Too Much Drama? No Way.
Paul W. Gillespie 2014
Here’s the thing about theater, as far as Phaedra Scott ’14 is concerned: There needs to be more of it. Lots more. And when she came to Washington College, she realized there was a need for a place where anyone, regardless of their academic discipline, could explore that aspect of their creativity.
“I wanted there to be a club where we could do stuff outside the drama department,” says Scott, who is majoring in drama and history. “I knew too many people who were doing really cool things with their own personal work, and I felt badly that no one was able to see it.” And while drama students do get a chance to direct their own play as a senior thesis, that’s “three years of waiting,” Scott says, and the play is usually by a professional, established playwright.
So, Scott approached Michele Volansky, chair of the drama department, who is also an artistic associate with PlayPenn, a Philadelphia-based play development conference. Scott wanted some insight as to how something like PlayPenn might work at WC.
“Phaedra’s ambition and vision was for students to work together as writers, actors, directors, and dramaturgs,” Volansky says. “With a new play, you really don’t know what you have until you have it in front of an audience in three dimensions. So that’s where our conversation started: What were the things that needed to be put into place so that a writer felt empowered to do the work the way they wanted or needed, in the best way possible.”
With Volansky as faculty adviser, Scott developed the Independent Playhouse, a club that focuses on giving any students on campus, regardless of their field of study, a chance to write, direct, act in, or otherwise be involved in the creation and performance of a play. In the club’s first season, three students submitted plays; then came seven, then 14.
The whole process is geared to giving feedback without tension or personal conflicts. An anonymous panel of readers rates the plays and chooses one to work on. Then Scott and Maddie Zinns ’15, both dramaturgs for the group, meet with the playwright to discuss its technical aspects and how it can be improved.
“During the workshopping process, actors read the play aloud to the director, so they can hear what works and what doesn’t,” Scott says. “There’s lots of refining. It’s definitely an education tool, because it helps playwrights understand that their role is to write this play, but also to figure out how it translates to other people like directors and actors.”
Actors and even directors can be brand new at the job. “The primary objective is to gain experience in a less pressurized environment,” Scott says. “A lot of people get nervous acting in thesis shows, because that’s someone’s grade. But they have so much fun doing Independent Playhouse because they’re just doing it because they want to be there. It’s fun.”
Volansky says that one of the greatest unexpected results of the Independent Playhouse has been how it helps students learn the skills of collaboration and cooperation in what can be an emotionally delicate environment.
“To be able to have the writer be in the room when you’re bringing their work alive is an extraordinarily amazing, although frequently baffling, thing,” Volansky says. “You have to take the temperature of the writer, find the balance. That’s an invaluable skill, and it’s a transferrable skill—to be able to collaborate for the greater good of a project. I never would have imagined that this would be a byproduct of the club, but the students figured it out.”