Playing the part?

Five days ago, at about three in the morning, I came home from technical rehearsal for “Sweeney Todd” to discover that the Record was asking me to look into the question of “Theater People.” This struck me as odd, because I hadn’t really heard the phrase “Theater People” since I came to Williams. I liked it that way, too – not having the stench of otherness about me. Apparently, the enormity of “Sweeney Todd” has surfaced on a lot of people’s view screens. It’s been important enough to show up in the campus newspaper, at any rate. I found it strange, however, that the response to such a great show was a bunch of people talking about the “Theater People” on campus – so many people, in fact, that the local media had picked up on it. Nobody had been mentioning that before. So what is a theater person? Does one exist?

Looking back at high school, you may recall the theater being filled with, or controlled by, an insular, tight-knit and incredibly incestuous group of kids, pleased with themselves and the social worlds they had created. This memory that we both share does not represent theater at Williams. There is no single theatrical community on this campus. Instead, there exist, like everywhere else at the College, groups of friends who overlap with each other due to similar interests. The overlap between these circles might seem so remarkably profound that one could have difficulty thinking of them as separate groups. (Whence this strange ability of people who have worked on plays to know everybody else on campus who has worked on plays?) Those strong interconnections, however, are really just the byproduct of the realities of working on a play.

Working in theater is an incredibly social experience. Ideally, a play is accomplished through the balance of fully committed creative and emotional input from all parties involved – design, direction and acting. The unified focus required to create successful theater is very similar to the kind of unity it takes to ensure the success of an athletic team. The major difference is that theater directors are not coaches: they do not teach, but rather are themselves members of the creative process.

Similarly, a production schedule at Williams (and in most American theater) allows about two months of rehearsal (to re-hear, or repeat) for a play to become a finished product. An ensemble usually gets access to the space in which the final performance will take place about two weeks before the play will open to the public. During that time, everything that the audience witnesses from their seats must be created on the stage, from lights to sound to set to props and costumes – and all those things must be integrated into the actors’ two-month-old performances.

All of that is to say that making a play is a huge amount of work and a huge time commitment – but one that has to be done with closeness, positivity and support if it’s going to be worth much at all. Imagine, for example, installing the whole technical machine of “Sweeney Todd” in under a week, using about five stagehands. That timetable was a reality for us.

When you make a play with someone, you emerge knowing them very well. It’s like playing a varsity sport, except the season is shorter and everybody on the team has to decide what the game they’re playing is and the right way to play it. Unanimously.

Thus Theater People. People you work with like that become your friends, or at least people with whom you are very familiar. However, the process of becoming part of that larger theater community is nonlinear: there is no group besides the current cast, there is no center of the community except the current play(s), there is no method by which you enter the community except by helping some art get itself made.

Theater on campus appears to be growing, and I can only assume that it will continue to do so. It’s not much of a question: as the incredibly talented Class of 2011 grows into Williams, so will their work. As more “Sweeney Todds” start to be made, it may be helpful to recall that what you remember from high school does not represent the essence of a theater scene. Everbody grows up. There is a certain xenophobia in “Theater People,” similar to what there is in “Black People,” or “Rich People.” It is always, always nice to be considered a person first, or judged on the basis of the art one makes rather than the fact that one is making art.

Remember this: the deep secret of good theater is that it is, at the very center, about giving and listening. That’s why I spend so much time at the ’62 Center, anyway.

Eben Hoffer ’10 is from Portland, Ore. He lives in Prospect.

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