Drama majors prepare to present Senior Studios

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Senior Samuel Pate gestures during a rehearsal in the Margaret Jonsson Theater. Photo by Marquel Plavan.

Senior Studios are the focal point of senior year for drama majors, in which the students’ education in drama and the liberal arts is actualized in the directing of their own shows.

This semester, senior drama major Noah Kersting will be directing “The Precious Damsels” by Molière, Samuel Pate will be directing “The Débutante” by F. Scott Fitzgerald — adapted by Samuel Pate — and Ellen Rogers will be directing Will Eno’s “Oh, the Humanity and Other Good Intentions.”

Directing, which teaches the basics of theater direction, and Basic Staging, which requires a 20-30 page research paper about the student’s chosen play, are two required courses that focus on the thought behind a production.

“Everything you do as a drama major is preparing you for and leading up to the point of directing your studio,” Rogers said. “Now that we’re in the spring and I’m directing, it’s every day. There’s no time to ease into it, but you’ve been preparing for your studio since the fall of your junior year.”

Associate professor Susan Cox co-teaches a class on production every semester along with either professor Kyle Lemieux or Stefan Novinski. Cox focuses on design and production and her partner focuses on direction and acting. Students take this class senior year, applying what they learn directly to their senior studios. Acting, directing and design are covered in separate classes. Production exclusively teaches fundamentals of show production from beginning to end.

“We watch the play grow through the development of their rehearsal process and keep monitoring it,” Cox said.  

The professors separate the seniors into those who will produce their shows in the fall and those who will produce theirs in the spring.

Most students have not directed a show of this scale before. The professors are an example to the students, but also challenge and push the students to defend their choices.

“I find myself emulating both Stefan Novinski and Kyle Lemieux in the way I direct, and I’m discovering my own style,” Pate said. “The way that all these things come together and blossom into something new that is very much my own work — that’s really edifying and empowering.”

“They’re blunt and they’re frank about our work, which is really valuable,” Pate said. “Whether it’s positive or negative feedback.They critique in the true sense. … They give constructive responses to whatever you are presenting.”

The prospect of directing one’s first show can be daunting, but the students are able to practice and explore within the controlled environment of the university.

“The more experience people have, the easier it is to make a play,” Cox said. “And in this case, it’s first-time directors working with first-time designers in a first-time situation. So, we try to provide as much as we can.”

Senior studios offer an opportunity for students’ to explore a creative vision of their own before graduation.

“It forces you to take responsibility for your creative ideas,” Rogers said. “You have to make definitive decisions. … You have to have the courage and conviction to put those in front of other people and say ‘this is what I think.’”

Directors have to learn to delegate and trust their production staff. Cox works directly with the senior studio property and costume designers. Will Turbyne works with the set, lighting and sound designers. They help designers meet deadlines and keep up with their work for directors.

“We have to communicate our ideas to other people and put what’s very precious and dear to us into the hands of other people and ask them to collaborate,” Rogers said.

Even within senior studios, there is a wide range of variation in unique locations and performance styles.

“We’ve staged one out in the courtyard of Catherine before,” Cox said. “I had a student who, instead of doing a traditional stage play, did a puppet show. She built all of her puppets and built her puppet theater. It was all performed out on the Mall for several days.”

No specific genre or type of play is expected or required, and students can take advantage of their freedom to explore themes or questions that interest them.

“I like exploring countercultures that take themselves very seriously, and I want to explore the absurdity that real people can aspire to in their daily lives,” Kersting said of his play, “The Precious Damsels.”

Each director is given a one hundred dollar budget to use on components of their play such as costumes and props. Costumes are not to be made from scratch, but the drama departments’ stored costumes are available to them. The designers go through the same process as they would for any professional production, and the actors have costume fittings like for any other show.

Senior studios are a perfect segue into professional theater for students hoping to pursue a career in drama.

“It feels like a conclusion to the chapter of my four years here, and at the same time, the next step on the staircase of my career,” said Pate. “I feel very prepared because I’ve been challenged.”

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