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- Remarks from the Chair: Friends from South Africa
- Donor Profile: Stephen Driscoll '72
- Judyie Al-Bilali '01G returns to UMass from South Africa, but the country is still much on her mind
- Shaping new plays: Scenic designer John McDermott '92 carves a niche for himself
- Meg Bashwiner '08 writes the Neo-Future
- Andrew DiBartolomeo '11 flips for stunt work in China
- Maari Suorsa '09 improvises a career that takes her from Chicago to New York
Hello everyone —
We here are taking a deep breath after a crazy week full of exciting events, moving performances and making new friends. New-ish faculty member Megan Lewis (who was featured in the previous issue of Stages) worked tirelessly over the past year to bring South Africa's Magnet Theatre to campus for a weeklong residency.
It was a lot of work not just on Megan's part, but from everyone here, and we couldn't be happier with the result. The performances of Every Year, Every Day, I Am Walking, were warmly received and drew a standing ovation from a big audience on closing night. The subject material, the physicality of the piece, its simplicity and emotional impact — it was an extraordinary piece of theater to witness.
The artists were generous with their time, traveling around the Five Colleges to participate in panels, lead workshops, answer questions, and connect with students. They were talented teachers as well as artists, and it was an honor and a privilege to host them.
Click through the slide show below for a glimpse of the week:
If you attended one of the events, or if you were intrigued by the images and accounts of the work, take a look at our new, first-ever study abroad program to South Africa's Grahamstown National Arts Festival, also courtesy of Megan Lewis.
I also want to take a moment to brag about our alumni, a half dozen of whom are featured below in this issue. From China to Chicago and from South Africa to the northern-most tip of Manhattan, UMass alumnae are making theater. I love that so many of you are creating opportunities in inventive and inspiring ways!
A heartfelt thank-you goes to everyone who's donated to our Shed the Shag campaign so far. We've raised nearly $85,000 — a spectacular amount that will allow us to complete a number of the upgrades on our list. We've still got a way to go, and fortunately, we still have a lot of those fantastic shag carpet hearts just looking for a home with a nostalgic alum. Do you want one? Make a donation of $40 or more today! Here's the link.
Finally, I want you to clear your calendars for April 20, because it's going to be a banner day to be at UMass Theater. We've got a great production — Connie Congdon '82G's Casanova — performing twice that day. We've got a devised theater piece created by our graduate students. And as the main event for that day, we've got a one-time only, sure-to-be-amazing special event happening at 5 p.m.
Details are soon to come, but let me just leave you with these inspiring words:
Shed the Shag Fashion Show and Silent Auction.
Over the past few years, we've used our Stages newsletter to introduce you to some people who are supporters of the Department of Theater, who remember their time here when they think about the charitable giving they want to do. For our February issue, we'd like to introduce you to Stephen Driscoll, a loyal alumnus who has supported us for many years, and has had a colorful career in and beyond theater.
Graduating Year: 1972
A Favorite UMass Theater memory: Professor Harry Mahnken directed the end of season production of Anouilh's Becket. I played the Archbishop of Canterbury. I played a lot of old guys! David Zucker, my fraternity big brother, and with whom I was later a member of the Boston Repertory Theater, played Henry II. The same week as opening, the shootings at Kent State occurred. There was considerable discussion about whether the show should go on in light of the enormous upheaval and protests around the country. In fact, the UMass academic year was curtailed. Harry insisted we proceed. I was ambivalent. I was President of my class, back when they still had class officers, and adamantly opposed to the Vietnam War. On the other hand, I was not only a cast member but a work-study employee in the costume shop (which was located in the basement of South College). I had constructed some of the costumes (designed by Professor Liz Weiss-now-Hopper) including gluing the pearls and beads on my Archbishop's mitre and staff. I vividly remember standing backstage on opening night, in full ecclesiastical drag and old man make-up, engaged in a very spirited political discussion while everyone, including Harry and the stage crew, chain-smoked cigarettes on stage to create a smoky effect for the opening cathedral scene. Surreal.
Why do you donate to the Department of Theater? Because even before it was a department, it provided me the opportunity to immerse myself in theater arts, year-round, for the 5 years I was a student at UMass. It made me a well-rounded theater practitioner and prepared me for my work with the National Mime Theatre, my teaching at MIT and my 15 year career as Associate Director and Resident Choreographer of Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston.
Acting in various capacities: An interest in theater takes an alumnus in many directions
When Stephen Driscoll graduated from the University of Massachusetts, it was with a degree in speech because there simply wasn't a degree in theater to be had yet. "I was there for the advent of the Department of Theater," he wrote — after several years' work, the department was officially founded in spring 1973. Stephen also minored in Dance, noting that at the time that discipline came under the auspices of physical education.
Like many a theater major today, Stephen's days were long and included frequents stints onstage, backstage, and in the shops — so much so that his graduation was at one point imperiled.
"I was supposed to graduate in 1971 but I never completed the science/math requirement. I would register for an 8 am math or entomology (or whatever) class but never make it, generally being in rehearsal or working in the costume shop until late at night, and generally not predisposed to rising early. So toward the end of 5 years at UMass I got special 'dispensation' from Dean Jeremiah Allen who had just seen me perform in The Threepenny Opera and kindly waived the requirements," he recalled.
Not surprisingly, Driscoll's interest in theater predated his time at UMass. "I began performing at an early age, tap dancing with my sister at USO shows and staging my own epics like my 3rd grade Pennies From Heaven with umbrellas and real pennies," he recalled. As a teenager, he became even more ambitious, condensing The Merchant of Venice "to what I thought was doable and easily understood by 13 year olds." Driscoll not only played Shylock, he toured the other junior high schools in Quincy.
Meeting a Mentor
Once at UMass, Driscoll was one of many, over the years, who fell into the late Doris Abramson's orbit (in fact, he attended the celebration we held in her honor last fall in the Curtain Theater — see Penny's note above for details).
"I arrived at UMass and barely a week into my freshman year Doris cast me as Myron, the father in her production of Clifford Odets' Awake & Sing!, about a Jewish family in the Bronx during the Depression. After I auditioned, Doris asked how someone with the surname of Driscoll could do such a good Jewish accent. Without a hint of irony I said, 'Well, I played Shylock in junior high school!' She laughed that deep resonant laugh of hers. I was a clueless 18 year old and I think that endeared me to her," he wrote. "She also had endless patience for a precocious, naive yet very opinionated young man."
After graduation, Driscoll stayed in touch with Abramson, who was gratified by her former student's success.
"Fifteen years after leaving UMass, I returned to choreograph and perform at Prof. Marilyn (General) Patton's retirement concert honoring her long Chairmanship of Dance. Doris came to the performance and also to a lecture I gave about dance pioneers Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis. I visited with Doris and Dorothy in New Salem the next day where she commented on my work saying, 'Well! It would appear you got a good education at UMass after all!' I laughed and said, 'Yes! In spite of myself!'" he said. "Doris was also known for giving gifts of books and those she gave to me during my UMass years are still among my most valued possessions."
Wrestling: a different kind of performance
Driscoll's post-graduation resume is packed with theater and dance work, but there's something else on it that isn't what you might usually think of for a performing arts major: professional wrestling.
"Well, I had always been a fan, watching alongside my Sicilian grandparents on Saturday afternoons, listening to them cheer on the Italo-American babyfaces like Bruno Sammartino and Domenic Denucci and yelling 'brutta bestia sonna-ma-bitch' at the heels like Lou Albano and Tony Altimore who gave us Sicilians a bad name!" he explained. When he needed to stage some fights for an opera production, he said "I used it as an excuse to contact Walter 'Killer' Kowalski, who ran an 'Institute' of Professional Wrestling in Salem, Ma."
Driscoll did more than consult Kowalski about fight choreography; he learned how to wrestle. "When I told him I was a lightweight, he said, 'That's okay! I've got broads, I've got midgets, you can train with them!' He was an unusual character, a gentle giant vegetarian with international conspiracy theories. We became good friends, and I learned a lot from him," Driscoll wrote.
Wrestling called upon some of the skills he had already learned through theater and dance.
"Acting, or 'selling' as it's called in the wrestling biz, is a key element of the spectacle. The French essayist Roland Barthes called it 'the iconography of pain'. People often say that professional wrestling is staged or choreographed. Actually is it more like contact improv — and that is professional wrestling's fundamental conceit: musicians know their charts, dancers know their steps, actors know their lines, but pro wrestlers largely wing it," Driscoll explained. "The two wrestlers will know the opening and the finish and some "high spots" in between, but otherwise they improvise, communicating as best they can through gestures and whispers and through the ref as a conduit between the two, and half the possibility of error is reduced because holds are always applied on one side of the body. But as any good actor knows, improv at its best succeeds only about 90 to 95 percent of the time, and getting to even that point requires extraordinary skill and timing, great instincts, and years of experience. For that other 5 to 10 percent, you're left with egg on your face, and in pro wrestling that is deadly. The illusion is destroyed, and pro wrestling absolutely depends on the willing suspension of disbelief. It's a pretty cut-throat business and at the highest level, pretty much a monopoly, run by some rather unsavory individuals. We work with new, aspiring talent and I always urge them to explore other interests. It's a business which takes its toll on you both physically and emotionally. And there are few protections. Any attempt to unionize has always been squashed. For all that, the choreographer in me is still utterly fascinated by the endless potential for kinetic sculpture and primal drama inherent in wrestling."
Kowalski never had Driscoll fight in the ring — he believed that wrestlers should be big. "Instead," Driscoll writes, "I refereed and ring-announced for his shows and for his TV program Bedlam from Boston. It was through Walter that I met the British promoters who opened their doors to me as a wrestler and that eventually lead to me becoming a wrestling promoter."
Entering the arena of politics
In addition to his involvement in the wrestling world and the arts, in recent years, Driscoll found himself increasingly drawn to politics, albeit in in a behind-the-scenes role. Like his love of theater, dance and wrestling, this, too, has its roots in his childhood.
"As a little kid, my mother and aunt shlepped me to the polls with them to hand out palm cards. I was President of the Student Council and President of my Class in High school and at UMass," he wrote. As an adult, he was urged by Congressman Barney Frank — "a big wrestling fan himself!" — to help found National Stonewall Democrats. Now in his eighth year as Co-Chair of that organization, Driscoll's been a delegate to many national conventions and serves on the Executive Committee of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.
When he came to our celebration of Doris Abramson, the presidential election was four days behind him and he was still decompressing.
"This was perhaps the most nerve-wracking campaign that I can remember. I spent the summer doing Shakespeare at Oxford University and so for almost 2 months I was blissfully unaware of most of the machinations of the campaign but upon my return I was thrust back into the fray within 48 hours, organizing events for the National Convention in Charlotte," he said "Thereafter I spent the campaign working in Broward County, Florida where politics is a contact sport and a lot more real than professional wrestling!"
He speaks from experience: Although he has a home in Massachusetts, Driscoll and his husband spend winters in Florida and so have a personal stake in the political goings-on of that state as well.
With that behind him, Driscoll's looking to refocus his life a little bit. "I'm in recovery from a bout with cancer — well on my way to 3 years without a recurrence. As often happens when smacked upside the head by one's biological mortality, you do some reassessing. My political involvement and my business endeavors did not wane but my desire to get back to my performance roots came to the fore," he said. Driscoll enrolled at the British American Drama Academy at Oxford University this summer. An intensive summer conservatory for actors over 18, the program "concentrates on classical acting with an emphasis on Shakespeare," according to the BADA website.
He has a specific goal in mind: "It's time for that 13 year old boy to realize that long-deferred dream of playing Shylock."
Judyie Al-Bilali '01G sees something auspicious and cyclical in the fact that she's spending this spring directing Suzan-Lori Parks' play, Venus, at her alma mater.
Venus asks the audience to consider the story of Sarah Baartman, a Khoisan woman from South Africa and toured around Europe. Her body was seen as hypersexual and exotic by Europeans, who were fascinated with the generous proportions of her hips and buttocks and flocked to see her. Baartman died in Europe, and the questions still rage today about how much of a hand she had in her own story.
Al-Bilali, who went to UMass for both her undergraduate and graduate degrees (the latter an MFA in directing), spent several years in South Africa first as a visiting artists and then as a Fullbright scholar and while there, bore witness to the country's efforts to repatriate Baartman's remains.
"I went to South Africa soon after I graduated from the department. I was the first exchange artist sent from the Augusta Savage Gallery, which is the gallery in the Afro-Am Department. My dear friend and long-time collaborator Terry Jenoure sent me," Al-Bilali said. Jenoure had visited South Africa and was so impressed she set up the exchange program with the country. Al-Bilali went for 3 weeks, meeting with artists, visiting programs in Johannesburg and Capetown.
"I was completely taken with the country. I loved the sense of creativity, the spirit of the people. I was made to feel very welcome," she said.
Among the friends she made there was Diana Ferrus, who familiarized her with the story. She had written a poem about Sarah Baartman that went viral on the internet and ended up being part of the argument eventually that convinced France to send Baartman's remains back to South Africa in 2002.
When Al-Bilali got on the plane after her exchange, she said, "I knew I was coming back."
Back in the United States, she wrote a Fullbright proposal based on a phenomenon that had fascinated her while she was in the country.
"South Africans love to talk about social issues, politics and culture," she said. In these discussions, she noticed that people often hesitated when they discussed the changes the country had undergone: "Since… 1994" or "Since… the change." She heard, furthermore, that people rarely used the same terms.
"What South Africa went through at the end of the 20th century was one of the most remarkable social evolutions," she said, and sometimes beyond the scope of description.
"They were looking for new language," she said, and she wrote a Fullbright proposal based around this idea — which was accepted. Ferrus had introduced her to contacts at the University of the Western Cape, which had written a letter in invitation, and armed with the Fullbright and that invitation, she returned to the country to teach in the university's English department (there was no drama department) and establish extra-curricular drama courses. She founded an applied theater company, Brown Paper Studio. (Applied theater is when companies take theater into community organizations, schools, prisons and the like.)
She eventually stayed for several years as the Fullbright foundation extended her Fellowship, bringing her son. She also taught for University of Virginia's Semester at Sea, where her daughter joined her.
These experiences, plus her personal life as she lived in South Africa and dealt with her family, including her elderly parents, came to form the narrative of her book, For the Feeling, which is available through online book sellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Now back in this country, Al-Bilali continues to value the idea of using theater for the community. She teaches at New York University in its Steinhardt Program for Educational Theatre; some of her courses allow her to draw specifically on her experiences in South Africa. She's also a thesis reader for City University of New York — and, of course, directing Venus for UMass Theater.
This is Al-Bilali's first time directing a Parks play, although she's seen a number of them. (Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winner in 2002 for Topdog/Underdog, graduated from Mount Holyoke College.)
"I've seen things, but I've never studied her work," Al-Bilai said, and she's blown away by it. "It's a whole other place to sit in her work. I'm so impressed by the theatricality of it, the poetry, the depth and the incisiveness."
During a conversation with John McDermott '92, you start to notice that when he talks about the plays for which he's doing the scenic design, he uses "new" as a modifier a good bit. There's a reason for it: New plays have become something of a niche for him over his time as a scenic designer, and it's one he values.
"You're the first person ever to give it a shape," he said of the charms of working with previously untried work. "What I do is sort of a service — and since I do mostly new plays, it's to the play." Currently he's working on a new play by a fairly new playwright, albeit one with a familiar name — Jesse Eisenberg's The Revisionist opens this spring; it's the second of Eisenberg's works to include McDermott on the design team.
He doesn't just do new works — McDermott's career includes credits designing for theaters of all shapes and sizes all over the city, and some interesting out-of-town credits, as well. In addition, he's about to embark on his first real teaching stint, initiating undergraduates into the world of scene design at Adelphi University.
Still, it's the many fledgling works he's helped along the way that dominate the conversation, and currently, he's busy creating a design for The Revisionist, produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at Cherry Lane Theatre.
McDermott has a long-standing relationship with Rattlestick, which specializes in new and up-and-coming work — his first design gig in New York was with the company, and he's been a mainstay of their creative teams ever since. The Revisionist is by Jesse Eisenberg — yep, the actor from that facebook movie. Eisenberg made a well-received Off-Broadway debut in 2011 as a playwright with Asuncíon, with Rattlestick, and McDermott designed that one, too.
McDermott said, "(Jesse) said to both me and the director (Kip Fagan), 'You guys know what you're doing, tell me if I'm being in the way, if I'm interfering or offering stupid suggestions.' He was so nice about that — we wanted him to be pleased and we want to listen to everything, but he also gave us room to work."
Eisenberg landed acting royalty for this newest play, which follows a young man as he travels to Poland and reconnects with family there. As McDermott tells it, Eisenberg had not intended to act in the piece. He got the script into the hands of Vanessa Redgrave, not really thinking she'd take him up on it, especially not at a small Off-Broadway house. When she did, he decided to act in it.
At the time of this interview, rehearsals had just started, and McDermott said that when he was introduced to Ms. Redgrave, she had immediately taken an interest in his work.
"Apparently she had very strong ideas on what the set was going to be," he said. They had a long conversation about the set, and some of her suggestions are being incorporated into his design.
"She is very smart and kind and fascinating to watch," McDermott said.
Aside from that project, he's got a repeat customer in Karen Allen. She was recently in the cast of a play he designed, and is now back as a director of western Massachusetts native Lucy Thurber's Asheville — which he's also designing. Rattlestick is doing a festival of Thurber's work later this year, and he's slated to design some of those as well. The Mentor Project at the Cherry Lane (Rattlestick and Cherry Lane are separate entities, although Rattlestick uses the venue to produce some of its work) brings new playwrights together with established mentors, and McDermott will design sets for a number of those productions.
A school in the Inwood neighborhood where he lives has become home to a company founded by a number of theater artists who live nearby and were tired of trekking to the other end of the island — he did a show there in the fall.
"I love stuff like that. If somebody really wants to do a play and they really want me to do it, I will do it," McDermott said. "I've turned down 1 show in New York and it ran 6 months. I'm never going to do that again!"
"I'm always working so I can't complain about that," he said. "I'm doing very well artistically, I think."
Click below to hear an audio clip of McDermott talking about one of the things he loves about theater:
A new skill to try out
Still, it's in part the desire for a something more financially steady that spurred him to look into teaching.
For some years, in addition to his theater work, he's managed an antiques and collectibles store in Inwood — fun as well as handy, since the place became sort of an extended prop closet for him. The store's owners are closing up the shop, though, and he felt like it was time for him to move on anyway.
"I just want to try a new skill, which is why I was interested in doing it," he said of teaching.
He heard of the Adelphi position through the school's costumer, Sean Sullivan, a friend from his MFA program at the University of Washington.
He worked mostly in the scene shop there, teaching students one-on-one. He did teach one semester in a traditional classroom setting, and he's been brushing up on his skills by talking to friends, who reminded him, "You know more than they do — that was actually something good to remember."
Of course, he has plenty of first-hand knowledge about succeeding in the business, and is happy to share when asked to pass on some bits of advice.
"One of the things I've learned on the last four or five years is that the social side of theater is so important, and I never gave it any weight. I thought if your work is good you'll be hired, and now I know that's not the only part of any equation," he said. His former partner, though in the business, was not inclined to socialize, so now that he's single, he's making a point of getting out more, seeing more theater.
"Every encounter with someone is a job interview!" he said, laughing as he added, "If Joe Mantello comes up to you on the street with a knife in his hand — it's a job interview!"
Click through the images below for a glimpse at McDermott's varied work:
Thirty plays in 60 minutes — that's the challenge the Neo-Futurists tackle nightly in their long-running Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.
The piece, an ever-changing mélange of funny and serious, scripted and improvised short pieces performed by a rotating cast of writer-performers, is famously associated with the Chicago theater scene. However, for almost a decade, that group has had a successful creative outpost in New York City known by the acronym NYNF, and for over four years now, UMass Theater alumna Meg Bashwiner '08 has been working with the New York Neo-Futurists, most recently as one of the cast of writer-performers.
It's a job that extends far beyond the hour she spends onstage several nights a week, and even beyond the time she spends writing, submitting and rehearsing new pieces under consideration for the show. The company takes off-site gigs with high schools and in other settings and crafts full-length pieces. The artists run the company and are involved in steering its future, so in addition to her creative roles, Bashwiner is tasked with development work and grant-writing.
"It's very much a lifestyle, not so much a job," she laughed.
Bashwiner started working with the company shortly after she graduated, taking an internship on the technical side. It was not her area of expertise, but, she said, "My great UMass education made me hang lights and stuff so I knew how to do that."
From there, she transitioned to a more in-depth internship, then to designing Too Much Light. She began producing what the company calls its "primetime shows" — the full-length works the group creates that often run concurrently with Too Much Light or in other venues. Finally, in 2011, Bashwiner auditioned for the company as a writer and actor and was accepted.
Once you've auditioned successfully, Bashwiner said, you spend 10 weeks working intensely with a mentor, honing your writing and acting skills, before you're officially voted into the company. The trick to Too Much Light is that there are 30 plays — those plays change as the writers create new ones. Furthermore, at each performance, the audience determines the order in which those plays are performed. (At the end of the year, the team deviates from this formula by choosing their favorites from the preceding year, rather than mounting new pieces.)
Here's a youtube clip to give you a sense of what a show is like:
Now that she's part of the company, Bashwiner performs about 30 weekends a year in the company's signature show. She has also written a number of the short plays that are performed nightly, as well as some longer pieces. Most recently, her work was seen in Civilized, a suite of 16 short plays based on George Washington's Rules of Civility.
Asked how she sees herself, Bashwiner replied that she thinks of herself primarily as a writer. "Every show, I always play 'me'," she said, explaining why she doesn't see herself so much as an actor.
Her interest in writing started at UMass, which she chose in part because she liked the Fine Arts Center and could see herself working in it. "I really liked the Rand Theater, as orange as it was," Bashwiner said.
Although she came in as a theater major, "I didn't really get into the theater program until my junior and senior year; my freshmen and sophomore years I was caught up in UMass," she said.
She found a combination of opportunities including a Contemporary Rep class which she described as "breaking the mold of my conventional knowledge of theater" and Milan Dragicevich's Detonated Language class, wherein students were often called upon to write pieces they would perform for the class.
She was cast in American Klepto by Allison Moore, a piece the playwright workshopped on campus, and the opportunity to meet her and see her at work left an impression. So did the opportunity to hear Tony Kushner, who delivered the Rand Lecture while Bashwiner was a student here.
"I was so star-struck by him, I couldn't talk to him. I snuck backstage and had an awkward moment with him," she recalled, laughing.
In a neat turn-around, Kushner came to see one of the Neo-Futurists' primtetime shows last September: The Complete Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill, Volume 1 — "and he liked it!" she said.
Bashwiner is happy in her artistic home and plans on at least 5 years there as a performer and "getting her writing chops up."
After that? She thinks maybe sitcoms, maybe plays. She is open to any opportunity: "Anyone who will pay me to write words!"
UMass Theater folks travel pretty far afield after they graduate, but even so, it's not every day an alumnus comes back all the way from China to visit us here in Amherst. Andrew DiBartolomeo '11 holds the distinction of being the only one, so far, and he brought a good story.
Since several months after his graduation, he's been living and working in China, being part of what he says is one of the largest theme park stunt shows in the world.
Stunt work is something DiBartolomeo has been interested in for some time. "They're the guys who could do the stuff the lead guys wouldn't," he said, and he wanted in.
Interested in learning more, he hit the internet and Googled his way to the International Stunt School in Seattle, WA.
"My parents paid half as a graduation present," he said, and during an intensive course in August 2011, he learned his way around a variety of stunt work: "fighting, cars, rappel work, wire work."
After graduation, he spent about a month and a half casting about for work until the school's director called him — a theme park in China was looking to hire, and they needed tall guys.
DiBartolomeo sent in his application although he was skeptical.
"He told me I probably wouldn't get it because I didn't have much experience — but four days later I got the job," he said. A few days after that, he was on a plane to China, and 2 weeks after that, he started performing in shows. (And then in a less auspicious milestone, he says with a laugh, a few days after that, he dumped a motorbike over and had to get stitches.)
The show DiBartolomeo performs in is pretty straightforward, going by his description: "Lead bad guy wants to take over the world." He attacks, there are fights, and inevitably, he loses. DiBartolomeo has played a variety of roles in the piece, include the hero and villain, a henchman of the villain and a helper to the hero. In the course of the action, depending on which character he's playing, he drives a car, ATV and motorcycle, as well as something called a high-wire bike.
Watch this clip of DiBartolomeo in action (edited by his sister) to see what he's talking about.
Joining DiBartolomeo for the show (which runs several times a day, more on holidays) is an eclectic mix of martial artists and stunt masters from around the world.
The Chinese martial artists are usually called on to lose for the parts they play, but DiBartolomeo is under no illusions: "Outside the show, any one of them could kick our asses," he laughed.
Aside from China, his co-workers hail from the US, Canada, Ukraine, Australia, Brazil, and Moldova. Most everyone speaks a tiny bit of Chinese or a little bit of English and as for the rest, "80 percent of communication is non-verbal," DiBartolomeo said.
The show has dialogue, he says, that's in Chinese, but it's broadcast over loudspeakers so he just has to mime it. "You make up what it sounds like until you figure out what the real words are," he explained.
DiBartolomeo relayed all this while on break between contracts — he was originally signed for an 8-month contract, but he was recently signed up for a second contract, this one for 17 months. Though he works in China, the show he's in is organized by Mirage Entertainment, an American-based company.
He hopes that American connection will be an eventual stepping stone to work closer to home — whether in Germany or the USA, or even, eventually, in film.
If you spend any time with the alumni mailing lists, it quickly becomes obvious that there's an impressive UMass Theater outpost in Chicago. For years now, alumni have headed there to make a name for themselves in a vibrant theater, comedy, and improv scene. Case in point: Maari Suorsa '09, who is currently playing Dale in Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche.
Created by The New Colony, this hilarious show's premise is pretty much what the title says, with the addition of audience interaction, 1950s atom bomb jokes, and some twisty family secrets. After well-received runs in Chicago and elsewhere, and making a splash at the 2012 Fringe Festival, Five Lesbians was picked up for an extended run at New York's Soho Playhouse from August to December and is now running a weekend a month.
"It's been insane, insanely cool and kind of unheard-of," Suorsa said of the gathering momentum behind the piece, which got a boost from, among others, the New York Times' Ben Brantley. Suorsa and her cohorts have spent much of the past 6 months flying back and forth between Chicago and New York. They log a few days at home and at their day jobs (Suorsa works at a home brewing supply store, others have jobs with understanding fellow theater artists or flexible employers like Groupon) before heading back east.
"We're all improvisers being like, is this what real life is? Do people do this, fly you to New York every weekend? No!" Suorsa said.
Not bad for a woman who self-identified as "the bottom of the barrel theater student. Every teacher was like, 'why are you here?'"
A comedian from the start
It wasn't for lack of interest; it was that her interest wasn't so much traditional theater as improv and comedy. Suorsa had been a theater kid from early on but focused on sports in high school because she didn't like the school's drama program.
"But I was really into comedy, so I started doing stand-up open mics in bars in New Hampshire at 16, 17," she explained, recounting how her mother drove her to gigs and enrolled her in stand-up classes at a local community college.
At UMass, she discovered improv. In her second semester, she auditioned for IWA, and then later joined Mission Improvable as well. At the time she was in the groups, they were quasi-professional organizations who got paying gigs and took trips out to Chicago during school breaks to learn from the masters of the field. "We took it really seriously," she said. "It's where all my focus went."
By senior year, Suorsa wasn't going to classes much anymore (in fact, she's technically still 3 credits shy of a degree), and three days after the school year ended, she got on a plane to Chicago.
She had sent word to a UMass friend, Andy Hobgood, who was part of a theater company, The New Colony, that she was coming. He sent a friend to pick her up from the airport and bring her to a rehearsal of the company's then-in-production musical, Tupperware.
The group immediately made her feel at home — by the end of the rehearsal, Suorsa laughed, Hobgood had appointed her to do front-of-house for Tupperware, and another company member had gotten her a job.
The actors as co-creators
At New Colony, she explained, you don't audition. "They tell you the show you're going to be in. We do everything a little bit backwards. I mean, you can't audition for a character that doesn't exist yet."
The company does all original work, coming up with a premise and lining up collaborators and cast members, Suorsa said. Those cast members are given basic information about who they are and what their function is in the play and go off to work on creating a full character. Then, she said, the director and writers "pick your brain about who you are," and how you would react to other characters and certain situations, and craft a piece from there. The company's philosophy, she explained, is that the actors are the experts on the character, the writers are experts on story, and the director is the expert on audience experience.
Even after the piece is committed to paper, the scripts allow for improv both among cast members and with the audience.
Click below to listen to an audio interview clip of Suorsa talking about how interactivity and improv are affecting theater:
Five Lesbians Eating A Quiche was a joke title Hobgood spit out when a friend at a party asked him what play the company was working on. When Chicago's Sketchbook Festival called him to ask if New Colony was working on anything for the festival, he repeated the joke, only to have the organizers take him at his word. Quickly, he called together 5 actresses, included Suorsa, and got to work.
Their collaboration was incredibly fruitful — the piece was a hit and the company was asked to turn it into a full-length piece. Fellow theater alumnus Kevin McClintock designed the set. Some casting changes occurred along the way, and the group has gone from Fringe to Off-Broadway. The piece has been picked up by Samuel French (with Suorsa and the other actors getting credit along with the writers for their work on creating the characters).
"It took Kevin McClintock to be like, 'You know that you're an all-female cast, and that girls are going to be picking up this play to find a contemporary comedic monologue…. What're you going to do when you're 50 and on the other side of the table and like, some girl whips out Dale's Dad monologue?' I would just lose my mind!" said Suorsa with a laugh.
Watch this interview with the actresses (some in character) to see Suorsa in action:
A brief message for USITT attendees from June Gaeke:
Those of you who will be attending the USITT National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, between March 20th and the 23rd, I really look forward to catching up on your careers and getting you all together for another reunion. This will be our second annual reunion! If you plan to attend the convention, please email me with your cell phone numbers, and I will email you mine in return. June Gaeke (email@example.com).
In our bid for artistic world domination, we've got a few places you can find us online.
If you haven't yet, head on over to Twitter and facebook for updates, behind-the-scenes sneak-peeks at our productions, special event information, and opportunities to win free tickets!
OK, peeps. This is how you do it. Behold Imani Denson-Pittman '06, making up for several years of radio silence with an epic update! Here goes:
Imani Denson-Pittman '06
So this email has been avoiding being written for months really. So I'm going to nail it to the floor and send it to you now. I entitle this "Imani's Ultimate Update," so here it goes.
So what has Imani been up to since he's graduated from UMass? Well that's a lot of time commitment to go into great detail and you nor I have that kind of time so I will condense the last six almost seven years into something entertaining while informative. Right after graduation I applied for an internship with The Roundabout Theater Company as a teaching artist. I was selected, but before I could move I ended up passing out at the Blue Wall on campus, taken to the hospital and there afterwards had to stay in Mass to make sure it wouldn't happen again, thus ending my Roundabout Career before it could start.
I ended up being a secretary for the UMass Disability Services office for the year. I was cast in the UMass Dept. of Theater's production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, directed by Keith Langsdale. During Chalk I was contacted by a friend whom I had met that previous summer after I graduated about moving into his apartment in NYC. Not a day later another friend in NY let me know he was moving for the Peace Corps. and if I wanted his job I could have it without interview.
So in this storm of happenstance I moved to NYC! There, I lived with two people who had previously been in the touring company of Rent. While I was getting my NYC sea legs I applied to production design a film called The Gilded Cage. In addition, I signed up with Central Casting at the behest of another alum, Michelle Romano. Through this company I had extra roles on TV shows such as The Return of Jezebel James (with Parker Posey, Lauren Ambroise and Michael Arden), Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Blue Bloods, as well as the films When In Rome and The Dictator. Right after The Gilded Cage, I was cast in an Off Off Broadway production of a play called Larry and the Werewolf where I played Harlequin and 3rd Centurion for 6 months.
During this time, I met a Carnegie Mellon University grad (Adam Koch) who happened to be a day older than I, as well as a set designer. Thus a very long and continuing professional relationship blossomed. We are currently concluded our 11th production together, Dreamgirls which opened November 29th at Signature Theater in Arlington, VA. It was nominated for several Helen Hayes Awards. Previous works include Off Broadway's: Pinkalicious, Freckleface Strawberry, and Rooms. Regional Productions of Bye Bye Birdie, Sweet Charity, Call Me Madam, and the upcoming Hello, Dolly! at Ford's Theater directed by Eric Schaeffer (Broadway's Follies).
I am also currently producing a benefit concert with a friend. This will have better updates as things get solidified. Most recently as a performer I was back-up dancing and singing vocals for Molly Pope for the final show of Our Hit Parade at Joe's Pub, Dec. 19th in NYC.
Finally I will be working on the recently announced Miss Firecracker Contest revival on Broadway directed by Judith Ivey, as the assistant set designer with Adam Koch designing. I'm pretty sure this is everything. Hope this finds you well. Miss you all.
Alan Ball '87 is very happy to have earned his MFA in Acting and returned to the working world. This year that means a lot of traveling, with shows in Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Nevada and four shows in Michigan, including a third season at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, where he has been named an Artistic Associate.
Rob Corddry '93 has been on a roll lately, with a new movie (Warm Bodies) talks of a sequel (Hot Tub Time Machine), and a TV pilot (Spy), as well as time spent at Sundance plugging upcoming project. Our favorite bit of PR, in fact, comes from Sundance. Watch as this interview spirals out of control.
Jacob Hellman announced that his short play Anchored received its American premierein January as a part of the Taste of Honey Theater Festival in New Haven, Connecticut.
Faculty member Gilbert McCauley and graduate student Adewunmi Oke spent time in Arkansas this january, where Gilbert directed Gee's Bend for Arkansas Repertory Theatre, while Adewunmi served as dramaturg.
Professor Emeritus Julian Olf let us know he's got a number of his works getting a public viewing in the valley and beyond and that he'd love to see you there. "My play, Twins, will be read this month by the Northampton Playwrights Lab. The lead female role will be read by alum Eliza Greene-Smith. In March, my play War Hero will be staged by Theatre Odyssey of Sarasota. The biggest piece of news concerns a staged reading of my new play PERSONALS: A Love Story For The Stage. The reading will occur on February 23 at 7 p.m. as part of the Playwrights Reading Series at the Abingdon Theatre on 312 West 36th Street, 1st Floor, between 8th & 9th Avenues, Midtown Manhattan. Admission is free. The reading will be directed by alum Sheila Siragusa and performed by alums Claire Kavanah and Matt Perry. Alums in NYC - come check it out!
Mark O'Maley '07 writes: "Just completed my MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College, and have been appointed assistant professor of theater and dance at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. The first week of December '12 will find me at Indiana University of Pennsylvania collaborating with Jeannie-Marie Brown '06G , where she is on the faculty. A new piece, The Livingstone Project is based on the journals of Dr. David Livingstone that have undergone Spectral Imaging to reveal more of his writings. Fingers crossed the piece will then head to Scotland for performances there. Additionally I'm working on another new piece, Lean Back with Brattleboro, VT based performer Bronwyn Sims. James McNamara '08G is the sound designer. The piece will have a work-in-progress showing the 14th of December at Franklin Pierce University.
Sheila Siragusa '03G will be directing Sunset Limited at New Century Theatre this summer, and the play will feature Gil McCauley as an actor.
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