Students find creativity off the beaten stage

“Where can’t you do theater?” Genevieve Sparling ’04, a theater major from Mechanicsville, Md., asked rhetorically during an interview. The question is a difficult one to answer, but the College theater department has nevertheless decided to do just that. Under the tutelage of Shelley Salamensky, a visiting assistant professor of theatre and with the help of the department’s new chair, Rob Baker-White, the junior and senior seminars offered this semester have changed significantly from the ones of past years. While the focus is still on student-produced performance pieces and dramatic processes, there is a new focus this fall on pieces that have been “site work-shopped,” or developed at non-traditional venues.

When a piece is site work-shopped, it is rehearsed in diverse settings to try out different staging and blocking arrangements. In theory, the changes of scene jumpstart creativity and experimentation. Thus far, students have considered using restrooms, basements, dorm bedrooms and underground tunnels.

Salamensky, professor for both the junior and senior seminars, hopes that students are “enriched by the workshop space but not tied to it.” Specifically, she hopes that students recognize the importance of rehearsing in spaces removed from conventional stages and theaters. “The specificity and limitations of imperfect spaces inspire resourcefulness and creativity,” she said.

After spending time with the English department, Salamensky transitioned to the theatre department as an assistant professor this year. She noticed the lack of attention paid to non-traditional stagings and decided to capitalize on a fresh idea. “Theater at Williams has been in a sort of isolated position and by doing theater all over campus in different kinds of spaces we raise awareness about what theater is,” she said.

Salamensky’s reasons were pragmatic as well, as there are real limitations on theater space this year. With the construction at Adams Memorial Theatre well underway, there is little room for Cap and Bells and Dance Company, not to mention the theatre department’s own productions. The dance program, under the direction of Sandra Burton, is currently working on site-specific dances at non-traditional locales and Cap and Bells is urging directors to find creative work spaces.

Salamenskey is trying to cope with the situation while at the same time teaching students a valuable lesson: “while it is terrific to work in a ‘real’ theater space, these are often unavailable to younger – and even more established – theater artists.” The idea of a site-workshop goes beyond Williams.

While the idea of using non-traditional spaces is an integral part of the seminars this year, it is not the ultimate objective of the classes, but rather a vehicle for enhancing the dramatic work conducted by the students. Projects include an adaptation and combination of “The Little Prince” and “The Giving Tree” by Pavel Hirstov ’04, an original one-woman play written by Sparling, and an adaptation of David Mamet’s “Glenngary Glen Ross” by Adam Zamora ’05 and Jason Marburg ’05.

There are some subtle differences between the two seminar classes. In the junior seminar, students develop a 20-minute final project either alone or in a small group. The senior projects are more in-depth and culminate in half-hour performances at the end of the year, accompanied by a written paper and an analytic presentation. While their final projects, performed in the spring, do not have to be staged in non-traditional spaces, the seniors are urged to workshop their projects extensively to better understand their pieces.

In order to open the eyes of her students to non-traditional spaces, Salamensky sent the classes on a scavenger hunt, pitting the juniors against the seniors. The students were given rhyming clues leading to potential theater venues, including the cabin in Hopkins Forest (a favorite for many students), the observatory in the Berkshire Quad and the empty storefront just to the south of Mezze on Water Street. Teams were required to return with evidence that they had visited the site.

“I think it was a little more competitive than it should have been between the juniors and the seniors,” Hirstov said.

“The juniors definitely beat the seniors,” Barbara Chan ’05 said, backed by Zamora.

Sparling thought “it was a great way to go about getting us to think about non-traditional spaces. [Salamensky] was thinking outside the box in getting us to think outside the box.”

Furthermore, juniors and seniors alike seem excited by the chance to work outside of the Adams Memorial Theater. Chan, working on a scene from Pinter’s “Betrayal” with Stephen Dobay ’05, is excited because non-traditional spaces “really force us to think more creatively than we would if we were just . . . working on a stage.”

According to Zamora, non-traditional spaces provide an opportunity “to play around with things more.” But the concept poses new challenges as well as new opportunities. “It is difficult being a theater major while there is no theater,” Anna Siegal ’05 remarked. She is adapting Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” with Abigail Nessen ’05. However, at the end of the day, “learning how to do theater in non-traditional spaces is fantastic,” Siegal said.

The idea of a site-workshop may not figure into the department’s plans for theater seminars next year, but Salamensky remains positive about the work being done this year and the work to be done in the future. Even if students eventually return to conventional venues, Salamensky is enthusiastic about the changes reshaping the department, including the appointment of Baker-White and the evolving curriculum. “Working in a department in the process of . . . development provides exciting opportunities for students, as well as faculty,” she said. “This was one of them.”