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Erin Hamilton, Class of 2018

Erin Hamilton '18

Pursuing a dual degree in Theater and Sociology (SBS), Erin Hamilton employs her sociological background to her theatrical ventures. She discusses her senior thesis project, her recent experiences in the UMass Amherst theater department, and her aspirations after graduation.

What lead you to choose a double major in Theater and Sociology? 

When I was in high school I took a sociology class as an elective and I really enjoyed the class, so I looked more into the study itself. I found it so interesting that I decided to make it my major. As for theater, I had always loved performing, but I didn’t know if I wanted to pursue it officially or if it was a feasible path for my collegiate career. When I came to UMass as a sociology major, I took the beginners acting technique class, Theater 140 and discovered I really liked the educational atmosphere.

The majors actually really go hand and hand together. Everything you are acting out is somehow a performance of a social construction or just based on societal norms. I’ve always been the kind of person that wonders why things are the way they are in society. During my senior year of high school, I was in a production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and I was constantly thinking about the sociology of childhood itself. Why do kids vary in their behavior? How do these kids’ backgrounds affect their growth? The show is very stereotyped, but it allowed me to make my own connections how real life can be portrayed in theater. Theater is a platform for someone’s truth.

Beyond your theatrical resume and dance background, you also have maintained positions at an elementary school and as a nanny. Do these jobs correlate with your sociological studies?

I’ve worked with kids for several years and I currently nanny two boys that keep me on my feet. Last year I worked at an elementary school, and recognized that bullying has become a much stronger presence throughout the school day. When I was in elementary school, I experienced bullying as do many others, but the epidemic seems even more common with the increase of social media.

Witnessing these instances, I decided I want to investigate this development. Why are these kids being bullied? Why are kids bullying other kids? Then I decided to look at this phenomena in a high school atmosphere and how it perpetuates throughout childhood to young adulthood. What are the roles of the bystanders? What happens to these victims when their older? In college, people are harassed and bullied still to this day and the cycle doesn’t seem to stop.

Everyone’s definition of bullying is skewed one way or another, so people may not think they’re adhering to the problem. Of course there’s a nominal definition of bullying in the dictionary, but everyone’s threshold is different. It’s hard for people to see when boundaries are crossed and their behavior is harmful to another person’s well being or when they themselves have been victimized.

At the beginning of next semester, you are directing a production of Carrie: The Musical, based on the classic Stephen King novel, for your thesis. Explain a little bit about your process prior to casting the production and your rehearsal process.

I’m an honors student departmentally with sociology so I’m required to do some form of thesis. I didn’t want to just write a paper because I didn’t feel that it would encapsulate both my sociology and theater appropriately, so I opted to do a project instead. Getting a certificate in Social Work and Social Welfare, my interests lie particularly in the well-being of people beyond the statistics of the people. After a discussion with my sociology advisor, we determined I was more interested in researching the relationship between teenage girls and the transition from adolescence to adulthood from a theatrical perspective.

I wanted to focus on a show about high schoolers because I wanted the experience to be relayed as realistic as possible so I chose Carrie: The Musical for my thesis. I felt that a cast of college students could not only still resemble high school students, but hone in on their own experiences from their educational past and provide some truth to their characters.  I read Carrie the summer before my freshman year of high school and after I read it, I saw the movie and continued to really enjoy its darker themes. During high school, my good friends and I came across the musical production of Carrie and it was pretty true to the text! I became obsessed with its obscurity and the history of the lackluster Broadway run. Though there are some factors in the show that are unrealistic, Carrie has always stuck with me because of the bullying aspects and I think many can relate to any one of the characters in this show. The thematical elements in this show are super powerful and the small town setting displays this could happen anywhere. One person experiencing bullying constantly is a harsh reality that occurs everyday in a large number of places.

I had to a lot of research on the sociological aspects of Carrie. I surrounded my thesis on the main theme of bullying, high school experience, and then prom. In the spring semester of 2017, I did an independent study where I read scholarly journals, articles, and peer-reviewed papers and gathered as much information as I could on those three topics. From there, I wrote a literary review in order to get my research approved. When that was approved, I began preparing for the production. I got the rights, I got a space, I hired a tech team, and started blocking the show.

Even though the script of Carrie doesn’t explicitly say all the details presented in the book, our cast and crew have been dedicated to flushing out all the thematic elements. The audience can still very much witness the original intensity written in the book.

When working on Carrie in a rehearsal space, how do you get your actors to think about the sociological aspects of this project?

When working on Carrie in rehearsals, we normally start off with table work and discuss the arc of the scene prior to staging it. For instance, when tackling a scene with my actors portraying Carrie and the mother, Margaret we first started talking about the roles of power, familial love, and religion all within their dynamic as mother and daughter. Within the students, we have a range of archetypes being portrayed such as the nerds, the jocks, the popular girls, and so on. Prior to rehearsals, I ask my student ensemble to think of their trope and make strong choices throughout our rehearsal process to physicalize those traits so they are easily conveyed to the audience. Later, we dissect why they associated that trait with their character and investigate why their character portrays themselves that way within the realm of high school hallways.

As part of my project for this semester, I have to take diligent notes throughout the rehearsal process. Whether it’s the cast reflections on their scenes or their characters, or their questions surrounding the sociological aspects, I record it … We’re hoping to bring in local high school students and provide a musical theater workshop as well as sit down with them and discuss our show. Hopefully showing theme some scenes and receiving their feedback, we can ask which portrayals reign true or relatable to their high school experience, or on the contrary, feel inaccurate or forced.

Your production of Carrie is showing in the newly renovated Old Chapel as its premiere theatrical performance. How you were granted this new performance space and how does the space amplify your production?

Over the summer, the UMass Theater Department sent out their weekly newsletter and announced that the Old Chapel would now be available for performance spaces. Since the religious aspects are so integral to this show, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate space to apply for. It adds a dramatically eerie element to the performance and throws the religious undertones right in our audience’s faces. The space manager, Melissa Cleary, and I both agreed that Carrie would be the perfect production to utilize Old Chapel. Once we move into the space, we’re interested in documenting our process as it is a new space for many! There is a completely new light and sound system that our crew is going to be working with and essentially paving the way for artists to come into the space!

An actor and now a director, how has your involvement in past productions assisted you in tackling Carrie? Who are some notable people who have propelled your knowledge?

I feel that I am a stronger director because of my experience as a dancer and an actor. I understand the frustrations that an actor can have in a rehearsal process and the hesitancy involved in admitting something is not working within a scene. I think being able to see it from both sides, I’m more apt to keeping my actors confident, happy, and productive.

In terms of influences, I feel privileged to have met my mentors Martha Cuomo and Sheila Siragusa throughout my involvement in the department. They are individuals who I’ve really looked up to throughout my education here at UMass, not only as artists but as a strong female role models. They are both so knowledgeable and humble and bring out the best work in everyone they oversee.

Even in just terms of high school, my influences in dance Joan Sheary and Kellie Shea provided me a strong sense of movement that I translate heavily into my directing today. As for theater Aimee Kewley and Jeremy Woloski, they created a safe-community for me to be immersed in the world of theater and I will forever be thankful. Some of the stage pictures create as I direct I know I would not have been able to replicate if it were not for their guidance.

Tackling a thesis surrounding a production schedule is quite difficult, especially when you’re involved in other productions and academic work, what keeps you grounded and concentrated?

Going to each class, each rehearsal, each meeting, it remains to be exciting for me. Yes, I’m busy, but everything I’m involved in derives from something I am passionate about. Working on Carrie, I am fortunate to work alongside people I am not only close with, but absolutely trust as actors, artists, and friends.

You joined the theater department your freshman year after dipping your toes into a beginning actors class. Now an active member of the theater department, what are some of the opportunities you’ve been provided?

During my freshman year, I was overwhelmed with the sense of community instilled in the theater department and I fell in love. With my technical requirements for my major, I have been involved on costume crews and usher teams. It provided me an opportunity to meet people beyond my classes and get to see the hard work being done throughout every facet of the department. I think one of the major strengths of the department is it’s small class size because you can get to know your peers more intimately. I’ve auditioned for shows in the past and this semester I was cast in Runaways: The Musical,  which is super special because my mom was also once in that musical. Our production of Runaways has a large and diverse cast in this ensemble based show. Lou Moreno, our director, allowed us to experiment with taking lines as we felt they fit us and eventually, we devised completely new character arcs for each actor.

Graduation approaches. What’s next?

After graduating in the spring, I’m currently looking into joining the Peace Corps or Teach for America. I want to eventually get my masters in social work. Hopefully moving to New York, I’m interested in studying about how creative arts and therapy can be tied together, especially for young adults. I believe the arts are so beneficial to one’s mental health and pursuing a career that helps other through their artistry would be just incredible.