April 22, 2020
Kit Newell, who portrayed Gila in 
Wild Thing in spring 2019, is among
four theater majors who have
received the Rising Researcher
award within the past two years.
Photo by Derek Fowles.

Earlier this month, the University of Massachusetts announced that senior theater major Kit Newell had been named a Rising Researcher. Newell, who was honored for their acting work, is the fourth theater major in the span of two years to receive that designation. UMass has also named Queer & Now creator Garrett Sager, scenic designer Sean Sanford, and playwright Tatiana Rodriguez as Rising Researchers.

It’s a remarkable run of recognition for students in a field whose work falls outside the stereotype of what constitutes “research” for many people. While individually grateful for the honor, these theater artists also see the value for theater as a whole each time one of them is recognized for their work. 

“I generally see acting as more related to science and ‘hard research’ fields than many outsiders might,” Newell said. “There’s this curiosity and this questioning spirit that’s always asking ‘Why,’ … whether it’s ‘Why is this protein structured this way?’ or ‘Why does this person respond this way in a certain scenario?’ This openness to experimentation and failure is essential in science, and it’s also essential in acting, to work through as many things as possible in order to find the solution for you that works best in terms of storytelling.”

This award “has helped legitimize this work in the academic sphere,” Sager said.

An affirmation for important work

Rodriguez noted that being acknowledged as a researcher by the university has inspired her to continue her education. After she graduates this spring with degrees in Theater, English, and WGSS, as well as certificates in Creative Writing and Multicultural Theater Practice, Rodriguez plans to continue her education at the University of Massachusetts in the W.E.B. Du Bois Afro-American Studies PhD Program in Literature and Culture.

“In the humanities and fine arts you often hear of how difficult it is to be recognized,” she said. “As a young playwright and artist it was incredibly meaningful to me to have my work recognized and to hear that my achievements were seen in my field. It also motivated me to reevaluate my future, and start applying to programs for graduate school so I could continue my research and cultivate more knowledge.” 

She was named a Rising Researcher
for playwriting, but Tatiana
Rodriguez also appeared onstage
in Water Station (at top) this spring.
Photo by Derek Fowles.

Rodriguez was the trailblazer for the department, the first recipient of this award in this recent run of students. A multi-talented theater artist, she has left her mark on the department in stage management and acting as well as playwriting. As a playwright, she has been selected for the Five College WORD Festival and has seen her plau, Unconditional, produced as part of the theater mainstage season’ Play Lab, which fosters new work (then-visiting playwright Kim Euell was her mentor for both and nominated her as a Rising Researcher). 

“A lot of people tend to overlook the arts because they perceive it to be less valuable in terms of research, but I don’t think that’s true at all,” Rodriguez said. “Without the arts and humanities, we’d be less capable of communicating and forming deep connections with people.”

Sager noted that in his work, findings “are emotional, so they aren’t quantifiable”  — and explained that he has employed a system of experimenting, learning from the results, and then building toward the next phase of a project in his multi-year Queer & Now project, for which he also received the Frank Prentice Rand Scholarship from the Department of Theater, among other honors. 

Queer & Now began as an idea Professor Megan Lewis’ Theaters of Dissent class, Sager explained. He wanted to explore how drag and lip-syncing could be tools of dissent and explore possible intersections with devised theater. That first iteration, presented in a classroom in French Hall, yielded encouraging enough results to reassure him that this idea had the makings of a thesis project, and he built progressively larger productions with more focused thematic content. He investigated the audience response at each stage, using those findings to help sharpen his message. Queer & Now has transformed into a company, tackling its themes with different storylines and on a larger scale, with presentations at HFA’s NYPOP space in New York City and at regional performance venues. Queer & Now was in rehearsal this spring, working on a new performance that takes on sex education, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the group is instead looking at ways of maintaining community and producing digital content while distant.

Sager has written a number of grants along the way and said that the structure of that process, so connected to the way research is conducted, has been helpful. “Having to go within the confines of research has actually been really useful,” he said, for lending structure to the project as it has grown.

Every project requires research

For Newell, it’s the craft of acting that has been the focus of their research, and one of the remarkable aspects of the work is the way it changes with each role. Various roles have required Newell to improvise Gregorian chants, learn to knit, and navigate the world as a man several times their age.

For a period piece of Shakespeare, they said, textual elements that are unfamiliar to them or have taken on new meaning in contemporary speech are researched. Newell said, “As I read the play I thoroughly look up all the words I don’t know, and many I’m familiar with but may only be aware of in different contexts. Researching the etymology of classical texts is fascinating – sometimes I find secondary definitions that I don’t play in a given scene, but are still valuable in developing my character and relationships with other characters.”

On a project like Wild Thing, which was the focus of their Rising Researcher nomination, the research takes a different shape. This translation and adaptation of a little-known Spanish play tells of a young woman, Gila, who became a local folk hero after exacting bloody revenge on the men who betrayed her and rejects her society’s expectations for her. 

Some of Newell’s initial research focused on what life was like at the time the play was set, on learning about both the real circumstances and folk tales from which the play was inspired, and on perfecting the pronunciation of the Spanish words used in the play. Newell found themselves in an old print shop in London at one point, researching old Spanish maps to get a feel for the topography of the place. There were sessions with a fight choreographer to create swordplay that was specific to Gila’s character. 

Then, there is the question of Gila’s gender and sexuality, which read as shockingly modern for a 400-year-old play.

“Something that is unavoidable whenever you read this play is that it is radical for its time in its conception of gender roles,” Newell said, and its approach to sexuality. Its heroine could be read in today’s terms as non-binary, and she effusively expresses her ardor for Queen Isabella. “Gender is very much at the forefront of contemporary discussions on society and on individuality,” Newell said, but they were curious to place the work a wider context that looked beyond contemporary attitudes toward gender and sexuality. “What are gender roles historically? What different cultures have perceived gender in different ways. Has everything been strictly binary? Or what cultures have established societies in which there are more than two genders that are accepted?”

The work was well-received, and Newell even traveled with the company to El Paso, TX, to present the play at the Siglo do Oro Festival, held annually on the Texas-Mexico border. They also received the department’s Ed Golden Acting Scholarship.

Being a Rising Researcher has been a boon. “I’m incredibly grateful to receive this affirmation for all the hard work I’ve done,” they said, and to get that affirmation from people “outside of our theater comfort zone.”

Newell, like the others, has no intentions of resting on any laurels. “It’s the work that’s done to get this award that’s important.”

Many of the performers and creative team members of Garett Sager's Queer & Now have been with the project through multiple iterations. Photo by Tom Kelleher.

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