March 1, 2015

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Remarks from the Chair

Hello all you lovely theater folk and theater friends —

It’s Stages time again!

This message begins on a bittersweet note for me — as I mentioned in passing in the previous issue, Miguel Romero has announced this semester is his last. Taking in his stunning set for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (more on that show in a minute), I am hit again with the amazing talent and vision he has brought to the department all these years, not to mention the many students whose lives he has touched and whose theater careers he has influenced.

I’m sure that I am not the only one who feels this way, and we hope to hear from folks who worked with Miguel, either professionally or as students, for our next issue. If you have an anecdote, an ode, or a tribute you’d like to share with us about Miguel, please do so by emailing it to Anna-Maria Goossens, our PR director. We’ll compile as many as we have room for in the next issue of Stages. Please send her your items (photos and links to videos are also welcome) by April 6 to make sure they can be included.

Now, to Cat! We had a wonderful preview last week of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and we hope that you find an opportunity to come see it when it contoinues this week. As if the news that Miguel Romero designed it wasn’t already enough, we are thrilled to have two faculty members onstage as well: Professors Julie Nelson and Milan Dragicevich are playing the senior Pollitts, and they are knocking it out of the park in the rehearsals I’ve seen. The students onstage with them are doing a fantastic job, too, and really rising to the challenge of this play.

Coming up not too long after that is our Play Lab, opening March 25. The play lab — which was the brainchild of our graduate students Jared Culverhouse, Paul Adolphsen, and Amy Brooks — is now in its second year and it nurtures amazing new work presenting stories that too often go untold. We have two fabulously talented playwrights, MJ Kaufmann and Michael Yates Crowley, who’ll be joining us shortly, and the stories they are entrusting us to help them tell are touching, funny, fantastical, and above all really worth seeing.

If you still have that red alumni lifetime pass, now’s a great time to pick up two free tickets. And if you don’t have one, a. let us know so we can send you one and b. tell us when you’d like to attend Cat or Play Lab, and we’ll still be happy to help you get your 2 free tickets. Let’s see if we can’t get a mini-reunion going in the audience every night!

See you soon!

Penny, Casey and Scout

Donor Profile: How Professor Emerita Patricia Warner found a home in theater

We continue our donor profile series this issue with Patricia Warner. While most of the folks we've profiled here are alumni of the Department of Theater, Warner came to us as a faculty member when another department at UMass disbanded. She stayed with the Department of Theater until she retired, and even now, she remains a steady presence at performances and one of the department's most ardent supporters.


Theater affiliation: Professor Emerita

A favorite UMass Theater memory: I loved teaching my classes. I loved the people. I loved the creativity, the energy, and the wonderful relationships between the students and the faculty. I haven’t seen that anywhere else.

Why do you donate to the Department of Theater? For all those reasons above. I think what the theater department does is worthy of being supported. And no matter how much money comes into the Department of Theater from the university and wherever, in the natural setting of a department like theater, in a university like UMass, you ALWAYS need more money. Theater is expensive, even when you’re doing it by the seat of your pants, on a shoestring. And so, if I can add a few more bucks into the coffers, that makes me feel good.

Professor Emerita Patricia Warner wasn’t a theater artist or scholar, but her work as a costume historian in meant that for many years, Department of Theater costume design students had taken the classes she taught in the Consumer Studies department at UMass. When that department closed, Warner was invited to join the Department of Theater, and it proved a serendipitous move. She was thrilled with theater students’ energy and creativity and found the department a warm, welcoming home for the remainder of her time at UMass.

“(Theater) saved my life as an academic,” Warner said, and gave her some “wonderful friendships.” That experience is why she now donates regularly to the Department of Theater. “I give to the department because I’m grateful… I don’t give that much, but it makes me feel good. It makes me feel I still have a finger in the pie.”

Finding a new home

Warner, who has advanced degrees in art history and design, began her career as an academic at 50 and was teaching in Consumer Studies when word came down that the department would be dissolved.

“I didn’t know where to go,” she said. “Costume history isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.”

Although she has a degree in art history and taught costume history, neither art history nor history seemed like a good fit for her brand of scholarship or the classes she taught. She wondered what the future held for her. The answer came in the form of Professor Emerita June Gaeke, who frequently sent her costume design students to Warner to learn about costume history.

“Meanwhile, when all of this was going on, I would run into people from the theater department, and they’d say, ‘You have to come over to theater!’ June Gaeke being the main one, because we taught each other’s students," Warner recalled. "And I kept saying, ‘June, I don’t know anything about theater,’ and she’d say, ‘Yes you do!’ This went on for well over a year, maybe two years.”

Eventually, she met with the rest of the department and realized that it could be a comfortable new home for her. Then-co-chairs Penny Remsen and Ed Golden hired her, and she settled in as a somewhat unconventional member of the dramaturgy area, teaching costume history classes to undergraduate and graduate students.

“Once I sort of got over my initial, ‘My god, I can’t do this, what are they thinking?’ I was happy to come into theater,” Warner said.

An influence on teaching

She was above all delighted with the students. Working with undergraduate theater students affected what she taught and the way she taught it, Warner said. “Whereas I used to just teach costume history from the caves to the 1900s, and then another course on the 20th century, I started … teaching classes in terms of various different costumers’ ideas of what the clothing should be in any given movie or a play that had been filmed.”

She would open a discussion of a particular era’s clothing with the real clothing of the time, and then they’d look at the way that reality was interpreted in different cinematic depictions of the era. Then, she would ask her students to think about why, say, one film version of Henry V featured light colorful costumes, while another filmed decades apart, was all heavy, dark material. What influenced costumers to interpret the same era in such different ways?

When it came to graduate students, Warner aligned herself with the dramaturgs. “I was trying to clue the graduate students in to looking at the plays they were interested in from the point of view of: why that play, at that time. I was trying to teach them to look at the social history of the period the play came out of,” she explained.

While her focus shifted toward theater, Warner also remained focused on her own costume history research and published articles and books in her own field throughout her time in the department. Writing on costume history is something she continues to pursue in retirement — she has a book in progress that looks at the influence of film costumes on street fashion from the mid-20th century on.

Although she has been retired for some time now, Warner is still a frequent attendee at department productions and events, gives regularly to the department, and continues to count department members among her friends.

Thinking of her fondest memories of her time here, she returned to complimenting the students.

“The kids were outspoken, they were enthusiastic, they weren’t afraid of standing up and making some dumb statement … They were wonderful and I loved teaching them,” Warner said.

Dinora Walcott Alexander '02 offers career insight to current students

This year, in response to calls from students for more opportunities to learn about post-college life, the Department of Theater inaugurated Fridays at Four, an occasional series held on Fridays at, you guessed it, 4 p.m., with guests in various theater or theater-adjacent fields speaking about things like union membership, auditioning, graduate programs, and more. Ironically, the series actually kicked off on what was very much not a Friday when we welcomed Dinora Walcott Alexander '02, now an LA-based actress to campus. She was in Boston working on a film and stopped by on a visit with her mother and brand-new baby girl.

She allowed us to tape the Q&A we held with her, and we've excerpted it into a podcast with some of the most interesting parts of her story and experience.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

You can learn more about Alexander at her website.

Alexander posts videos on Youtube regularly, sometimes about acting, and other times about DIY projects she's undertaken. One she posted recently features a cameo from the aforementioned baby girl:

Dramaturgy scholars gather at UMass Theater for the Northeastern Dramaturgy Retreat

The UMass Amherst MFA Dramaturgy program played host to some very rare guests recently: a forum of fellow dramaturgs.

“It’s funny,” said third-year Dramaturgy candidate Amy Brooks. “We form close relationships in production with directors, with playwrights and designers. But dramaturgs almost never get to collaborate with each other. There are fewer of us out there, and we’re not able to meet up often enough in world of professional theater. So a few years back we decided to come to each other.”

The Northeastern Dramaturgy Retreat, which took place this past January 30th and 31st in the UMass Amherst Department of Theater, was the third annual conference for Master’s students in Dramaturgy from UMass, Harvard/A.R.T., Columbia, and Yale. Nearly 50 students and faculty converged from Cambridge, New Haven, New York, and Amherst to discuss professional strategies for communication and innovation in the field of dramaturgy—a job that spans many areas of the theater world, from literary management to production work. UMass dramaturgs Paul Adolphsen, Amy Brooks, Samantha Doolittle, and Finn Lefevre coordinated this year’s event at every stage from grant-writing to event planning; this spirit of industriousness was reflected in the retreat’s theme, “The Dramaturg as Change-Maker.”

This year’s panelists and guests included dramaturg, teacher, and literary manager Morgan Jenness; Double Edge Theater Associate Producer and dramaturg Amrita Ramanan; Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas chairperson and Arts Emerson professor Magda Romanska; Red Moon Theater Company’s Director of the Center for Civic Art and Design Rebecca Rugg; Hartford Stage Senior Dramaturg and Director of New Play Development Elizabeth Williamson; Producing Director of Music-Theatre Group Diane Wondisford; and keynote speaker Talvin Wilks, an eminent playwright, director, dramaturg, and multicultural theater activist.

Keynote Conversation

The MFA Dramaturgs started the retreat weekend in the Hadley Room, overlooking a snowy campus. For a weekend that would highlight the multitude of trajectories, titles, and methods in the field of dramaturgy, it was fitting to begin with a speaker whose career reflected that diversity. Defining his work as everything from grant-writing to playwriting, directing to dramaturgy, Talvin Wilks described his career trajectory as always in search of an artistic home. In some ways, Wilks’ remarks at the welcome reception felt more like a homecoming than a keynote, given his past directorship of UMass’s New WORLD Theater, as well as his ongoing artistic relationship with professors Judyie Al-Bilali and Priscilla Page.

Tasked with setting the tone for the retreat, Wilks’s keynote conversation was a delightful mixture of storytelling and personal reflection. Page moderated our discussion with Wilks and asked him to share with us some of the salient moments in his twenty-five year career. Many of these moments happened at New Brunswick, New Jersey’s Crossroads Theatre, an experience he described as being at the right place at the right time. As Page teased out more details, it seemed less and less about coincidence, and more about Wilks’ ability to recognize and seize opportunities, as well as connect with other artists. Both of these conclusions were significant take-aways for a group of emerging dramaturgs heading into a weekend of meeting peers and artistic leaders.

The Dramaturg's Toolbox

After a brief gathering for coffee and pastries Saturday morning, retreat attendees participated in a "Dramaturg's Toolbox" activity, led by Rebecca Rugg. Charged with the additional task of meeting unfamiliar faces, participants split into pairs and shared stories of their favorite dramaturgical experiences to date. Rugg then challenged each group to boil these moments down to key ideas and create "slogans" to encapsulate their messages. Finally, participants used an array of random materials-- ranging from egg cartons and cereal boxes to recycled cardboard and colorful pipe-cleaners-- to construct visual representations of their slogans. "The idea of the toolkit is about making a literal example that distills down complex experience," Rugg said. "Slogans work the same way, and so the “tools” as objects and the slogans as words reinforced each other."

The results were creative, humorous, and insightful. Among the slogans cooked up by attendees: "None of us is linear: why do we expect art to be?", "Engagement can make us and the art more human," "Run the same race," "A beautiful map will survive a shipwreck," and "There are many different ways to listen." When asked about the event afterwards, Rugg said, "I thought the activity was GREAT.  I have never included the 'slogan' aspect of the exercise before, and I thought this was very illuminating. We heard some great slogans!" Based on the participants' reactions, the activity was not only a success, but also a great way to break the ice.

Panel Discussions

After securely storing their dramaturgical toolboxes, retreat attendees gathered in the Curtain Theater to participate in two panel discussions. The first panel featured Morgan Jenness, Diane Wondisford, and Rebecca Rugg. Moderator Julia Bumke (Harvard/A.R.T.) led these three trailblazing women through a discussion of the various ways creative producing and dramaturgy overlap in their day-to-day projects. Reflecting on the panel, Bumke said, “The panelists emphasized the importance of fostering artists whose work they have believed in, recalling projects throughout their careers that have made them take a chance on an artist--and detailing how their producing know-how has allowed them to leverage this dramaturgical risk-taking into fruitful, sustainable collaborations.” Jenness, Wondisford, and Rugg’s reflections on the possibilities and pitfalls of creative producing were well received by the attendees, many of whom are seeking to apply their dramaturgical skills to a wide array of jobs both in and outside the theatre. Jenness’ call for the gathered students to “commit acts of dramaturgy” was echoed in conversations throughout the retreat.

The second panel was centered on how dramaturgs are fostering change in the American theater. Panelists Elizabeth Williamson, Amrita Ramanan, and Magda Romanska briefly reflected on their individual paths to working as dramaturgs, journeys as diverse as the institutions where they now serve. Speaking from their different contexts, Williamson, Ramanan, and Romanska shared information about programs they are spearheading designed to both foster a sense of community connectivity and stretch the aesthetic reach of their respective theatres. The three panelists were frank about the difficulties of establishing such programs, but were also inspiring in their conviction that dramaturgs are uniquely positioned to ask important questions and move artists, audiences, and institutions out of their collective comfort zones.

Next Year in Boston

After a packed two days of fresh ideas and new connections the MFA dramaturgs headed back to their respective campuses, looking forward to next year’s retreat, which will be hosted by Harvard/A.R.T. in Boston.

— report written and compiled by dramaturgy graduate students 
Paul Adolphsen, Amy Brooks, Samantha Doolittle, and Finn Lefevre 

The Multicultural Theater Certificate: building a legacy and a future

This year, the Department of Theater has a new certificate program on the books: the Multicultural Theater Certificate. As the web page explains, 'The Multicultural Theater Certificate blends the teaching of history and theory with the practical aspects of theater-making by offering students throughout the university an opportunity to deepen their studies in this important and growing area of arts and academic study."

The certificate has been a long time in coming, thwarted in its first iteration by the university's decision to shutter New WORLD Theater, which was to play an integral part in the work students did for the certificate. Now revised and up and running under the watchful eye of program administrator Priscilla Page, the certificate will offer non-majors and majors alike an opportunity to study multicultural theater in depth.

Recently, Page sat down with professor Harley Erdman and theater artist Talvin Wilks—who was New WORLD Theater's artistic director when the certificate was conceived—and talked to them about the history of the certificate from idea to program.

Click here to listen to an excerpted version of Page, Erdman and WIlks' discussion as a podcast.

Building Bridges Through Theater at the Lark Play Development Center’s México/U.S. Playwright Exchange

Multicultural Theater Certificate administrator and senior lecturer Priscilla Page has connections to a number of multicultural theater organizations and initiatives around the country, and recently, she's been working with Lark Play Development Center. One of Lark's undertakings has been translations of Mexican work into English and promoting scholarship around that work. This winter, Page was among the scholars invited to take part. The invitation was welcome in part because Page is working to bring Lark into the fold as one of the organizations offering internships to students working toward the Multicultural Theater Certificate. (Dramaturgy alumna Megan McClain '12 is a staff member at the Lark, coincidentally.) Also in the works is a staged reading of Our Dad Is In Atlantis by Javier Malpica, translated by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas. This is one of the translations from an earlier season of the Lark exchange and it will be read as part of the Department of Theater's upcoming Art, Legacy, and Community project. Below, she reports on the exchange.

by Priscilla Page

I was thrilled when I received an email from playwright Migdalia Cruz on behalf of the Lark Play Development Center’s México/U.S. Playwright Exchange last fall. Cruz is a member of the advisory committee for this important annual gathering, now in its ninth year. In her message, she invited me to join the group as a scholar and dramaturg and to attend ten days of intensive work on the new translations of plays written by four playwrights from México. I was one of four scholars invited into the process to observe the work, be a resource for the creative teams and to contribute to on-going dialogue about this project through our writing and teaching. This cohort included Eric Mayer-García, specialist on Cuban and Cuban American Theater, Jason Ramirez, playwright, director and specialist in Latino Theater and popular culture, and Kimberly Ramirez, professor of playwriting and Latina/o performance studies at LaGuardia Community College. 

The ten-day exchange began on Friday, December 5th with a reception at the Lark. From the beginning, program director Andrea Thome set the tone for this bilingual event by ensuring that we each took the time to translate our introductions into English and Spanish at every step of the way.  This practice continued through the rehearsals, the staged readings and the post-show discussions. The primary goal for the writers was to hear the work in both Spanish and English and to continue developing the English translations. The culmination of these efforts was a public staged reading of the translations of each play on December 12 and 13th, 2014. The company also dedicated two days to reflection on the process; the exchange ended on December 15th.

I was in a unique position as both a dramaturg with translation and new play development skills and a scholar in this setting. As a bilingual dramaturg, I read each of the plays in both languages and offered my notes to the playwrights. I felt a strong connection to the play Mara or The Night Without Dreams, written by Antonio Zuñiga, translated by Tatiana Suarez-Pico and directed by Tamila Woodard. It is a play about MS13, a notorious Salvadoran gang with a strong presence in East Los Angeles.  In the first reading, Zuñiga stated that he wanted to tell the story of Brenda Paz, a leader in this gang who was ultimately killed, because she is a fascinating character. Paz is a very young woman at the start of the play and she quickly rises to power in this gang that Zuñiga describes as a “world of men.” After the first reading, I compiled research on Paz, MS13 and surrealism (the approach Zuñiga took to tell this story).

I found this experience to be meaningful on a personal level; it was a joy for me to work in a bilingual setting on plays by Mexican playwrights, translated by U.S. based Latino playwrights with bilingual actors and creative teams. But, this work is meaningful in a more profound way at a time when our nation is torn apart by race wars. This strident division expresses itself most clearly for Latina/os at the US/ México border amid the on-going immigration reform debates and the ever-rising, hostile anti-immigrant sentiment here. The México/U.S. Playwright Exchange at the Lark Play Development Center values the creative and cultural expression of Mexican and Latina/o theater artists and enables connectivity through theater building bridges for us instead of walls.


As ever, our awesome friends are up to wonderful things. Updates we received:

Just before we went to press, we received the wonderful news that Professor Judyie Al-Bilali '00G has ben named the recipient of the Residential First-Year Experience (RFYE) Student Choice Award.

This January, faculty sound designer Amy Altadonna designed The Other Place at Virginia Stage Company.  It was directed by AD Chris Hanna, with sets by Tim Mackabee, ML Geiger on lights, Tricia Barsamian on costumes, and projection design by Shawn Duan. 

Keith Langsdale ‘07G has ben busy onstage and in film. “In October I played Herman Rifkin and the Lawyer in Nobody's Girl by Harley Erdman at the Academy of Music in Northampton. It was directed by Sheila Siragusa with lighting by Penny Remsen. The film, The God Question, in which I played the lead, was featured in 9 film festivals over 2014, including Woods Hole and The Northampton Film Festival. At the Buffalo Film Festival, I was named Best Actor in a feature film. The film includes UMass alums Sam Rush, Troy Mercier, and Professor Emeritus, Ed Golden.

The trailer:

The website for the film:
He also acted at the Majestic Theater in West Springfield, MA in the new play, Iris.

Alxander Nicosia '08 will be graduating in May of 2015 with an M.F.A. in Acting from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

Dolph Paulsen played Hamlet with a touring company this summer, and shared with us two videos the company has compiled:
Part One:

We were thrilled to receive an update from a before-there-was-a-department alumna, Connie Gilman Wones '54. She wrote us the following: "I did leave Amherst before the Department of Theater was established, but I do fondly remember Professor Rand. I won't be able to come to see The Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but wish you all well. When I was in Amherst I enjoyed all of the theater productions and worked backstage on a couple of them. I still love theater and regularly go to productions at Arena Stage and The Shakespeare Theater in Washington, DC. Thank you for helping me get the theater bug. Best wishes to all!"

As ever, please feel free to send in any and all news you’d like to share. If filling out the contact form leaves you cold, you can reach us through emailfacebooktwitter, or by coming to the department and shouting in our general direction about the things you’re doing. 

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