Third Annual New Play Lab features "What Actually Happened Was" and "The Dance"
By Mary Margaret Hogan | Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Mary Margaret Hogan
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Starting on March 24th, the UMass Amherst Department of Theater began its run for their two productions involved in the third annual New Play Lab. Started by graduate students, the UMass New Play Lab looks over a hundred new plays submitted to them each year and chooses two pieces to be featured as a mainstage production of the department. This year What Actually Happened Was by Stephanie Swirsky and The Dance by Kim Euell were the two chosen for this two-week workshop.
For the New Play Lab, the rehearsal process differs from other department shows. The production team, along with the actors, are only given two weeks of rehearsals. The performances are then portrayed as staged readings (with actors still on script) and have minimal technical designs and elements, as the main focus is the playwright’s play. The rehearsal process is experimental and exploratory, allowing the playwright to continue to work on their scripts while seeing it performed by the undergraduate students. After each performance, a “talk-back” with the audience is held in hopes of gaining insight from viewers regarding the content of the show, and it aids the development of the playwright’s work for future performances. Additional rehearsals after the opening weekend are held at the discretion of the playwright; the piece could possibly even differ from the week’s previous performance.
Playwright Stephanie Swirsky is a BA graduate from New York University and received her MFA in Dramatic Writing from the University of South Carolina. She has been noted for her plays being developed and produced at multiple acclaimed theaters, such as The Brick Theater, The Flea Theater, INTAR, Luna Stage, Theatricum Botanicum, and WordBRIDGE. What Actually Happened Was acts as a commentary on the social lives of college-aged students and surrounds the dismantling of a series of friendships. Actress Elena Nietupski portrays the role of Olivia, who finds herself in a complicated relationship with her friend Eric, played by Erik Long, after a drunken hookup and non-consensual sex. With lines being potentially crossed, the audience watches Olivia unravel with confusion and uncertainty regarding her current ordeals and how she can continue to move forward.
Though the content is heavy with serious subject matters, Swirsky’s text is filled with bits of quirky humor lightening the tone. Throughout the show, scenes are interrupted with quips of text messages shared between the characters of the show with common millennial dialogue, including some frustrating moments experienced with an iPhone’s auto-correct. Other scenes include moments of drunken slurs, dance parties in dorms, cramming for exams, and the trials of living with a roommate, all easily relatable to any college student watching the show. While the centric narrative of Olivia and Eric plays out, characters struggle with significant others, alcoholism, and illnesses. What Actually Happened Was does hold a content warning as it contains scenes referencing rape and violence. With the inclusion of themes that are often difficult to discuss, the play’s modern interpretation centered on a college campus portrays sexual abuse as a subject that requires attention and education for all.
Playwright Kim Euell has developed her plays around the nation in theaters such as Portland’s Imago Theater, The LA Theater Center, Detroit’s Plowshares, Hansberry Theatre, Hartford Stage, Seattle’s Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, among others. Her show The Diva Daughters Dupree was named Outstanding New Show of the Year by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The Dance takes place in the nineties, also known as the “golden-age of hip hop,” set in San Francisco. The shows surrounds the character, Stephen, played by Jorell Watkins, as he meets a fellow artist, Sisha, played by Samantha Henry. Both artists find each other at a similar place in their lives as they struggle to define and create their art while balancing their search for identities and relationships.
Euell’s piece is full of artistry as she eloquently incorporates art, music, and dance throughout the performance. Hip-hop songs from the era, as well as Billie Holiday tunes and operatic ballads, are seamlessly integrated in the performance and drive the story forward. Stephen performs multiple personal soliloquies in the form of spoken word poetry, reminiscent of the nineties hip-hop he holds as an influence for his art. His muse is personified in the performance as a dancer played by Monica Henry who remains unspokenyet does not hide her disdain with Stephen’s romantic interest in Sisha. Meanwhile, the inclusion of the character of activist attorney Mark, played by Matt Crawford, draws conflict between all involved and comments on racial tension prevalent in this era. Though Euell’s piece takes place in the nineties, the encounters between Stephen and Mark stir up conversations regarding race and racial stereotypes still discussed today. Euell’s authentic portrayal of struggling artists searching for inspiration and work while they also begin to recognize and develop their personal integrities and moral codes holds audiences captivated.
The UMass New Play Lab is an experience one should not miss. All production members and actors involved are thoroughly proud and impressed of their work thus far. “Seeing a show deconstructed into its rawest form and building it up from the text has given me a profound respect for theatrical production as a whole. Previously, I had taken for granted that the show I was working on was complete and just needed to placed on stage with the perfect amount of energy. Workshopping a piece deconstructs all of those boundaries and has been an eye-opening experience as a performer,” actor Matt Crawford remarked. This unique performance experience is dependent on audience’s feedback and allows the playwright to continue their endless effort to create a rounded and fully developed show--so come (to a) play. The shows continue next weekend, What Actually Happened Was on March 31st at 7:30 PM and April 2nd at 2 PM and The Dance on April 1st and 2nd at 7:30 PM.