Monday, July 9, 2012

Students produce play in motel room to study environmental theatre

Even Mother Nature knows that, in theatre, timing is everything.

A severe thunderstorm with powerful winds rolled through Virginia during one of Randolph College’s performances of the play Bug on June 29. The lights were off during a scene transition. When Ashley Peisher ’15 reached out of the bathtub that served as the stage manager’s control room (we’ll explain that soon) and flipped a light switch to begin a new scene, the room remained dark.

Peisher flipped the switch again and again. The storm had cut power to the motel where the play was being performed.

It was as though the power outage was on cue.

“The elements really worked well for us,” said Sonja Cirilo ’15. “The power went out going into a scene where the characters were hunkered down, and they were trying to hide.” The actors played out that final scene with flashlights, which added to the scene’s intensity and made it more real. When a giant clap of thunder accompanied the very end of the show, the audience was convinced, Cirilo said.

“Until I came out at the end of the play, they didn’t know that the power had gone out,” said Mace Archer, director of Bug and a theatre professor at Randolph. “They thought we were just doing our play.”

The production of Bug was part of Randolph College’s 2012 Summer Research Program. Archer, Peisher, Cirilo, and Emily Sirney ’14 were experimenting with environmental theatre, in which a show is performed in a space that is similar to the actual setting. In the case of Bug, it was a motel room.

The play tells the story of Agnes, a woman living in a motel room, who gets pulled into the conspiracy theories and delusions of Peter, a Gulf War veteran. The story includes drug use, violence, nudity, and profanity, and the research team used the performance to examine how the close setting would affect an audience in such an intense play.

Sirney said she wanted to help with the production as soon as she heard about it. “I thought it was a really special opportunity,” she said. “In college theatre, everything is sort of given to you—the stage, the equipment, the costumes. This was something that was all ours, and we had to build it from the ground up.”

Sirney served as company manager, finding and making props such as a fake tooth and scientific equipment. She also learned how to simulate blood in a live theatrical setting.

Peisher stacked pillows in the motel room’s bathtub to make it a comfortable control room. She ran sound on a laptop connected to speakers, and a single light switch in the bathroom controlled all the lighting.

Cirilo handled promotions and ticket sales for the show. She also recorded the reactions of audience members during the performances.

Audiences said the close proximity to the action did make the show more intense, and, at times, intimidating.

“This is such an opportunity for people to get more emotionally involved,” Sirney said. “In a proscenium theatre, you remember you’re watching a show. But almost every audience member we’ve talked to has said that at some point, they forgot they were watching the show. They felt motivated to get involved and comfort Agnes when she was beat by her ex-husband.

“That was good, because it means we’re doing our job well.”

“If you’re in a fifteen-hundred seat theatre, you’re still trying to have that connection, even with the audience member on the back row,” Archer said. Environmental theatre gives actors the opportunity to learn more about how that connection is created.

Archer also said the show allowed the students to obtain real production experience that is harder to come by in a traditional show. “I’ve watched them confront the level of detail that is necessary when you’re actually charge,” he said. “I think they’re in a position to put shows on themselves.”