz-reed-originator-of-skit-in-the-skit-house
If you were one of the people who got to see our workshop production of Donny Johns a few weeks ago, consider yourself lucky. Demand for the 6 performances spiked so high that we rationed comp tickets like they were admission to the fountain of youth, added an extra row of seats to the house, and opened a brush-up rehearsal to the general public.
The tickets were such a hot commodity because Donny Johns is a brand-new musical created in a remarkable collaboration between our faculty, our graduate students, and our undergraduate performers (with a number of important guests) — and which our audiences had a strong hand in shaping as well.
The creative minds behind the piece were professors Gina Kaufmann and Harley Erdman, who wrote the words, with guest composer Aaron Jones contributing music. Kaufmann also directed. Halfway through the run, Kaufmann and Erdman sat down to talk about what the experience had meant to them.
“As a process it’s totally exceeded my expectations by about a thousand-fold,” said Erdman. “On a level of just personal joy, just being in a room with Gina and Aaron, our graduate student assistants, the musicians, (music director) Mark Swanson and especially the performers has made me need to be there and want to be there every single night.”
“The word joy feels really right to me,” Kaufmann agreed, “because I found myself so excited outside of rehearsal as well as in rehearsal about the idea that we were in the moment, processing, figuring out, exploring with this group of people.”
Emily Tanch, Lily Fillipatos and Hannah Szydlow as the trio of women Donny Johns
becomes involved with. photo courtesy of Jon Crispin.
The collaboration that led to Donny Johns was spurred by Kaufmann. She had enjoyed directing Marta the Divine, translated and adapted by Erdman, and suggested they work together again. In conversation, they realized that Tirso de Molina’s Trickster of Seville, aka the original Don Juan story, could make a great starting point for a musical. (Many people know Don Giovanni, Mozart’s operatic take on the same tale.)
“Don Juan is the only complex character,” Kaufmann said of Tirso’s piece in a pre-show interview. “And Harley and I were really interested in the three women.” They set out to rewrite Isabel, Ann, and Teresa as fully-dimensional people, and also took on the challenge of writing the privileged Donny Johns as an anti-hero.
Originally slated to compose the piece was Kaufmann’s friend Marc Hollmann (Urinetown), but he had to drop out, and a call for composers connected them with New Yorker Aaron Jones. One long conversation in a coffee shop later, he was aboard, and the three quickly formed a tight-knit group. “Being in a room with Aaron is very inspiring,” said Kaufmann, who loved the modern rock sound he brought to the team.
“He loved the way that his impulses could be part of the process,” she said, adding that the freedom to follow those impulses “made me feel like new parts of me came out as an artist.”
Part of the process was learning how to function as a team.
“The need to wear two hats — of creator and director — has at times been really challenging,” Kaufmann said. She said that when she took off those metaphorical hats and just let herself “be in the room,” she was best able to process what was going on.
“Sometimes it was overwhelming because there were a lot of voices in the room, but ultimately I think I loved that,” she added. “Just an example is Brendan (Lynch, the actor who played Donny) helping me understand a take on Donny’s journey that’s so different than what I would’ve come up with. The lines that he has suggested have really clarified who Donny is and what he wants and what his journey is in my mind.”
Both Kaufmann and Erdman are full of praise for the entire team’s ability to adapt to the evolution of the musical, both during the rehearsal process and during performances.
“What I hoped for, but didn’t necessarily foresee or expect, is that we’d be doing so much rewriting in a positive way, and every scene that we worked on … we tweaked,” Erdman said. Whole new songs have been added in, and old songs or scenes have been cut.
Brendan Lynch as Donny Johns. photo courtesy of Jon Crispin.
The group has had to adapt on the fly, for example when the musical’s opening number was tossed. Each performance included an audience feedback session, and two shows in, a number of people had told them the opener “seems to be wrong of the show,” Erdman said. “We cut the opening number for the third performance, and the actors had 15 minutes to implement it.” It has proven to be the right choice.
“I pride myself on my ruthlessness,” Erdman said. However, he’s found himself backtracking sometimes when he realized that though non-essential, a piece of business still added to the bigger picture.
Kaufmann admitted that it was sometimes hard to make cuts. She finds herself thinking about the work the actors did in rehearsal and feeling bad that the results of that work weren’t in the final piece anymore. “Some of it for me comes with enjoying the actors' work. The actors, they’re pretty great,” she said.
This is hardly the final stage in the work’s evolution. The group made a cast recording and Erdman, Kaufmann and Jones have submitted the piece to a number of nationally-known play-development opportunities.
“We’re very committed to the idea that there will be a next step,” Kaufmann said.
One of Donny Johns’ cast members was theater major Meredith Wells. Her casting marked the first time a student who uses a wheelchair has appeared in a mainstage production. Daily Collegian editor Sarah Gamard interviewed Wells and wrote a profile of her that covered not only Donny Johns but her aspirations as a theater artist, her life as a student, and her campus profile as an activist campaigning for better accessibility to on-campus arts spaces. It was such a good article we contacted Gamard and asked if we could share an excerpt with you, which we do below, followed by a link to the whole piece. Check it out and get to know one of the many fascinating students in our department.
Meredith Wells performs as part of the Donny Johns ensemble. Photo courtesy of Jon Crispin.
Student makes UMass history as first to perform mainstage production in wheelchair
Meredith Wells’ room is neat and organized, with not a pillow or book on the shelf out of place. A Van Gogh poster hangs on the wall (matching the “Starry Night” pattern on the back of her custom-made wheelchair), framed pictures sit at her bedside of her and her friends, and a tapestry drapes over a cozy bed.
Wells, a junior pursuing a bachelor’s degree with individual concentration in musical theater, is the kind of person with an inherently commanding and endearing presence that makes a good performer: she holds herself well, speaks clearly and calmly, and laughs the entire time we talk.
Wells is also the first-ever student to perform in a UMass mainstage production, the sexually charged Donny Johns, in a wheelchair.
“I didn’t come to college in a wheelchair,” Wells said.
Wells’ condition is called autonomic dysfunction, or dysautonomia, which refers to the dysfunction of one’s autonomic nervous system.
Dysautonomia is an umbrella term for all autonomic disorders, according to Wells. She personally has two branches of dysautonomia: postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome and neurocardiogenic synchope.
Basically, Wells said, blood does not flow correctly when she stands. Instead of flowing down to her feet and back up to her brain, the blood remains at her feet. As a result, her brain does not get enough blood flow, her heart starts working really hard and then, after awhile, her heart rate and blood pressure drop, causing her to pass out.
Along with constantly having to educate others on her condition, which affects approximately 500,000 individuals in the United States alone, Wells said adapting to dancing while in a wheelchair has been a lot of work.
“Basically, a lot of what I did was looking at the people who were in wheelchairs and dancing and doing theater and saying, ‘Okay, so they can do a wheelie, and then they can spin around two times. Alright. I gotta be there. I need to be able to do that.’ Or, ‘They can pop off a curb. I need to be able to do that.’ And (I) just slowly learned all these little skills until I can do all these things now, I can do them in time with music, with a cast.”
There have been advantages to being in a wheelchair, Wells said.
“When I go into an audition, I know how to use my chair to my benefit. Like, during my audition for Donny Johns, there’s one point in my song where I rhythmically slam down the chair. And the director was saying, ‘Once you did that, I knew that you knew how to use your chair and we had something to work with.’”
Wells said a lot of performing in a wheelchair – and a lot of success in life in general – is focusing on what you can do instead of what you can’t.
“Having a disability – and I always call it having a different ability – is not as big of a deal. Because it’s just that: it’s different. It’s not less.”
First published Nov. 24, 2015 in the UMass Daily Collegian. Many thanks to UMass student reporter/Collegian assistant editor Sarah Gamard and to the Daily Collegian. Contact Sarah Gamard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hope your fall has been a productive, joyous one. As ever, we encourage you to share with us! Send us your news for the next issue of Stages— send us updates, photos, video links — we would love to see it all!
Sound design professor Amy Altadonna made her acting debut last spring as part of a student end-of-semester project. She said, "It was a revelatory experience for me, and I ended up writing down some of my reflections. An editor from Stage Directions approached me about publishing it, and it just came out in their magazine!"
Not really alumnae, but still part of our extended theater family: playwrights Liz Duffy Adams and Tira Palmquist, whose works were part of our first Play Lab a few years back, are both nominated for the American Theatre Critics Association's 2015 Francesca Primus Prize.
Nefertiti Burton '92 let us know that she is now full professor and chair of the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Louisville in Louisville KY.
Stephen Driscoll '73 got inspired by our strory about Susan Holmes to send us some materials from the wonderful production of Three-Penny Opera that she found so memorable in the story in last Stages. Sure enough, she's on the crew, and he's in the cast.
By the time you read this update, Professor Harley Erdman will be in Sri Lanka for his Fulbright, but traveling halfway around the world is not the only thing he has going on:
"My collection of translations of 10 plays by Spanish Golden Age Women (Women Playwrights of Early Modern Spain) is in the proofing stages and will be published in 2016 by The Other Voice Series (Iter, affiliated with Arizona State University), edited by Nieves Romero-Diaz and Lisa Vollendorf."
Larry Geddes '81 informed us he's been appointed Assistant Director for Dance and Drama Admissions at The Juilliard School in April 2015. He's responsible for recruiting qualified dance and drama students to the College Division, and for overseeing the application process for dancers, actors and playwrights.
Jay Herzog '87 has a remarkable anniversary this year, and we are so glad to read that he is doing well:
"After one of the most difficult times in my life, I get to celebrate my 1 year anniversary of a liver transplant with a play that recognizes living donors. Michael Holllinger's newest play (with 1st time rewrites) Under The Skin will be opening at the Everyman Theatre in Baltimore in January. It will mark my 50th play as the resident designer with the company and not only do I get to share my lighting design, but it fulfills my mission to share the importance of being an organ and tissue donor with the audience. I will serve on a panel and be able to share my story and thanks for making it to this opening. As well, I continue to teach at Towson University. (21 years)"
We told you before that David Korins '99 designed the set for Hamilton, but you really should check out his twitter (https://twitter.com/DavidKorins) to see behind the scenes looks at his work for that show, as well as the wealth of information he posts about other cool projects he's involved in. Those include, recently, the Broadway version of Misery and the upcoming television live broadcast of Grease!
Alissa Mesibov '13 emailed from New York: "It's been a busy few months for me. I started my MFA in Performing Arts Management at Brooklyn College, and in January, I start a year-long development residency at the Public Theater, where I'll be focusing on fundraising efforts for Shakespeare in the Park. To say I'm excited for this would be a massive understatement!"
Brace yourselves, scifi geeks; the aliens are coming back and our very favorite film president (Bill Pullman '80G) is still in the fight! Check out the Independence Day: Resurgence trailer:
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