Results tagged “mark costello” from Drama Queen

Several of my colleagues--including this year's KCACTF winner Mark Costello--have already begun the two-week-long O'Neill Critics Institute (OCI), and I'm very excited to be headed up there in the morning. This year, from July 14-18, the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) hosts its national conference alongside the OCI, and I'll be speaking on a panel about theater criticism and new media. 

For me, it's been an interesting and frustrating e-year--interesting because there are so many more potential ways to disseminate arts coverage than there were even as recently as last year, and frustrating because instead of being mandatory, they're still overlooked by nearly every theater reviewing outlet in Philadelphia. While I'd like to see every print-based arts-covering journalist in this city get together with their bosses to discuss a multi-platform approach and create content wherein what appears online complements and/or supplements what appears on paper (including freelancers who, though we have largely replaced staffers, don't get the idea-tossing benefits of regular staff meetings), it hasn't happened yet. 

So here's what I can do something about: the comments section. Although the comments section is generally regarded as the exclusive province of trolls and there's a general rule that you don't feed them, this hasn't been my experience. Perhaps it's because the audience that cares enough to comment on theater is different (*cough* better *cough*) than the audience for stories about sports or politics. And while I occasionally get the reader who just plain calls me a hack WITHOUT USING A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE (note to you, dear reader: I am always specific in my critiques), there are far more people who leave a mini-review or call me out with a differing opinion. I also find that when I jump into the fray, it makes for a far livelier conversation with more commenters, and remains active far longer than the usual review.

I've gotten varying opinions on this practice from colleagues. Some say it's a great way to make the review come to life. Others say once a review appears, it's time to let readers do the talking. I've heard from readers grateful that I'm still engaged with the work, and still others who say it's just poor form to get down there in the muck. 

So what do you think? If you're a critic, do you like to engage in discussion with your readers? If you're a reader, do you want to hear from a critic, or would you rather continue the conversation on your own? 
July 13, 2010 4:18 PM | | Comments (7)
The 2010 Region II Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival O'Neill Critics Institute winner is...

Villanova University graduate Student Mark J. Costello (From now on, he'd like to be referred to by his professional name, "SarcMark").
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Our alternate is Muhlenberg College freshman Amy Asendorf.
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But really, all the students are winners. Under ordinary circumstances that might sound pretty trite. However, these weren't ordinary circumstances. The class' late nights, early mornings, dedication to the work, and support for one another was remarkable. The night they wrote their final reviews, they also critiqued a group speed-writing exercise, tweeted with me about the assignment at 3 a.m., and still showed up early for our 9:30 a.m. class. I mean, I took writing workshops in college, and I guess we must have worked, but I sure don't recall anyone working like that.

Much thanks and deep respect to this year's critics, and also to over 2,000 people who followed the critics' progress on this blog; it was really helpful and motivating for these new, young writers to know they had a built-in audience. 
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Also, special thanks to Clarion College English professor Ralph Leary, tireless organizer of the OCI and one of the few people on earth who every year spends a week with a room full of critics and still walks away with glowing reviews.
January 17, 2010 8:00 PM | | Comments (1)
This is it. 

The KCACTF2 OCI critics, on very, very little sleep, focused the last of their remaining energies on a previous review, crossed their fingers and hit "send." I'm reading through these all day and announcing a winner at IUP tonight, on this blog tomorrow. Over 2,000 visitors read the students' work online this week and I hope some of you will offer your choice for a winner and alternate. The winner gets to attend the national Kennedy Center event this spring, and if their work wins against the top critics in every other region, they get an all-expenses-paid trip to the Eugene O'Neill Critics Institute this summer. 

These reviews represent the range of shows the students saw here in a whirlwind three days--seven productions in all. But they also represent a massive amount of hard work. Check our Twitter list to peek in on some of our wee-hour conversations; check below to see the fruits of all that late-night labor.

Shawn Arnold

How can a just society operate when violence is the only means of communication? Temple University strives to examine this question in their new drama set in turbulent North Philadelphia (known as "Beirut"). Shot! explores how violence can be prevented and a caring community reestablished.

Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon's play is a grab-bag of material examining the violent culture of northern Philly. Including poems, rap, videos, and interviews, it creates a night of experimental, innovative theatre that pushes its edgy voice through vignettes. Gangsters vs. warriors, young mothers, the police, education, alcohol and drugs, and the homeless share a Zen-like balance topically. The play's core, however, contains a wealth of interviews that paint a rich image of the real people of Beirut.

The citizens of North Philadelphia are genuinely brought to life through the ensemble. To create this sense of specificity, director Douglas Wager emphasized the importance of the interviews. Not merely become other human beings, the cast conducts their dialog as if answering interview questions. The importance of every little "um" or "ah" is clear. By focusing on the actual community of Beirut, Wager has successfully transported them on stage.

Williams-Witherspoon literally employs her own narrative voice in the piece to mixed results. In some occasions her poetry vividly encapsulates the moment. Her valorous verse on the difference between a gangster and a warrior provides a stirring example on how to fight for one's cause when, "many are dying, few people are trying." Other times, sadly, her meter becomes overwhelming. While riffing about young women with babies, Williams-Witherspoon slides into a series of clichés: "non- existent sugar daddies" and "children with children."

Jessica Wallace's visually stunning lighting design inspires awe with its bold color choices and stark images. Ron Ron, an up and coming rapper, is at the end of his rope. Pointing a gun at himself, he says, "click." Abruptly the lights cut to black, and as he lay dying, a screen of crimson floods the backdrop.

A desolate wasteland, Kyle Melton's set design reflects North Philly's poverty. The choice to use three simplistic, worn stoops and doorways, however, also fosters a sense of community within the play in scenes such as when the elderly generation is reminiscing of the old days.

Shot! -- with its multiple performance levels - takes a look at the raw life of North Philadelphia. In the words of Williams-Witherspoon, many youths are, "killing each other over garbage." The play presents many ways this violence can be combated. Perhaps by raising the price of bullets. Perhaps more measures to inform the community. Perhaps if more Americans stand up to the racial intolerance that is blatantly still present. There still is a shot at hope, "We need more love, we need more understanding."  

Amy Asendorf

Forget a click of the heels and a wave of the wand; there's a new homecoming vehicle on the rise, and this one requires no ruby-studded mantras. Arcadia University's production of Samm-Art Williams' Home rekindles the human faith in a promised land, proving that the long-awaited fields of green are not a destination, but a discovery.

Home first premiered in 1979 as a production of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), whose  mission of developing plays by African-American writers achieved instantaneous acclaim. Home proceeded to earn a Tony nomination for Best Play in 1981. As the 70's were wrought with African-American political defiance sparked by stagnant Civil Rights efforts, the piece was eschewed by the Black radical movement, yet otherwise enjoyed widespread fame. Praise for this play has not since dwindled, and in the past couple years America has witnessed its resurfacing popularity.

The stubborn soul-aching by Jamal Douglas' farmer Cephus Miles erected the possibility for a man to be devoid of religion, yet rich in faith. The devil himself must have been summoned as Douglas flirted with the memory of his Sunday dice games in the graveyard with an expression of youthful disobedience and limberly slunk to ignite the sparks of affection in his love, Pattie Mae (Briana Pope-McBride). But even amidst these games, Douglas humbly deflated his pocket of self-worth as he crouched to raise odes for the crickets and birds above those for himself.

Two female muses, Pope-McBride and Taysha Canales as Woman Two, glorified the soulful direction of Mark Wade with explosive guardian-angel-on-the-shoulder flashbacks to the human blessings along Cephus' quest for home. Somehow, despite Cephus' stabs at God's vacation to Miami (leaving him helpless and forlorn) and the slurred syllables with which the women's damning judgments were delivered as he drank and gambled, Cephus continued to keep the faith kite aloft through God's gracious gift of perseverance. Together as ensemble, the trio balanced the duality of belting lyrical poetry and hip-jiving to jazzy reader's theater.  

Unfortunately, the lighting by Robin Stamey detracted from the storyline toward the beginning of the piece with completely unwarranted transitions between artistic visions: imagine a friend detailing a lengthy dream while shifting seats every thirty seconds, and a similar effect is attained.

Arcadia's set, designed by Chris J. Kleckner, centered on a ramshackle rancher resembling a deck of cards in need of a good shuffling. Angled wedge platforms and wooden crates were so versatile that they at once fostered a downtown bar and a Sunday school classroom. Most pivotal to the play's theme, however, was the looming telephone pole and wire that boldly convened to form a cross. Evidently, God had not slipped away to Miami after all.

With the recent inauguration of President Obama, the promises of the Civil Rights movement for which the NEC sought have been fulfilled at last. In effect, Home has again surged in popularity, testifying to the power of faith among all people to reclaim a home that was always theirs from the start.


Nicholas Barilar

On the steps before a green door of a ghetto home sit photos, stuffed animals, and lit candles as part of a public display of love and mourning. Around the steps, people are gathered:  some hold each other, some stare in bewilderment.  At the top of the steps stands a young man - arms folded and eyes closed. A mother weeps and as she cries a cascade of crimson envelops the proceedings.  With a sudden pivot of the head, the mourners spit a single word that rips through the heart with the cold burn of an icicle:  Shot!

Temple University's production consists of Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon's poetry combined with verbatim interviews of the characters presented.  The first act introduces a brief history of Philadelphia's violent street history and segues into stories concerning the demons of their homes - poverty, drugs, "babies with babies," etc.  Finally, it calls for change.

Williams-Witherspoon also leads the ensemble in the show.  Her play presents a gift to the world and an effective motivator; however, her poetic presence on stage conveys the classic strutting with pride saloon-cowboy rather than a voice of hope for the people.

While some of this poetic dialogue might be effective, such as discussing how men leave their girls with little more than a tattoo upon their breasts, much of it is unnecessary, such as the long speech about the difference between a warrior and a gangster - something that is not brought up for the rest of the play. If cuts could be made, the slightly dragging two-act could be consolidated into a single sitting of a clearer and quicker moving play. 

The acting of the ensemble might be more genuine than Williams-Witherspoon, but it is the fact that they are students that make them so effective - within their age group the play most pushes for a radical change. During a section entitled "Anatomy of a Bullet" the students portray doctors and describe the horrific surgical procedure to treating a bullet wound with the similar effect of an Iraqi Muslim describing the waterboarding process - instilling a moment of awkward discomfort that twists the stomach.

Director Douglas C. Wager employs excellent use of his lights, designed by Jessica Wallace, bringing sharp color changes about quickly. A foreboding red lingers, a gunshot rings out with a blinding white light and fades to a now bloody red. 

The simple set, by Kyle Melton, consists of a stage-length long platform upon which stand three different doors with stoops leading to the floor of the stage - illustrating the broken displacement and near ruination of home in this war-torn neighborhood - in addition to telephone cords that run above with a pair of shoes flung over the cord. 

At its heart, Shot! calls for change to a city plagued by violence, drugs, homelessness, and other evils. One of the doctors says, "Once it becomes alright you become a part of the problem." Shot! demands that "alright" not come for those that are lucky enough to witness the play.

A Year with Frog and Toad

Robby Bassler

Wake up!  Come on, hibernation is over!  No it doesn't matter what your age is, because Willie Reale's adaptation of Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad series titled A Year With Frog and Toad presented by Indiana University of Pennsylvania transports both young and old on an adventure as large as your wildest imaginations.

A waterfall of shrill trumpets, finger-snapping bass riffs, and bells that turn into swirling leaves (Musical direction by Tom Octave) propel director Rob Greta's paint by imagination environment.  Frog and Toad (Sean Barrett and Joe York) pop out of two oversized matchbox beds, with a puddle-splashing ode about meeting in each other's dreams during hibernation.  Despite awkward pauses before, during, and after various critters' swan songs, playful singing voices lure even the most lethargic slugs to frolic about in a pool of catchy musical slime.

Frog and Toad outshine expectations from the most dedicated toad-toting toddler or teen.  Set and costume designer Dan Iwaniec flies the enormous children's book cover that starts and ends the show into the sky to clear a path for Frog and Toad.  Wise, dry-humored Frog chuckles to himself as his best pal Toad runs with the staggering gate of Chris Farley across the stage and up into the audience, trying as hard as he can to fly his big red kite.

As Toad as Frog's unique friendship takes flight, Frog accepts Toad's quirks as Frog squeezes the murky lake water out of the spongy sandwiches that Toad used as a floatation device.  Iwaniec dresses this loveable, laughable Toad in a Dr. Seuss-like polka-dotted bathing suit equipped with 1920's swimmer cap.  Doo-wop birds change scenery in costumes with lace wings and a feather hat to guide the silly pair of amphibians in discoveries comparable to entering a new room of Willy Wonka's Charlie Factory.

No matter how great, a journey is not complete without its obstacles.  Woodland creatures squint hard at their poorly lit path guided by spotlights meandering around stage like lightning bugs.  Brown blobs topped with a light bulb (supposedly moles) scurry around stage, content with digging small holes to temporarily trap adventurers.  The letter-toting mail-snail crawls onstage with enjoyable dialogue, but often delays Frog and Toad with her lackadaisical comedic timing.

Toad and Frog's platonic book-ending in which they summarize the action of the entire show patronizes adults and children but stands out as an exception for the play as a whole.  Throughout the rest of the adventure, jokes about birds getting the flu and cookbooks titled Betty Croaker raises expectations for all children's theatre.  So for all those parents that would rather be hibernating, use your children as an excuse to lick this toad and ride out the multi-colored shockwave of fun.


Michael Cook

Guns, teen pregnancy, and drugs.  Is that the latest news report on what is destroying our nation?  Shot! is a 'docu-drama' performed by Temple University which addresses this matter in regards to the North Philadelphia neighborhood known as Beirut.  This play had an unconventional genesis which helped shape it into a unique production: Eugene Martin, Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, and Douglas C. Wager are all credited with conceiving the show. 

Shot was created through interviews and videos shot of several residents of Beirut by residents. This neighborhood is located very close to Temple University's campus which allowed for a lot of interaction between the production and residents. 

The play explored how a neighborhood descended into the place it now is, and leaves audiences with a sense of community and a wish to get closer to their neighbors and look after each other. To say that this is the work of a playwright is to spit in the faces of the many people who were interviewed, and the actors who then recreated those interviews in a brilliant naturalistic manner. While it was somewhat 'controversial' that 'multimedia' was used in this performance, it was used in a manner like some theatre practioners as early as the early 20th century did. 'Controversial' in the manner that every technological innovation to theatre is met with initial resistance and several theatre practioners are adamantly against it.  The 'multimedia' aspects of t he show were very well done and always seemed to re-enforce what was going on in the play. 

The actors played many different characters, and aside from the professor who helped write the play  (Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon) it is difficult to put names and faces together, which helped solidify the fact that these events could happen anywhere and aren't specific to North Philadelphia.  Characters were recreations of actual people which created an element of reality of the show. 

The play was also complemented by a minimalist set by Kyle Melton. The set used very little to establish the front porches of three houses in a neighborhood, but it worked out quite nicely. There were three doors and three sets of stairs leading up to a slightly higher platform. 

All of these elements helped contribute to the idea that this just isn't about North Philadelphia, I personally am from rural Northwest Ohio so a lot of the play was lost to me. However, some of the play was so universal that I didn't have to be from Philadelphia to grasp what was going on with the play to fully understand it and feel for the characters. 

This was the first production of this play at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (it has made script changes since it's debut) and it is safe to say that this is not the last time this show will be seen by anyone.


Mark Costello

Please, Douglas C. Wager: it's time to upgrade to a better toolbox.

The director of 2007's In Conflict has returned to the banality of mass media talking points to harness yet another American tragedy: the poverty and crime of North Philadelphia. Temple University's Shot! is In Conflict moved from Afghanistan and Iraq to Broad and Diamond. Soldiers' blank verse has become citizens' Def Jam slam poetry. Men and women crippled by careless government still die stagnant deaths.

The crimson projections and lackluster tableaux of In Conflict are two more albatrosses that have clung to Wager's neck as he developed the mise en scene for Shot! Again, we see the entire cast repeatedly lined up, left to right, facing the audience in confrontation. Blood and figurative (or real) explosions abound in both works and sadly, both are as intriguing as a conversation overheard on the C-bus.

This piece's failure comes from Wager's reliance upon a parasitic art form. Docudrama culls together snippets of interviews, histories, and newspaper articles to create a script from which drama is supposed to magically arise. In many instances, such as In Conflict or Robbins' Dead Man Walking, these works are about as engaging as a staged scrapbook.

Much of the first and the entirety of the second act drag accordingly. Protean actors wander back and forth, up and down, speaking the words of real North Philadelphians. Wager's staging has men and women face downstage while singing the horrors of malt liquor, treating a serious problem for the African-American community like a hokey after-school special with an easy moral. The candor of the actors' voices takes on a lightness that betrays their would-be pain.

Thankfully, the production manages to rise under the power of Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon's writing and performance. Decked in loose corn-rows and an understated black pant-suit, Williams-Witherspoon commands awed silence with the practiced stride of a feared schoolmarm. When she screams: "No one can lift themselves up by their bootstraps!" the room erupts, and in that moment she could sell hot coal in hell. Her poetic testament can knock down the giants who keep her town starved in their shadows while raising her neighbors to the status of supermen.

The production is at its strongest when Wager departs widely from the work he's done before. Kyle Melton's inspired three stoop set transforms slowly into a roadside altar in memoriam of a boy slain by circumstance; the boy's mother collapses on it, wailing, sorrow hanging thick in the air like Philadelphia humidity. Would that this passion were the norm, but sadly, the play is far more concerned with telling us about the hell these characters live through. Rarely does it let us see.

Shot! loses its deeply felt message in Wager's inability to make art of reality. As it is, his unwillingness to trade in his old bag of tricks makes for a stale piece, sometimes melodramatic, rarely awe-inspiring, without much to brag about outside of Williams-Witherspoon's magic.

Please, Mr. Wager: revamp your toolbox.

A Year with Frog and Toad

Connor Davis

"Crisp, but not overly brittle, just a scintilla of spice, and cunningly soft in the middle." Claims the delightful Frog as he relishes a fresh cookie from his pal Toad. Coincidentally, Frog is also describing Indiana University Pennsylvania's production of A Year with Frog and Toad. Based on the classic children books by Arnold Lobel, this cheery musical chronicle the events of two best friends through one year.  Warmly acted and agreeably sung, this production was as tasty and enjoyable as the first bite of a chocolate-chip cookie right out of the oven.

Under the delicate and careful direction of Rob Gretta, the small ensemble remains true to the script and does not favor an adult or children's audience. With Robert Reale's score, which ranges from brisk jazzy melodies to breezy country tunes, and Willie Reale's witty libretto this production neither plays down to a child nor flashes a wink to an adult.

At the center of this production were a charming and playful Sean Barret as Frog and the sincere and sometimes doleful Joe York as Toad. Both embodied their characters fully, keeping the audience engaged through inside jokes, and amusing sight gags. Take a look at Toad's outrageous swimsuit, and Mr. Barret's amusing leaps onto his companion's shoulders. The ensemble works hard, and seamlessly with the audience to tell a warm story of friendship and devotion.

Brandon Beale & Anthony Lombardi's lighting design does a fine job in using bright yellows, and cool blues to depict the various seasons. However, their use of follow spots is questionable. The spotlights washed out the actors' faces, and took away from the rich colors thety created for the atmosphere. Shockingly, there were moments when actors could not find their light, and could not be seen by the audience. It was the one area of this production that appeared burnt and overcooked.

Charming costumes by Dan Iwaniec provided depth to characters, with bright colors and vibrant patterns that leap off of the stage like a children'spop-up book. Carefully and expertly detailed, such as Frog's sharp striped suit, with green leggings, and Toad's polka dotted suit, complete with converse sneakers. The costumes provided another layer for actors to dig deeper into their amphibian characters.

Zipping along at a quick 90 minutes, this delightful musical comedy reminds audience members that simple is better. Many contemporary musicals today try and boast flashy technical elements to wow the audience over, yet contain hollow librettos and scores that are consistently unmemorable. It is refreshing to spend time with an airy piece of theater that plays homage to the good old days of musical theater when artistic integrity trumps financial success. A Year with Frog and Toad is deliciously consumed from first bite to last and profoundly memorable long after it has been fully digested.


Valerie Gibbs

Worn wood, chipped paint, and a sunken porch might not sound much like home, but hasn't it been said that "home is where the heart is?" Well, heart is definitely found in Arcadia University's Home, by Samm-Art Williams. This classic, performed on Broadway back in 1980, has been brought back to life by director Mark Wade who inspires three actors to make the lives and stories of over 25 characters beat as one. As the program states, Home, a story originally created for an audience dealing with the effects of the Civil Rights movement and in the midst of the Vietnam War, is "a stirring portrait of what it means to embrace the future while honoring the legacies of the past." 

Young African American Cephus Miles struggles to find himself during the racial crossroads in American history. He was born to be a farmer, but soon hears the echoing call of the city to hop on the subway and experience the high life. Actor Jamal Douglas portrays Cephus with conviction and authentic passion and holds nothing back. Douglas has an amazing understanding and awareness of his body and uses it to emphasize his every word. When Cephus falls to alcoholism in the city and comes to the realization that he has lost everything he has ever known, he collapses to the ground and emits one scream containing all the elements of anger, pain, frustration, regret, and more. 

Supporting cast members Briana Pope-McBride and Taysha Canales also let the emotions of the text stir them to dancing, shouting, whispering, running around in a fury, or standing still staring off into space. Both speak with their entire body, not just their mouths. Emotion is not solely heard in their voices; it is freely personified for all to see.  The show's heartbeat never slows, and music, dancing, singing, and poetic language fill the stage with an immense fever that cannot be ignored. 

The set is comprised of a small deteriorating farmhouse center stage and two angled platforms on either side, often transformed into various locations such as a bar or Sunday school classroom. The openness provides a blank canvas for hues of emotion to shine through. Lighting designer Robin Stamey captures the essence of every moment presented on stage. The moment Cephus' friend is killed in Vietnam, the screen burns a crimson red and a single white light beams on the cross-like telephone pole in Cephus's yard. This visual pierces the heart and humbles the soul.

Today's audience is much different than the one Williams wrote for, but Home still relates to people today. Every individual goes through a time of self-discovery.  Many experience a love like Cephus and Pattie Mae, the struggle between desire and duty, and often wonder if God has "taken a vacation to Miami" in order to get away for awhile.  But in the end, this show proves that as long as we remain true to ourselves, we will find ourselves at home - no matter where that might be.

Increased Difficulty of Concentration

Peter Starr Northrop

1. At the center of a quiet den Dr. Huml stands rigid in terror. He is completely surrounded by a mad swirl of people and unavoidable questions while lights pop and flash all around him. For the first time in his life, Huml has lost control. Yes, Muhlenberg College's production The Increased Difficulty of Concentration by Vaclav Havel has pinpointed the craziness that comes from simply knowing people so exactly that it actually gets frightening. This is a show that--in typical absurdist fashion--pokes fun at man's need for understanding and his quest to make everything into a science, rather than letting natural things be natural.

6. In crafting this play, Havel essentially took the concept of time and smashed it.   Scene changes are abrupt and rarely in chronological order. Audience members all around me gave bewildered groans as they tried to follow the maddeningly frenzied pace Havel's time shifts created. But, if you manage to keep up with this review, then you'll do fine with Havel's script. 

3. The set consisted of a semicircle of four enormous column-like doors looming over a quiet living room. From the start, the doors give  the impression that they will become a threat to the serenity of this place. The walls are all painted olive green, a shade that completely matches Julie Henegan's costumes.

2. A product of the late 1960s during the Soviet Union's iron reign over the Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel was completely against the exasperating communist bureaucracy that gripped his country. His plays usually make great fun the attempt to make a science out of everything. Havel's victim in this show? Sociology!

5. And in his costume, Joe Feilding plays a marvelous Huml. He is earthy and smooth like pipe smoke. He can put any situation to ease--especially when both his wife and the woman with whom he is having an affair interrogate him in separate scenes.  They both ask desperate him questions to see if he is ready to leave the other. But, Fielding deflects their inquiries with incredible ease.

4. In this case, Huml's costumes are an olive green suit and a plaid creamsicle set of pajamas. These complement the set's color and give the firm notion that this is Huml's space.

7.  Vanessa Lancellotti's direction takes this crazy time scheme and brings order to it. From matching set and costume designs to casting Huml's two love interests so they look alike, Lancellotti weaves together all these chaotic elements so anyone can be guided through the pandemonium.

8. The show focuses around Huml's encounter with a set of fellow social scientists and their quest to make a scientific formula for the interactions of man. After the madhouse climax where everything goes wrong for the scientists, Huml completely loses control of his life for just an instant. Afterwards, Huml finally understands where he's gone wrong and the point of the show becomes clear. "The fundamental key to man does not lie in his brain, but in his heart."


Nathan Taylor

Click.  The buckle opened as I pushed inward on the release.  The straps swung slowly, back and forth, almost pleading with me not to go through with it.  Ignoring their appeal, I put my hands to my head and took a deep breath before yanking off my thinking cap.  It was the only way to even remotely enjoy W&J Student Theatre Company's original play Love @ 1st Plight.

Imagine an episode of Family Guy for a basic understanding of the jests writer Drew Aloe uses; lines like "holy cow on a hamburger" sacrifice pacing for humor, resulting in a Möbius strip of predictable clichés.  Tiresome jokes assist in unraveling the script; in ninety minutes, main character Spools (David Doom) manages to repeat his name more times than Bob Dole has in an entire lifetime.  No help is received from director T.S. Frank, who endorses a hamfisted style of acting.

Mate the voices of Harvey Fierstein and Scooby Doo with the comedic talent of Carlos Mencia, and out pops Doom's portrayal of Spools.  The character is tricky; with lines like "Bullshit! From his ass!" and "Let's hug it out bitch," it's little wonder Doom trips over this complicated role.  Yelling every line, he presumably researched his part at an elementary school recess.

Roommate Rich (Johnny Galli) is more of an unabridged collection of Shakespeare's works than an actual character.  Galli delivers his lines with all the wooden acting ability of Keanu Reeves.  There's no chemistry between him and Doom, but it's hardly a surprise watching him ineptly serve his lines to the audience instead of his partner.

Not all performances are as threadbare - understudy Sophia Tsiris's Daisy demonstrates potential despite the figurative manhandling she receives attempting to flirt with Doom.  And ironically enough, the foreseeable plot allows Dent Holden's cameo Phil to produce the most massive laugh.  Expecting Daisy underneath a mask, the prancing, southern accented Denton bursts free in a welcome divergence from the stagnant plot.  Busily hitting himself with a program for most of the play, the guy in front of me stopped long enough to shout out "It's Phil!" when Holden saved the play for yet a second time.

Enough praise, the crowd demands more blood!  Dan Shaw's set design is a sloppy mess of ideas, unpolished and uninspired.  Such clutter is absent from the dorm room that includes nothing more than two beds and a desk.  Stylistically, the only item missing is a John Belushi poster.  The door to said room was set in the middle of a large, white, sparkly fairytale castle.  Why is still a mystery; I'll wish upon a star and get back to you.

With all the wit available at a college party, Love @ 1st Plight would have been much more satisfying with a beer in hand.


Jensen Toperzer

Rhythm and motion - this is what defines Arcadia University's production of Samm-Art Williams' Home, a show that in almost every aspect, a production that stands out as a true gem amidst the shows presented at this year's Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

The script itself would feel clichéd if not for the cadence of Samm-Art's dialogue, evocative of the works of Langston Hughes or Ntozake Shange. Taysha Marie Canales' character, listed only as 'Woman Two', shows this in the lines of a speech about going to the city - 'Take it to the city', she says, and in her words we can hear the rumble of trains and the flow of people, the skyscrapers towering overhead.

Even more than in their voices, the actors' mastery of their own bodies is nearly perfect. James Douglas' lithe movements are each well thought out, not a single one wasted as he conjures vignettes, stories, and locations from Cephus' life. For example, when he tells the story of the "Black Indian" he leans on his porch to speak to the (not physically present) man, then stands up bolt straight with his arms close to his body to mimic and parody the deluded fake-Indian before shifting back to his own confidant yet relaxed posture. Everything seems planned, from the confidant and sly way he moves as a young man to the subtle tremors in his hands as a shoe shiner in the twisted canyons of New York City. These careful considerations of movement, beat, and voice combine to take a script which can be boiled down to a story about finding oneself and coming home to spectacular heights.

Robin Stamey's lighting is almost as much of a character as the actors. Though some cues are slightly mis-timed and on occasion the actors are left in shadow, it is clear that this is a problem of the space and short amount of time to put on the show, not the show itself. The warm, almost buttery tones used to recall Crossroads, North Carolina, emphasizing the warm memories and feelings that Cephus has of the area. Violet light is used when Cephus first travels to New York, showing how foreign and exotic it appears to the country-born Cephus, before it changes to a chill ice blue, paralleling the alienation and neglect Cephus later experiences in the city. Violent red light calls to mind the war in Vietnam, while sickly green shows the malady of spirit that Cephus feels during his wrongful imprisonment for draft dodging.

There are some questions about the possible relevance of the play to modern audiences - originally produced in the late 70's, the play speaks on issues concerning Vietnam and black rights.Yet the themes addressed seem just as relevant to the modern day: Cephus' treatment as a man who 'spits on the flag' after he refuses to fight in the war for religious reasons is especially relevant considering the pervasive conservative attitude towards objectors to the war in Iraq during the last decade.

Rhythm and motion - this is what defines Arcadia University's production of Samm-Art Williams' Home, a show that in almost every aspect, a production that stands out as a true gem amidst the shows presented at this year's Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

The script itself would feel clichéd if not for the cadence of Samm-Art's dialogue, evocative of the works of Langston Hughes or Ntozake Shange. Taysha Marie Canales' character, listed only as 'Woman Two', shows this in the lines of a speech about going to the city - 'Take it to the city', she says, and in her words we can hear the rumble of trains and the flow of people, the skyscrapers towering overhead.

Even more than in their voices, the actors' mastery of their own bodies is nearly perfect. James Douglas' lithe movements are each well thought out, not a single one wasted as he conjures vignettes, stories, and locations from Cephus' life. For example, when he tells the story of the "Black Indian" he leans on his porch to speak to the (not physically present) man, then stands up bolt straight with his arms close to his body to mimic and parody the deluded fake-Indian before shifting back to his own confidant yet relaxed posture. Everything seems planned, from the confidant and sly way he moves as a young man to the subtle tremors in his hands as a shoe shiner in the twisted canyons of New York City. These careful considerations of movement, beat, and voice combine to take a script which can be boiled down to a story about finding oneself and coming home to spectacular heights.

Robin Stamey's lighting is almost as much of a character as the actors. Though some cues are slightly mis-timed and on occasion the actors are left in shadow, it is clear that this is a problem of the space and short amount of time to put on the show, not the show itself. The warm, almost buttery tones used to recall Crossroads, North Carolina, emphasizing the warm memories and feelings that Cephus has of the area. Violet light is used when Cephus first travels to New York, showing how foreign and exotic it appears to the country-born Cephus, before it changes to a chill ice blue, paralleling the alienation and neglect Cephus later experiences in the city. Violent red light calls to mind the war in Vietnam, while sickly green shows the malady of spirit that Cephus feels during his wrongful imprisonment for draft dodging.

There are some questions about the possible relevance of the play to modern audiences - originally produced in the late 70's, the play speaks on issues concerning Vietnam and black rights. Yet the themes addressed seem just as relevant to the modern day: Cephus' treatment as a man who 'spits on the flag' after he refuses to fight in the war for religious reasons is especially relevant considering the pervasive conservative attitude towards objectors to the war in Iraq during the last decade.

A Comb and a Prayer Book

Kelly Wetherald

Awareness of the Holocaust is an event that individuals cannot avoid for we are educationally bombarded with images and horrific details in American history classes nationwide.  Modern society knows this.  But what about "genocide in Darfur, Rwanda, or Yugoslavia"?  What about those people and their suffering?  Stockton College's A Comb and A Prayer Book simply did a disservice to all remaining survivors; Holocaust or otherwise.  Elizabeth Blum Goldstein's story should be cherished and remembered for centuries to come, but this production should be removed from the theatrical circuit. 

A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story's central theme struggled.  Was the vision to tell one person's history or to heighten awareness of genocide and humanistic cruelty?  The play had an unclear objective and static storyline which in turn made the performance boring and unbearably annoying.  The production was just another attempt to do justice to a riveting memoir that turned out to be an epic failure on stage.

I cannot blame the painful performance solely on the actors at Stockton College, but I can however place direct blame on director Pamela R. Hendrick.  In her own words, "scripts that attempt a realistic representation of the Holocaust are problematic because such an extreme event is impossible to recreate realistically in live performance".  I wish that she actually took some of her own advice.  Anne Frank for example could convey an authentic sense of history in her memoirs and on stage.  A Comb and a Prayer Book however could not.

Hendrick also chose to incorporate chamber theatre techniques while directing This technique includes using as much original text as possible while telling the story through a couple main characters.  Unfortunately, Lauren Suprenant playing Shana Fogerty delivered unmotivated monologues with a monotone voice.  It is hard to believe that such vivid textual images such as "barren bed chambers", "saturated piss stains", and "starvation to the point of eating worms" could still come across so bland.   The lack of ensemble interaction and clear disconnect to the story only added to the antsy atmosphere felt in the theater.

One positive aspect of this production A Comb and a Prayer Book was the technical lighting and set design.  Varied lighting angles and color helped create a somber, death stricken mood that the actors themselves couldn't naturally create.  The lighting provided depth, a sense of time and helped to make the minimalistic set spring to life.  Metal scaffolding, ominous hanging lights and block platforms blended into the background yet also chilled the tone of the piece.  The basic set design allowed for imagination to drive visual images. 

The high hopes that I had for this production after their nomination to KCACTF were shattered within twenty minutes.  I found myself longing for the end or at least for the nonexistent intermission to take a break from the monotonous one dimensional narration. 


January 16, 2010 1:08 PM | | Comments (1)
Today's assignment is a quick hit: write just the lede for a review of Keuka College's production of Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon. Seems simple enough, one opening paragraph, done and done. Well, it's not. Here's the thing: several of the O'Neill Critics Institute students wrote what Michael Phillips--when he taught my NEA critics' class--called an "iris shot" lede. It's the specific moment in a production that illustrates exactly why you loved or hated the production, or maybe highlights the production's goals and shows how the team succeeded or failed. Plus, since it's just a lede, that paragraph needs to be a megawatt beacon that illuminates the path to your eventual (and in this case, imaginary) conclusion.

So go on and tell us: which lede/s makes you want to keep reading, and why.

Shawn Arnold

"Oh no, not again." The room spins. A woman on a chair writhes and contorts. She grips the seat, but it is no use. Falling with a thud, she flops about as a white vortex opens behind her. Snap! All suddenly goes black. The woman opens her eyes in a nursery and discovers she is now A BABY! This is but one of the many reincarnations of Miss Witherspoon. In Christopher Durang's absurdly funny play, Keuka College presents a fable--with a few stumbles--that will keep the audience asking, "WHAT DID SHE JUST SAY?!"

Amy Asendorf

Tip: When searching for a personal sense of fulfillment, it is wise to begin with a healthy dose of suicide. Go right ahead! Run into oncoming traffic, overdose, invite the dog to nibble on your flesh. Any method will suffice! Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon, as performed by Keuka College, offers a surprisingly comical take on the perpetual conflict consuming every down-and-out existentialist. Though the journey to happiness may be long, even the hopeless can rest assured events are cosmically ordained to bring meaning to life. However, with this production, the journey is so long and convoluted, hope is nearly impossible to extract.

Nicholas Barilar

Chicken Little, Gandalf (The Lord of the Rings' wizard), an abusive parent, an Indian angel, suicide, and Jesus Christ in a muu muu are now available in one convenient package! All of these characters--and more--reside in Keuka College's production of Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon. As an added bonus, they'll throw in brilliantly conveyed messages about the weight of consequence and the redemptive power of self, all delivered in a satiric fashion, all for no extra charge!

Robby Bassler

Keuka College's production of Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon tugged my soul between heaven and hell. Maryamma (Meghan Russell) a Hindu goddess wrapped in a divine blue and gold sari, pondered the meaning of reincarnation while alternately adopting the stereotypical Indian accent of The Simpsons' Apu and the Jamaican patois of infomercial queen Miss Cleo. As these contradictions snowballed, Miss Witherspoon left me in limbo.

Michael Cook

The world is in danger because humans can't just get along, the sky is falling, events from decades past traumatize one woman. Only one person can stand up and save humanity. Who is this hero? Why, Miss Witherspoon of course! Chistopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon tracks our reluctant hero's spiritual journey through the afterlife. As with many other Durang plays, no topic is taboo and audiences will find themselves laughing at topics they'd otherwise find uncomfortable. However, Keuka College's recent production was like reluctantly going on a spiritual journey that no one could stop once it started. 

Mark Costello

A young woman of no more than 21 flops around like a beached sea creature. She's writhing in a big way, as though her brown-hued, business-casual outfit is made of peanuts and she's allergic. Her eyes strain upward, her face is almost on the ground, and in a terrified flash, her hand darts back toward her raised hindquarters. Stunned confusion soon trumps horror, as said hand spastically fans an imaginary flame. We soon get it: she's pretending to be a dog. This unfortunate, disturbing mishandling of Christopher Durang's pleasantly dark comedy is the norm in Keuka College's Miss Witherspoon, directed by Mark Wenderlich.

Connor Davis

Is this Heaven? Nope, it's purgatory, and unless you quit killing yourself you're going to stay here for all eternity! Sticking around may be a problem for suicidal Veronica, who rests uneasily at the center of Christopher Durang's Pulitzer Prize-finalist farce Miss Witherspoon. Keuka College's witty tongue-in-cheek production puts audience members in Veronica's shoes. Fueled by rapid comedic timing and absurdist farce, director Mark Wenderlich creates a fun production that's stimulates the mind with ideas about morality and hope.

Valerie Gibbs

"Who said life has to move forward? Can't it move backwards, too?" Keuka College's production of Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon, directed by Mark Wenderlich, provides a unique response to this question.  In the place between life on earth and eternal afterlife, we find Miss Witherspoon - a woman forced into perpetual reincarnation until she rids herself of bad karma and achieves divine enlightenment. Unfortunately, this production struggles to accomplish a similar goal.

Peter Starr Northrop

So the lights came up for Keuka College's production of Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon and immediately this insufferable woman started yammering into a telephone. Her tone was flat, her voice irritating. I groaned at the thought of listening to her prattle on for a whole production, and held that thought for all of two seconds when, suddenly, the sky fell down and she died--much to the audience's delight. This is how a legendary show begins. 

Nathan Taylor

Ever wanted to see a two-week-old baby incite an invisible dog named Fido into mauling her to death? Never fear, Keuka College is here with Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon. With the edge of a baseball bat, this script remains a gift from heaven while the production clings to tearing pages as flames lick at its feet.

Jensen Toperzer

Keuka College's production of Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon is a manic dive through contemporary American culture, filled with rapid-fire commentary on everything from the post-9/11 culture of fear to modern New Age 'crystal and candle' religions. Sara Munio's Veronica bemoans her fate (a series of unhappy reincarnations), inviting a playful sense of cathartic schadenfreude. But the true show-stealer is Meghan Russell as quirky, overly cheerful guru Maryamma.

Kelly Wetherald

Is life like a box of chocolates? No. Life is a dream-cycle filled with suffering, sacrifice, and perpetual annoyance; at least according to Miss Witherspoon, Christopher Durang's suicidal cynic starving for peace in the afterlife. Keuka College's production of Miss Witherspoon came to the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival stage to express dual ideas: the importance of reincarnation and society's future survival. Did it achieve those goals? Or was the hour and a half simply a one man show with an abusive mother, Hindu spiritual guide and invisible dog named Fido thrown in for spice?

January 15, 2010 7:40 AM | | Comments (8)
Today was the critics' first day of critic class and I felt it was important to make one thing abundantly clear before we even met: critics aren't just critics anymore. That's why, upon entering our classroom, each student opened a Twitter account (fellow tweeters can follow #kcactf2 to see what they're up to), hitched it to their Facebook accounts, and pitched me a feature story related to the festival. Along the way, we lost one student (Meredith Young) and an e-mail (Michael Cook didn't get the query request, so you'll have to wait until tomorrow to see his work) and gained another student. Also, I apologize in advance for the inconsistent formatting; I can't seem to get this post to appear in a single font.

So without further interference from me, here's Amy Asendorf. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Amy is currently a Dana Scholar freshman at Muhlenberg College. As a junior and senior at Hereford High School, Amy participated as a critic for the Baltimore chapter of the Cappies Critics and Awards Program, serving as lead critic her senior year. Her review for Atholton High School's The Diary of Anne Frank was selected for publication in The View newspaper in 2007. Amy was also heavily involved with the International Thespian Society, acting in a number of productions, choreographing, and serving as president her senior year. Additionally, in 2009, she won first prize in the Hunt Valley Rotary Four-Way Speech contest for her original speech entitled, "Childhood: Going Once, Going Twice." Most recently, Amy has been hired by the Muhlenberg Writing Center and will begin her work in the fall of 2010. 

Now that all the formalities are out of the way, editors, journalists, and those with an interest in reading about theater are welcome to tell the students which article (or articles) wins them a paycheck and a clip, and why.

Query 1:
Dear Editor,

The Kennedy Center American College Theater Regional Festival is a massive event, consisting of dozens of shows put on by hundreds of students from a vast variety of different colleges, all descending upon one place at one time. What does it take to organize a conference of this size and scope? How does one handle that much information and corroborate with so many people successfully? 

I would like to present an 800 word article that tackles this question through an interview with one of the organizers - Elizabeth van den Berg, the Region II Vice-chair. Ms. van den Berg is responsible for a large amount of the organization behind the event, and an interview would provide a more personal lens through which to view the underlying structure of the event. 

The article is a behind-the-scenes look at KCACTF, examining how the event is organized from an insider's perspective, looking at the nitty-gritty behind the process. I look specifically at how one balances so many varied factors with the pressures of real life and teaching theater, as well as what the festival itself means to the people working on it.

As an English major specializing in creative nonfiction, I have a strong grasp of the English language and knowledge of how to write for magazines. Furthermore, I have worked personally with Ms. van den Berg for over four years on projects both in school and out, and am familiar with her and her work process. I thus have easy access to my interview source.

I feel that this article is an ideal subject for your magazine, and I hope that it piques your interest. Thank you for your time.

- B. Jensen Toperzer

Query 2:
The Indiana Metropolitan Times

"Pennsylvania's #3 metropolitan newspaper."

1239 Reality Road

Indiana Pa, 15705

Dear Editor,

The theater world has a new and exciting craze that's popping up in small drama companies all across the country. It's an incredible movement called "24 hour theater." This new twist on drama involves paring down the usually lengthy and exhausting process of writing, workshopping  and producing a fully staged show from  what could be several years to just a single day. This bold new form of expression is usually done in a festival setting where a rag-tag group of writers, directors, actors and designers are frantically thrown together into teams. They are then given a concept and (you guessed it) 24 hours to write, produce and perform a ten minute play. These festivals are usually teeming with the theater scene's amateurs, all of them desperate for that first chance to express their vision on the stage.

This sounds lovely, but do the theater-goers of your readers really want to go see a play (or series of plays) that have been haphazardly built over the course of a single day? What's the appeal of 24-hour theater to an audience?

I would like to offer your publication a 1,200-1,500 word feature article entitled "The Fringe Challenge--a look inside the new form of spontaneous theater" that answers that very question.  The article will take a very in-depth look at one of the many spontaneous  theater festivals that has popped up in the region--The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Fringe Challenge. While the Fringe Challenge is technically 48 hour theater, it's still got all the aspects one would expect from a 24 hour theater fest. Best of all, this year's challenge is held at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, located in the back yard of most of your publication's reader base.

The article will go in depth into the conceptual side of this new art form, opening up with the Fringe Challenge's long-time director, Len Kelly. It will then feature interviews with several of the Challenge's participants--where they will share their background in theater and their passion for this fun new way of looking at the performance arts. The article will be a collage of different stories from a wild and maddening 48 hour period that leaves its participants and audience members forever transformed. It will show amateurs pull off stunning theatrical feats that--given the circumstances--seem almost impossible.

The article can also have several aspects on your publications website if desired. Full audio interviews with participants are available and several groups involved have agreed to have their chaotic writing and rehearsal sessions filmed for internet publication--giving further breadth to this experience.

The Fringe Challenge begins on January 12th , and goes live on the night of the 14th.  The article and online aspects can be available to you by as early as the 15th.


Peter Starr Northrop

Query 3:

Dear Editor,

How many times have you driven down an unknown street in Philadelphia, and had a chill run down your spine? Did you immediately lock your doors, and accelerate your car to escape the block? If you have then the Temple University theater department's production of Shot! wants to have a brief word with you.

I'd like to offer you a 1,200-word article entitled "Song of the Street". The theater department of Temple University has conceived a brand newperformance piece entitled Shot! The piece gives audience members an inside look at Beirut, a Northern Philadelphia urban community, whose image has been tarnished from the 1964 riots.

My article will examine the process that the production team of Shot! went through and give an inside look at the process that goes into putting a piece of this nature together. Temple University uses poetry, monologues, songs, and documentary footage to create an authentic narrative and perspective of a neighborhood that has been. 

Through interviews with writer Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, director Doug Wager, and a few members of the ensemble members I will give readers an insight into the process. I will also have video recordings of the interview to place on your website. As a theater artist and scholar I believe that it is important to highlight this production and highlight the Docudrama performance style. I believe that through this production, Philadelphia citizens will get an insider's perspective into the real story of their community and an insight in the process that goes into putting a piece of this nature together. 

I would like to thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing back from you! 

Connor Davis

Query 4:

Dear Editor,

Is there really such a drastic gap between entertainment for children versus entertainment for adults?  And do basic instincts and values change over time or are the morals instilled in us as children timeless?  Actors and adult audience members alike tend to look at children's productions as a "dumbed-down" version of stereotypical theatre.  On the contrary, children's theatre explores a different aspect of creative expression, taking a script and interpreting the text to be universally relatable. 

I would like to offer you a 1,000 word article entitled, "Rediscovering Childhood in a World of Professionalism."  The article would explore the importance of well rounded theatrical exposure, the connection between a mature and elementary script style as well as Indiana University of Pennsylvania's effect on the youth of the community.  IUP's presentation of A Year with Frog and Toad by Willie and Robert Reale opened my eyes to the lack of children's style shows in production, especially at the collegiate level.  These specific points are supported with interview quotes of the cast and director, Rob Gretta, as well as video clips of recent productions. 

The lack of children's theatre workshops and events at KCACTF further proves the reasoning behind this article.  According to the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, children's theatre is a completely different focus for the performing arts that has consistently increased in both revenue and popularity over the last decade.  Shouldn't professors, actors, directors and theatre goers alike place more weight and interest on this steadily growing field? 

Children's theatre can be thought of as the foundation of theatrical experience.  If an actor or director can interpret a script and convey its message to a sea of children, then they can take the basics of a mature script and convey its ideas to a sea of educated adults. 

As an actor, newly evolving director, and avid writer I feel that I have an extremely diverse and multi-faceted viewpoint and would therefore be the best candidate to write for your journal.  I am a junior musical theatre major and nonprofit studies minor at James Madison University and have recently worked with JMU's Professional Children's Playshop in the summer of 2009.  I have a passion for children and the importance of theatre in their ever-changing development as productive and artistic citizens.

I thank you for taking the time to review and consider my proposal and I look forward to hearing your response.  If you are interested in the details of my research or this unconventional perspective, I would be glad to have my article, "Rediscovering Childhood in a World of Professionalism" on your desk within two weeks of hearing your response.  Thank you again.


Kelly Wetherald

Query 5:

Dear Editor,

Many people are fascinated by the survival stories of the men and women who endured life in concentration camps during the Holocaust, but how often do we really stop and think about how hard and grueling their lives must have been?  There are plenty of books and documentaries on this subject, but few have ventured to take these stories to the stage.  A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story, by Pamela Hendrick, is the story of Elizabeth Blum, who, by the age of nineteen, had endured life in six concentration camps.  It is based on personal interviews and the book written by her granddaughter, Shana Fogarty.

I would like to offer you a 1000-word article title "Staging the Holocaust," which examines the long process of transforming the book and interviews of this Holocaust survivor into a theatrical production.  Specifically, I will examine the process of the show performed by The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey at the 42nd Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival held in Indiana, Pennsylvania.

The stage is a place where we see stories brought to life, made into a reality.  This article will explain exactly how that is made possible.  It will follow the show's development from a simple interview, to the writing of the book, and finally, to the stage.  It will not only present the difficulties in putting such an emotional event under the lights, but it will explain the effect that doing so can hold.  Staging historical events is different from creating a movie on the subject in that the action is experienced right before our very eyes; the audience is in the moment, and is able to relive a bit of history.  This not only creates a bridge to the past, but it furthers one's appreciation of the present.

As a Theatre major at James Madison University, I have had the privilege to work on various shows and see exactly how they come into existence on the stage.  This story is unique, however, and travels far beyond the stage curtain. 

I hope that you sense my passion for this subject and if interested, I can have my full article to you within two weeks of your approval.  I am looking forward to hearing from you.  

Thank you for your time,

Valerie Gibbs

Query 6:

Dear Editor,

The other day I saw a four-year-old teach her father how to use his I-Phone to take a picture.  Generations in this country find it difficult to communicate because they do not communicate through the same media.  Temple University's theatrical production of Shot! at the Kennedy Center's American College Theatre Festival held at IUP mixes the formal medium of theatre with the technological medium of film to form a multi-generational, live-technology medium and  discuss racial issues in past and present Philadelphia.

I want to offer you a 1000 word article entitled "Snap-Shot!:  Temple University's Shot! Discusses the Role of Race in Past and Present Northern Philadelphia."  Shot! utilizes live and prerecorded interviews with our city's citizens of past and present to shed a new light on racial prejudice from 1964 to today.

"Snap-Shot!" addresses how the fuse of theatre and film made a new medium for addressing race in Shot!  Interviews from old and new generations of Northern-Philadelphian audience members explore how Shot! acts a gateway to new racial frontiers.  The article concludes with the idea that interlocking technology and race in Shot! helps two generations of Philadelphians share accounts of racial strife.

This article is important to Philadelphians because it demonstrates how multi-media performance in Shot! starts a new discussion that is accessible to all generations and races.

As a Native-American critic and a product of today's technology codependency, I offer insight into how using a timeless medium to fuse generations and discuss racial tension.  Additionally, "A Night at the KCACTF Drive-In," my runner-up critique in last year's American College Theatre Festival, provides insight into my exploration of the use of live-technology in Shot!

I hope that I can interest you in sharing this discussion with the city of Philadelphia.  If you are interested in publishing this article in your upcoming edition, then I can have it on your desk within 24 hours.  If you would like to propose any other topics for me to write on, please contact me.  Thank you for your time and interest.


Robby Bassler

Query 7:

Dear Editor,

It's always wonderful when we get to celebrate ambassadors of the City of Brotherly Love going forth and accomplishing great things, especially when our community was able to watch that group develop its talent. One such moment is quickly approaching and attention must be paid: the Arcadia University Theater has been selected to attend the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in January. There, Arcadia will be presenting their production of Samm Art-Williams' Home which ran in late October 2009. KCACTF recognizes and awards the best and brightest theater talent nationwide. Arcadia's student theater group has already received a number of merit certificates from the festival and now, they will have the chance to perform a full-length show in competition for celebrated theater professionals.

For your publication, I would like to write an 800 - 1,000 word article tentatively entitled: "Taking Home With Them." The piece will detail the production's path from stunning hometown show to successful, recognized opus as follows:

·      Back story. By interviewing Mark Wade (director), Taysha Canales, Brianna McBride Pope, and Jamal Douglas (all of them ensemble actors and KCACTF merit certificate winners), I will provide a look at the driving personalities behind the work's hometown success. I will also detail their connection to the Philadelphia area in depth.

·      Outcome. After establishing the group's path to the festival, the remainder of the piece will be devoted to detailing the students' current preparation for performance, the outcome of the competition, and the students' reaction to it.

I am a master's candidate in theater at Villanova University, a program I entered after spending four undergraduate years performing on a college stage. I have worked in various positions in two prominent Philadelphia theater companies (PTC and Theatre Exile). As such, I
am highly concerned with rising college theater companies that are making the Philadelphia cultural scene proud, such as Arcadia. I hope that a piece with as rich a connection to Philadelphia as this can find a home with your publication; if so, I can have it to you by January 20th. I thank you for reading my correspondence, and hope to hear from you!


Mark J. Costello

Query 8:

Dear Editor,

Beads of sweat dot the furrowed brow of the twentysomething actor. They gently cascade down his nose while the butterflies in his stomach do choreographed air shows. Throw on top of this the fact that he is competing against 200 other students for a chance at a scholarship. Thus is a case of one student who is taking part in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship.

I would like to offer you a 1000 word article on the journey of local college students who take part in the KCACTF Region II scholarship program (tentative title- Going for Granny: Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship).

In the article I would specifically like to track the progress of three to four students who take part in the process. Here I hope to examine their feelings about auditions, acting, and what the scholarship would mean to them.

To begin with, the article will briefly introduce the reader to exactly how students are selected. I will then follow the stories of three to four local college students who are competing in the competition. This will paint a picture of the experience of each actor's time in the Ryan audition process. Following the festival I will sit down with each student and conduct a formal interview. Here I will gets the reflections of each student after all is said and done.

As a former Irene Ryan partner and actor I know the strife auditions can cause and the journey students go through academically while honing their craft. These students are the future of theatrical arts, and they are products of this paper's base. I hope you find interest in this topic, and I am looking forward to your response. I can have a copy of it to you 3 weeks following the regional competition and your approval. Again thank you for your time!


Shawn Arnold

Query 9:

Dear Editor,

Angry shouts are heard in the distance.  You walk around the corner and down a street.  The sound grows louder.  You continue around yet another corner and find the source:  a large group of political activists spreading a message.  What might be the most intriguing aspect of the group is that they are made up of college students.  The college student body has traditionally been a political force to be reckoned with and the theatre has proven to be an excellent venue to send a message.

I am offering to write an article entitled something to the affect of "Political College Theatre - You Cannot Stop It!" that would be some 3,000 - 4,000 words in length on the political nature of college theatre and how it is bound to continue to be a natural choice of medium and venue through which a political message may be conveyed using the shows featured at this year's American College Theatre Festival in region two as examples. 

The article will include commentaries on the festival's productions of A Comb and a Prayer Book:  A Survivor's Story, Increased Difficulty of Concentration, and Widows Each have a political or social issue behind them (genocide, sexual morality in the workplace, and repressive government, respectively).  I will also include interviews with the cast and director of A Comb and a Prayer Book in my article, to gain a better demonstrate the potency of the political college theatre scene.  What's more, if you should chose to pursue the publication of this article, I will provide the full audio to the interviews I will be conducting.

My article would focus on the political and social aspects of each play and how college theatre groups will use plays like the ones that will be seen at the festival to make their own charged statement as well as how colleges are an ideal place to present a political play.

I hope to hear from you soon and that the topic of my article might be of interest to your publication. Thank you for your time.


Nicholas Barilar

Query 10:

Dear Editor,

You find yourself at an audition, receive a cold reading, and are told to go with no time to prepare.  The casting director vaguely asks you to try something "different."  Your scene partner drops their line and everyone stands around awkwardly, now unsure of both themselves and the scene.  Whatever the scenario, there is one solution accessible to all - improv.  With some sort of improvisational training, actors will never find themselves stumped in any sort of circumstance.

I would like to offer you an 800 word article titled "The Importance of Improv: Imagination in Action."  The article would discuss the significance of actors attending improv classes and workshops, and provide an evaluation of several workshops, informing readers about various teachers and their methods.

Take Gail Winar's workshop "Theatre Games," being taught at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival this week.  It describes itself as a way to "explore theater games and improvisational exercises to wake up your creativity, imagination, and awareness during the rehearsal process."  In my own experience, there are several types of directors, and a number of them have no problem with an actor bringing their own ideas to the table - some, in fact, encourage it.  Through improv, one can open themselves up, becoming more extroverted and willing to share their ideas.

Another area improv can help an actor explore is physicality; with enough creativity and a willingness to explore their environment and their body, actors can discover mannerisms unique to their character that they might never have dared to try before.  Improv is no simple chocolate or vanilla but rather the Neapolitan, where no one bite is exactly the same as the last.  Improv is a tasty gift that changes in every new situation.

The great American improvist Viola Spolin once wrote in her book "Improvisation for the Theatre" that "everyone can improvise."  Whether or not every person has the ability to travel to Second City or star on "Saturday Night Live" is of no matter; the mere introduction of improv can enhance an actor's innate skills.  My article will show the influence of improv by interviewing those who attend these workshops, and asking them how each class heightened the skills they already had.

I was not only involved in improv in high school, but also at my college (James Madison University's "New and Improv.'d").  The value of the practices, the conferences we visit, and the myriad of classes we attend is unfathomable, so I speak from experience when I say that improv is an inestimable tool that should be utilized by every actor.

Please let me know if you have any interest in this article or its subject matter, and I can have a finalized copy of the article delivered to you within a week.  Thank you for your time. 

Nathan Taylor

That's all for the pitches; the students are waiting to hear if any of these result in a home run. Tomorrow I'll post their first reviews, and appropriately enough, the two shows they saw today run the emotional gamut from comedy to tragedy. Both have literary roots, but A Year with Frog and Toad, based on Arnold Lobel's children's stories, and A Comb and a Prayer Book, based on Elizabeth Blum Goldstein's Holocaust memoir, couldn't be more different. I'm really looking forward to seeing how they handle this analytical mood swing, and I hope you are too.

January 13, 2010 8:31 PM | | Comments (1)
The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II O'Neill Critics Institute starts at Indiana University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday. I know that's a lot of qualifiers, but I, for one, am unqualified in my excitement about this year's event. Thus far, we're set to have the largest enrollment ever in this region, plus, two of last year's contenders will return to try again for their chance at the golden ticket. This is a big deal because, as you may have heard, the profession is in a bit of a holding pattern (cough, nosedive, cough) right now. But it does my heart good to see this many students undeterred; the more young, creative, tech-savvy minds willing to give arts journalism a go, the likelier it is that someone will grab the controls and steer us in a new direction. That would be nice, since spending so long preparing for impact really has me cramped up. 

As was the case last year, readers of this blog (and especially KCACTF participants) are invited to chime in with feedback for our writers. Ready to meet them? 

Shawn Arnold.jpgShawn Arnold is a senior at Clarion University and theater fanatic! He is currently pursing a B.F.A in acting, B. A. in history, and B. S. in secondary social studies education. His most recent stage appearance was in Clarion's production of David Mamet's one man show, Mr. Happiness. Some of his other theater appearances on the Clarion stage include a company member in the neo-futurist play 43 Plays for 43 Presidents, George in the dark one-act Shel Silverstein play Wash and Dry, and Mark Twain in Hauptman and Miller's musical Big River. Aside from theater and history, Shawn is also obsessed with the silly dead-pan antics of The Office and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He is excited to join Wendy and the institute again in its new incarnation following last year. He cannot wait for another chance to do it again . . . "That's what she said." [Ed. Note: Assuming here Mr. Arnold isn't referring to his teacher.]

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Nic Barilar is a southern California native who fell in love with theatre at the Pantages in Los Angeles. He currently resides in the tundra of western Pennsylvania where he is a BFA acting major with technical theater and English literature minors at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. As an actor, he has been seen in such productions as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor DreamcoatPsycho Beach PartyMuch Ado About Nothing, and Brigadoon. Theatrically speaking, Nic also is interested in playwrighting, set design, and improvisation. Nic is an avid fan of the work of Stephen Sondheim. Apart from theatre, he enjoys reading the works of Stephen KingVictor Hugo, and Voltaire as well as playing piano, singing, and waxing humorous with his chums. Nic hopes to learn about a vital aspect of the theatrical world as well as improve his analytical abilities.

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Robby Apple Bassler is currently enrolled as a senior in his last semester at James Madison University where he studies theater and English. This is his second time participating in the Kennedy Center's Critic's Institute; he received the runner up award during last year's competition in Region IV. Robby is also a playwright, director, actor, and technician but enjoys the potential of combining his knowledge of all of these elements in the world of critiquing. In his near future, Robby hopes to join Teach For America teaching theater in New York City and pass down what he has learned at the Kennedy Center's Critic's Institute.

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Michael Antonio Cook has been practicing theater in some form for almost half of his life. From an early age he has developed the ability to quickly form opinions and impressions on things and has an incredible memory. Because of this he has decided to try his hand at being a critic to share these insights he has with the world.

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Mark Costello is a second-year Master's student in the theater program at Villanova University where he focuses primarily on dramaturgy and playwriting. Most recently, he has served as the production dramaturg for Villanova's 2009 run of The Zoo Story; he is currently serving as the assistant dramaturg for the Philadelphia Theatre Company's world premiere of Terrence McNally's Golden Age. As a dramaturg, he believes that an easy and free flow of culturally relevant information helps a production inform both itself and its audience; as such, he's excited to begin doing critical work with the O'Neill Critics Institute so that he can engage with audiences instructionally through print and internet media.

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Connor Davis: I am a junior theatre major at James Madison University. At JMU I worked extensively as a stage manager and director. In high school, I directed an "abridged" 30-minute version of The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). The show competed in the Bucks County Playhouse Secondary School Festival, where I was named Best Director. This February I will direct Adam Rapp's Red Light Winter, and stage manage CharlesMee's bobrauschenbergamerica in May. After attending multiple productions in and outside of New York, I started to write down things I liked and disliked. This began as an exercise to help my directing, but has evolved into something I enjoy. I have never considered myself to be a great writer, but this is something I think I could be good at.  Through this workshop I hope to begin developing and working on the technique of writing critiques.

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Valerie Gibbs: I am currently a junior theater major at James Madison University. I have been interested in theater practically my entire life, but most of my interest was in the performing aspect of it all. It was not until college that I started exploring the other aspects as well.  In college, we have to write papers on the various shows we see, and through the now two-and-a-half years of doing this, I have gained a greater appreciation for theatrical critiques. I have never been extremely confident in my writing capabilities, but I have improved and I want to continue learning how to master this trade. One of my professors suggested the Critics Institute at KCACTF to me, and upon further thought, I decided it would be a great learning experience. It might be tough for me at times, but I am definitely up for the challenge.

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Peter Starr Northrop is a Memphis-born, Pennsylvania-based writer with no style and an awkward sense of humor to match. He is currently a junior at Elizabethtown College, where he is frantically throwing together a double-major in English and theater. Mostly he divides his time between working as the head features editor for his school newspaper--The Etownian, heading the writers of a sketch comedy group, and attending the occasional class. When it comes to theater, Peter has recently stuck to the directing side of things. He just wrapped up a production of David Ives' English made Simple and is currently assistant-directing Elizabethtown College's production of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress.

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Nathan Taylor is a junior at James Madison University, currently working on a double major in theater and English. He has been involved with theater since he was a young boy, appearing in several shows in the Washington D.C. area during his childhood. It was not long before Nathan realized that he had to be involved in some facet of theater for the rest of his life. Coincidentally, he has also been involved with the English language since he was a young boy, attending elementary school and learning the alphabet during his childhood. It was not long before Nathan realized that he had to both be able to speak and read the English language if he was going to be successful in his adulthood. With the love of both writing and watching a production, he naturally has a passion for critiquing shows of all types.

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Barbara Toperzer: I first became involved with the theater at the age of two as a baby in The King and I. The trauma of the experience meant that I've not been on the stage much since, but it seems like I just can't get away from it completely, no matter how hard I try to pretend I want nothing to do with it. I've been involved on the edges of the theater at McDaniel College since my freshman year, mostly by helping out with tech and somehow always ending up in housing with theater people. I have a huge respect for the process and everything that goes into it, and I do love to watch live theater whenever I can. Learning to do reviews seems like a great way to combine my love of theater with my love of writing. 

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Kelly Wetherald: I am a junior musical theater major and nonprofit studies minor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. I got involved with theatre in eighth grade and my passion for the arts has grown exponentially from there. Over the past few years at JMU I have explored multiple aspects of theater including performance, directing and criticism. With support from my parents and professors, I have learned that there are a variety of ways to express one's creativity in the realm of theatre. Theatrical criticism is honestly a foreign avenue for me, but I think that my love for the written word as well as my passion for theater will blossom with this program. I look forward to exploring and improving my criticism skills as well as opening up new possibilities for the future. 

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Meredith Young: I'm a senior theater major at James Madison University. My life of crime started about 10 years ago in community theater productions. I loved performing, so I decided to parlay that enthusiasm into a bachelor's degree. At JMU, I got involved with other production areas like costuming and directing until landing in nerd heaven with dramaturgy. One of my favorite things about experiencing a show is listening to others discuss it and piece together meanings for themselves. Theater criticism affords me the opportunity to be a part of that dialogue. I could talk about a show until the cows come home, but as I understand it, the difficulty lies in having the vocabulary to do more than slam or laud (as well as in finding a balance between reviewing and analyzing). This puts the onus on a critic to be as informed as possible. I look forward to stretching and learning at KCACTF this year.

A few of the students haven't sent their bios yet, so if they show up on registration day, you'll meet them too. Hopefully, you'll also show up on registration day and throughout the festival to check in with our participants, chart their progress, scan the multiple platforms we'll be using, and help us pick a winner. 
January 10, 2010 10:09 PM | | Comments (1)
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