By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
As English teachers ponder whether the Bard is to be or not to be a part of their curriculum, a partnership between Episcopal High School and Monumental Theater Company aims to bring the theater alive for Gen Z, as students get a close-up look at the process involved in translating words from the page to the stage.
Monumental, an Alexandria-based theater company that recently received nine Helen Hayes Award nominations for its 2018 productions, has had a relationship with Episcopal since 2016, when it first started performing spring plays for the school.
However, Michael Windsor, co-artistic director at Monumental and a member of the arts faculty at Episcopal, and Molly Pugh, chair of Episcopal’s English department, started talking in spring 2018 about a more involved partnership.
“They were interested in partnering with us and kind of giving their students an open-door policy into how a professional show is put up rather than a touring company coming, plopping down on stage for a single night and then leaving,” Windsor said.
Windsor and Pugh decided that allowing students to be flies on the wall for the rehearsal process would be perfect. Windsor said he thought about what plays would work well for Episcopal’s small black box theater – and what would be age appropriate for the students – and settled on “Daddy Long Legs,” a two-person musical based on the 1912 novel by Jean Webster.
“From start to finish in a regular rehearsal, they’ll see the staging of the show,” Windsor said. “How we decide to block it, sort of working to create this world with the actors that will probably be very, very different from what they end up seeing in an actual performance.”
Over the course of the rehearsal process, five sophomore English classes and a senior “Page to Stage” class will sit in on rehearsals. The partnership will culminate in a performance of “Daddy Long Legs” for the entire school. The play will also run for four weeks from March 7 to 30, with the performances taking place in Episcopal’s Ainslie Arts Center.
Before a rehearsal, Windsor will talk with students about what they will see and what to pay attention to. The students will then watch the rehearsal and debrief with Windsor afterwards. Over the course of the next few classes, teachers will talk with their students about the experience and, for the few classes that are reading the novel, the changes that occurred in the adaptation of the novel into a play.
“Sometimes it is so incredible to see people interpret words that are in a novel and not really meant to come off the page and see what that does to your own understanding of the text,” Pugh said.
According to Pugh, Episcopal emphasizes performance – students regularly read Shakespeare and the entire sophomore class staged “MacBeth” this year – because it helps students find their own interpretations of a text in empowering ways.
“What I love about theater and the performative is that someone who perhaps considers herself not the quote-unquote traditionally strong English student can bring so much and suddenly find this voice and find this ability in a different way,” Pugh said.
However, it can be a challenge to get students engaged with theater, Windsor said. With this partnership, Monumental aims to show students the power of theater in ways that are more relatable than the “thees” and “thous” of Shakespeare. Windsor is aware that for most students this will be their first exposure to modern theater.
“I think it sort of opens their eyes to everything theater can be today,” Windsor said. “Rather than sitting and watching a two- and-a-half hour Shakespeare show, we’re going to present something with modern music that is still a timeless love story.”
Although students have only started to observe the rehearsal process, they are already connecting with the production in profound ways.
“When I see a theater production, I always feel like I’m a spectator just seeing what’s being displayed in a window,” Helen Chen, a sophomore at Episcopal, said. “… But after seeing how it is being produced and then seeing what the final product is, I just feel more related to the work.”
Sophomore Olivia Shackelford said seeing words interpreted and reinterpreted by professional actors has changed her understanding of the texts she is reading in class.
“Seeing the physical emotion and actions really puts it all together,” Shackelford said.
While discussions about the future of the partnership haven’t taken place just yet – students are only just starting to attend rehearsals – both Windsor and Pugh expressed eagerness to expand the relationship between Episcopal and Monumental moving forward.
Windsor said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to show young audiences how exciting live theater can be.
“The value of live theater is that you’re experiencing something with a group of people that happens once,” Windsor said. “Being in the moment and watching a show with a group of people, performed by live actors, is something that is totally missed from movies today.”