Mesri commands theater onstage and behind the scenes

Julian Mesri ’09 first started asking “why?” in his debut performance as a seven-year-old in a show of his mother’s, in which he played a child who only said this word, repeatedly. Fourteen years later, he is still pondering that cumbersome question on and off the stage as a theater activist through playwriting, acting and directing.

As a high school student, Mesri chose to attend Williams over NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts because the College appeared to offer more opportunities to produce his own work as well as to pursue academics outside of the theater. Instead of having to wait until the end of junior year to direct a full-length play, as is the requirement at Tisch according to Mesri, he directed his first one-act during Winter Study of his freshman year, two full-length plays in his sophomore year and is currently working on his newest play, The Optimists, to be put on this spring. Additionally, he has acted in several productions such as Frosh Revue, last semester’s Uncle Vanya and the upcoming production of Electra.

Mesri explained that he did not pursue a theater major because of the limitations it placed upon his course selections. He did not want to have to take basic courses such as Acting I when he has taken similar classes previously, and criticized the theater department’s lack of class opportunities for students who do not take these beginning requirements. “If they want to have a theater major it should be more geared to the individual’s specifications,” Mesri said.

As a philosophy major, Mesri explained that he gains insight into his artistic work through academics. “Most of the material and the inspirations I get as a director, as a writer or as a composer come more out of the courses that have nothing to do with it – like a philosophy course or a course on Greek drama or Latin American history,” Mesri said.

He explained that he was also inspired by Sept. 11, 2001. Having grown up in New York, he remembers the outrage and loss of emotional control felt by those closely affected by the tragedy. “When something like that happens, people lose every societal norm,” Mesri said.

Mesri explained his concern with the disparity between people’s extreme reactions to events like Sept. 11, and their apathy over the genocide and war that appear in the newspaper every day. “We see these horrors through a television screen, and we can’t connect with them. We move more and more into apathy,” he said. “We don’t really talk about them. Instead we talk about stupid things like whether something is awkward or not.”

This cultural desensitization is the main topic of Mesri’s upcoming play, The Optimists, which Cap and Bells will produce in April. Mesri wrote The Optimists to confront audience members with this graphicness and evoke a disturbed reaction and prompt introspection over why people do not feel this discomfort towards the grotesque more often.

“None of the really huge problems in the world are affecting us directly in a place like Williams. It doesn’t matter whether 5000 people or one person dies in Iraq on one given day – we’ll have the exact same day, complain about the exact same things and nothing will change,” he said.

As he works on writing his next play, Mesri also plans on directing a cross-gender reinterpretation of King Lear next year. His plans also include the formation of an alternative theater collective that would let students produce their own work with greater frequency and freedom, unlike Cap and Bells, which requires auditions and previous technical experience in order to direct.

The first project this fledgling group plans to undertake is a production of The Last Five Years in the spring. “It’s a place where people can create theater and do theater in smaller non-traditional venues, and it’s a collective of artists, actors and people who just want to make things happen. The idea is to make lots of it – it doesn’t have to be all good, but it’s just a matter of bringing new art into Williams,” Mesri said.

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