Last Friday, a company consisting almost entirely of current students at the College premiered its production of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens at the Whitney Center for the Arts in Pittsfield. Elegies, a musical composed of songs and free verse monologues, was directed by Caroline Fairweather ’20 with musical direction by Jack Romans ’20. The show donated its proceeds to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a theater industry-based nonprofit that works on fundraising for HIV/AIDS services organizations.
The company, Hand-Me-Down Theatre, came together over the course of the past month as the Elegies project took shape. Fairweather first came to know of the show over the summer and quickly got Romans on board. “Over the summer, I found a song from the show, ‘My Brother Lived in San Francisco,’” Fairweather said. “Then I read the script, and I thought the form was really interesting and it’d be really cool to do with other Williams students.”
Their original intent to produce the show on campus, however, never came to fruition, and the project sat dormant for several months. “We just sort of went through the semester with Elegies being a pipe dream, and when we found out we wouldn’t necessarily have the resources on campus to do a full concert version, we gave up for a second,” Fairweather said.
It was largely the venue’s availability and the Winter Study timeframe that allowed the project to be fully realized. “Monica [Bliss, director of performing arts at the Whitney Center] messaged me and said, ‘We have this venue and a slot open in January, do you have any projects by Williams students you know about [that] you’d like to be read?’” Fairweather said. “We did things essentially backwards – we had this show and then we got the venue, and when we knew this was going to happen, we scrambled to get together a production team.Then the cast was solidified over winter break.”
The nature of the show and the timing of Winter Study were also ideal for the production. “It seemed like a great Winter Study project because of the way it’s structured as a bunch of independent monologues and songs,” Romans said. “It was a great thing to get on its feet in a short amount of time.”
The company quickly found a production team, bringing on board another College student, Jack Roche ’20, as the stage manager. Roche organized the tricky production and rehearsal schedule, which was complicated by a venue located a half-hour’s drive from campus. “Frankly, the project seemed vital, both in terms of its vibrancy and energy, and is really powerful but also has something really important to say,” Roche said.
The team then assembled a cast of four singers – Hallie Della-Volpe ’21, Jazmin Bramble ’20, Alex Quizon ’21 and Nick Dehn ’18 – and seven actors – Isabel Ouweleen ’21, Jake Eisner ’21, Samori Etienne ’21 (who also assistant directed the show), Julia Tucher ’21, Nadiya Atkinson ’21, Delsa Lopez ’21 and Brianna Nicola, a junior at Pittsfield High School. Sebastian Black ’19 was the show’s accompanist, and the sound design was done by Brandon Hilfer ’20.
The rehearsal process was condensed into two weeks, consisting of individual monologue and vocal work culminating in full cast work. “The hard thing about the venue was the distance,” Romans said, “We actually only had two rehearsals in the venue. That was a challenge, making sure that everything worked out in the space, but it worked out very well.”
The newness of the company and the production team also presented challenges. “We had to come up with our own structure as we went along. So obviously we had models from our own experiences, but there were a lot of new types of labor … and questions about how to distribute that. [We had] to think of a lot of things we might not otherwise have to because we were ‘on our own,’” Roche said.
However, the unique nature of the off-campus performance and the newly-formed group also brought distinct benefits to the show, Fairweather added. “I think it was really awesome for this group of us to go to Pittsfield and do a real, non-college show,” she said. “We have this benefit of being in the same place, taking the same classes, being on the same page in the cast, but also all these people from all over the country can give their perspective on what they’re doing in the show.”
This experience ultimately proved inspiring for Fairweather. “In hindsight, it’s just really amazing what a group of random students can do with a venue and a little help,” she said. “The thing I would take away is if you want to make art, you can do it anywhere, any time, with anyone, and also that if you find a good story to tell, you should tell it and really trust the people around you.
“There are so many great, kind artists on campus, and it was at once really lucky and also made a lot of sense how amazing everyone was.”