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Collaboration Enriches the Theatrical Experience
In the world of theatre arts, collaboration is commonplace.
For every production, director, producers, set designers, costumer designers, lighting specialists, sound engineers and the ever-versatile stagehand must come together to create a cohesive presentation. Actors and audiences share experiences from both sides of the stage, each show moving deliberately to a collaborative conclusion.
It's no wonder British playwright Oscar Wilde regarded the theatre as "the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being."
Sharing a sense of what it is to live and die as a human being prompted the Department of Theatre Arts to open its arms to other university departments in last spring's production of "Dead Man Walking."
Through a colleague, Sara Jane Phillips, senior lecturer in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, became familiar with the work of Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty advocate made famous by Susan Sarandon in the 1995 film. Prejean's nonfiction book "Dead Man Walking" was turned into a stage play in 2002 by Tim Robbins.
Phillips, who saw tremendous value in broaching the topic with her Criminal Justice students, reached out to Theatre Arts chair Kim LaFontaine. LaFontaine, in turn, tapped adjunct lecturer Anne Healy to direct the play. Phillips envisioned a campus-wide discussion on the pros and cons of the death penalty in the U.S. and hoped student audiences would be challenged to make informed decisions on such a hot-button issue.
"That's what the whole project was about," Phillips said, pointing to the collaborative process of having multiple departments involved in the same production. "When I found the play project, it was can we pull this off? You have to take it one step at a time. I sat down with Kim and he said this is what we should be doing. [Theatre Arts] got on board immediately."
Healy said her experience and background made her an appropriate choice as director.
"I was approached with the project because my Ph.D. is interdisciplinary and one of the things I'm very interested in is the idea that theater is about many things," she said. "It's about history, sociology, psychology, the human condition, [and] art. The idea that it crosses boundaries or has the ability to reach not only theater people but also people from every walk of life... is something that I'm very committed to."
Phillips said response to the production and planned ancillary events was strong. Several departments in the College of Liberal Arts participated in a series of events designed to spark debate and deepen understanding of the play.
"The play was written in such a way," Phillips said, "that the story was one-sided. ... We wanted to present it as 'here are the two sides, you figure out what you think.' I had several people who went to the play, graduate students and such, who gave me feedback that they had felt both sides of the issue were fairly represented. I give the director and the actors a lot of credit for that."
Students were encouraged or required to attend a panel discussion after one performance, debating the issue. Graduate and undergraduate student debates were held. An Art and Art History class produced work that remained on display in the foyer of the MainStage Theatre through the play's two-week run.
"Internally, we had some really interesting discussions between cast and crew," Healy said. "We talked about the death penalty, what it meant in terms of our society. We talked about what the death penalty means in the State of Texas and how it affected certain students. Some students had never discussed the topic before and others had a very intimate and personal connection to the issue. That was discussed and brought out in a seminar-type environment as a way to be able to delve into the material more fully for the theatrical experience."
For LaFontaine, offering those "value-added experiences" to theatrical audiences is not only necessary for issue-oriented productions like "Dead Man Walking" but a glimpse of things to come.
"[Collaboration] is about doing what the university does best," he said. "I think the university should do more of this. A university should provide internal resources that offer changing perspectives to students and the community. There should be opportunities to participate in the intellectual and emotional experience. It brings depth to the production so you're not just seeing the show; you're experiencing it on a different level."
LaFontaine is eager to see other departments and faculty members from across campus participate in these supplemental events when he directs the hit-musical "Cabaret" in Fall 2010. He's already planning on a mini-lecture series to reflect the theme and era of the show and working with fellow Liberal Arts professors to find ways to showcase the music and art of Berlin from 1929-30, the play's setting, to enhance the audience's experience. These collaborative events, LaFontaine said, "would help put the musical in context."
For Healy, such collaborative work isn't optional, it's required.
"We're in an environment that's different. It's academic theatre," she said. "We have the opportunity to explore and to challenge boundaries and to cross lines for no other reason than to pose questions or make a connection between what's happening in current events and how that is expressed in art, specifically in a play. Because of that environment, the exploration for our students in these deeper ideas and deeper connections is an exercise we're called to in academic theatre.
"Theatre arts as an entity ... asks us to examine ourselves. The subject matter from year to year changes. The current issues or concerns change. The players and the times change, but the quest doesn't. [Theatre] asks us to take whatever weighs on us to put it aside and be relieved from that. On a greater scale, we're more aware of the process when we delve into subjects that are more controversial or require deeper discussion."
And if that discussion includes sharing the fundamental experience of what it is to be a human being, no doubt Mr. Wilde would agree.
College of Liberal Arts
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