Thirty stories, 60 minutes: Synergetic play finds piercing humor in the real

Director Jesse Gordon '10 and the 13 cast members collaborated opn the 60-minute production 'Thoughts on a Subject.' Above, a puppet, Chris Gay '13 and Gordon during rehearsal this week.
Director Jesse Gordon ’10 and the 13 cast members collaborated opn the 60-minute production ’Thoughts on a Subject.’ Above, a puppet, Chris Gay ’13 and Gordon during rehearsal this week.

Following the instructions of Jesse Gordon  ’10, director of the Cap & Bells production Thoughts on a Subject that goes up this weekend, I wound through the ’62 Center, entered the Adams Memorial Theatre and came face to face with the cast of the play – an intimate group of 13 students laughing and playing Bop It to warm up for rehearsal. One actor strolled casually across stage carrying a whip and wearing a hula hoop around his neck; another ran behind the illuminated backdrop and pretended to be Godzilla with his huge shadow. Though the rehearsal was relaxed, it had many elements of a great play in the works: a talented cast putting together tear-jerkingly hilarious scenes that are underwritten with darker messages.

Inspired by Ben Karlin’s collection of comedic stories, Things I’ve Learned From Women Who’ve Dumped Me, Thoughts on a Subject is a 60-minute play composed of 30 stories the cast members wrote about their lives. While each act is scripted, the play involves a significant amount of audience participation. “One of the biggest elements of the show is that the audience creates it,” Gordon said. “We string up 30 numbers on a clothesline, the audience yells out a number and we perform that act. So the show is different each night.”

Writing the stories for the play was a collaborative process between all the cast members. “We sat down in a group and had pitch meetings,” Gordon said. A person would tell an idea or a story, and then the group would talk about what those stories meant.” Although every story is true, an important part of writing the play was shaping the stories into compact, meaningful scenes for the audience. “The stories were interesting, but for the stage we had to abstract key moments from them,” Gordon said. “We would talk about the strongest part of each story, how to best get across the emotion, how to use the stage.” The result is a varied collection of acts that employ modes of expression ranging from  puppets to video to the actors themselves.

After the cast lounged around for a 40-minute warm-up (in Gordon’s words: “We’re relaxed, perhaps too relaxed”), Gordon decided it was time to rouse the group and start some real acting: “OK everyone, we’re starting with the orgasm scene! It’s time for ‘Wishbone Sex Adventures.’” While Mike Leon ’11 and Hannah Smith-Drelich ’10 mounted the stage, Gordon turned to the rest of the cast and said, “Just sit and start learning your lines ’cuz there’s no way they’re all memorized. And by the way, rehearsal hours this week: all the time.”

In “Wishbone Sex Adventures,” Leon and Smith-Drelich assume their positions in a French bakery. Leon sensually kneads bread and asks his horrified cooking student (Smith-Drelich) if she has had any sex adventures in France. I won’t lay out any spoilers here, but I can’t resist recapping Gordon’s comments to Leon during this scene: “Don’t talk in such a heavy French accent that the audience cracks up about it the whole time. No, you cannot have a real cigarette on stage – you don’t need a cigarette to be French! Touch her as much as possible. Please can you wear tighty-whities or at least boxers on stage?” As I doubled up in laughter when Leon described how he made “lots of little pasta” in the kitchen while “fixing his pasta machine” with his mistress, a cast member turned around and reminded me: “You know, all these stories actually happened.”

Punctuating such hilarious scenes, however, are those that deal with much darker experiences. “There’s a very wide range of subjects,” Gordon said. “There are the slapstick ones, and a lot of them are based on things that happened at the College. In the serious ones, cast members delve into their deep secrets.” In “Hospice Barbie,” for example, Emily Ciavarella ’13 and Molly Olguin ’12 play two children discussing the death of a family member through the voices of Barbie and Ken. “Depression Cubed” somewhat violently represents a girl’s low self-esteem in a scene involving figures of angels and devils.

In the process of sharing their humorous and sometimes more sensitive stories while shaping them into a play, the actors grew very close. “Everyone has had to share personal stories, and some of them have been very moving and touching,” said cast member Meghan Donnelly ’11. “It’s really great to figure out who these people are because we’re sharing a stage and a life with them in a sense. Everyone in the cast is very different.” Because of these differences, Gordon was at first worried that the cast would divide into cliques. Instead, as Gordon explained, “Students working together used their different backgrounds to create a rich collection of stories – something that’s pretty fun and interesting.”

While Thoughts on a Subject still needs final touches, by Thursday it should be a snappy production that is not only humorous, but also serious and sometimes disturbing. Stop by the Adams Memorial Theatre at 7:30 p.m. this Thursday, Friday or Saturday and help weave together the sequence of acts by shouting out the scenes you wish to see, and by all means, don’t miss that kitchen scene. As cast member Noah Schechter ’12 said, “I want to say this show will make you laugh and cry, but that sounds stupid. No . . . people should come and see it because it’s heartwarming and funny and exciting and saddening.”

  • anon

    um, this is just a rip-off of the neo-futurists work: “Too much light makes the baby go blind”. see their website here:

    http://www.neofuturists.org/

    “Too Much Light…, with its ever-changing “menu,” is an attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. The single unifying element of these plays is that they are performed from a perspective of absolute honesty.”

  • anon2

    Thank you anon, I was about to write what you did almost word for word. Even the numbers on the clothesline, that’s how the Neofuturists do it…

    I can’t believe they didn’t mention that they copied the format from another show…disappointing both from the Williams students that put this production on and the Record for not catching this.

  • Thank you anonymous writers for expressing your ethical voice. I am very proud to see students and theaters all over the world create productions which are influenced by my art, but it saddens me endlessly when people take my work as their own without even consulting me. Until this article I never heard anything about the Williams production. I am easy to reach through the Neo-Futurist website, Facebook, or any of our published books of plays from “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (30 Plays in 60 Minutes)”, but whoever was in charge of this project never bothered to do so, much less credit the source. If anyone is in touch with people who worked on this show I would love to hear from them. Thanks Anonymous #1 and #2. It’s fans like you who keep us in business as a popular experimental theater.
    Greg Allen
    Founding Director
    The Neo-Futurists
    NEOFUT@gmail.com

  • Anon3

    Whatever, this show was awesome. Boo-hoo they copied the format. Get over it, it was totally different material.