From the Mind to the Stage

Nick Pierce (Photo by Audrey Frenette '12)

One day last semester, Nick Pierce ’12 sat in an empty auditorium staring at the stage. He wasn’t  daydreaming or listening to his iPod. He was envisioning a room in an art museum. In his mind’s eye he saw a mime, a janitor, and an Elvis impersonator—all characters in a one-act satire called “The Apple.”

In the next two months, he would audition 25 thespians; cast nine fellow students; work with them on their lines and gestures; transmit his vision to set designers and tech crews; and direct the show for a live audience in the Dana Center.

It is an impressive undertaking for an undergraduate history major — even a four-year Abbey Players veteran. He would be in charge of all aspects of the production.

The measure of success? If he does his job well, he will be useless on the night of the performance.

Pierce is part of a long Anselmian tradition, a February One-Act Play Festival of productions directed (and sometimes written) by students. The prototype was in the spring of 1968, with a three-play bill called “Trio.” There were two more in the 70s, and the tradition was set in the early 80s.

“It’s bizarrely exciting,” says Matthew Hurd ’13, who co-wrote and co-directed “Public Opinion,” one of the 2012 One-Act Play Festival productions. “It’s a risk, but if you love what you’re doing, it’s worth taking. That’s part of the fun. Maybe you won’t make every decision right, but it’s cool to be able to make the decisions.”

It’s creativity at the grassroots level, especially for those, like Hurd, who write as well as direct. A theology major, he is as passionate about the theatre as anyone on campus, including longtime Abbey Players director Landis Magnuson. He has minors in communications and fine arts and serves on the Abbey Players’ board of directors. He also works with a theatre company in his home town of Freeport, Maine.

Though he has taken Magnuson’s Beginning Acting class, Hurd is most capable and comfortable behind the scenes. He directed an adaptation of “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” for the One-Act Festival last year, but working with an original script was a new experience.

“Public Opinion” was conceptualized by English major Jack Holder ’12, who drafted the play over the summer. Holder writes stories and novellas, but this is his first play. Hurd was looking for a show to direct when his friend asked him to read his script. The two drafted and re-drafted, working for two or three hours at a stretch over two weeks until they had a solid script to present to Magnuson and the board of directors.

One of the challenges of the “one-acts” is the schedule. It’s tight. The plays are cast just before winter break. The first cast meeting for director Nick Pierce’s “The Apple” was December 11, the second day of mid-terms. The actors received their scripts and disappeared from campus for four weeks. They were expected to be “off book” by January 18, the second day of the new semester—just three weeks from opening night.

The time commitment is huge for the directors, 29 cast members and 12 technical support staff, Pierce says, and sometimes precludes things like sleep; but it can be done with “the proper level of organization, and trust in my cast.”

He found the play on the website of playwright Jimmy Brunelle. “The Apple” is about perceptions of modern art. When a half-eaten apple is accidentally left on a museum podium, it is mistaken for a work of art and judged by different characters to be different things, some quite complex.

“I’ve wanted to direct a One-Act for most of my time as an Abbey Player but I never found the right script until now,” he says. “It was a long process figuring out what show I wanted to direct and how I would stage it. I spent a fair amount of time figuring out what I wanted my set to look like, and how I wanted to have my actors look on stage. The casting process was a challenge, but the other directors and I were able to get most of our top choices.”

Catherine Carroll ’12, a business major in her second year as an Abbey Player, had an extra challenge. In one scene of her play, “slasreveR neveS” (Seven Reversals spelled backwards), the actors do and say everything entirely backwards. She chose the play because it was one she had enjoyed acting in during high school.

“Directing was the only aspect of the theatre I hadn’t done, so I figured I’d take a stab at it,” she says. The opportunity to take on such a project may never come her way again. She has a group of enthusiastic actors, a professional quality stage, equipment, wardrobe, built-in audience, and mentor.

Landis Magnuson, an English professor who has overseen approximately two dozen Abbey Players performances, is available to answer questions, offer encouragement, and suggest areas that need more work. He believes strongly in the value of this full immersion theatrical experience, and not just for students who expect to become actors or drama teachers. “It’s a real opportunity for individuals to grow as artists and demonstrate leadership,” he says.

Robert Shea, director of the Dana Center for the Humanities, is another fan: “It’s the most hard core student directed activity on campus. It doesn’t matter what their major is, they’re motivated just by the pure joy of doing it.”

A Love Letter to the Theater

Abbey Players, past and present, are Anselmians with a strong shared identity. Putting on  a theatre production is exciting, exhausting, rewarding, and nerve-racking, they say. The experience stays with them long after graduation in ways that include lasting friendships, career experience, embarrassing moments, and unexpected triumphs. Those who direct are a small subgroup, and these alumni tend to feel a particularly strong bond.

“You feel really connected to the people who did them before you,” says Kaitlin Burroughs ’08. An international relations major, she was drawn to directing by the experimental nature of the One-Acts Festival. “I’d been doing theatre since I was five or six. I wasn’t sure what role theatre would have in my life after graduation, or if I’d have time for it,” she says. “So I did it [directing] as kind of a love letter to the theatre.” In her senior year, she directed “A Charm of Powerful Trouble” and wrote and directed the Family Weekend show “Get a Clue.”

“Dr. Magnuson had trust in my skills and I got to do something original even though I hadn’t tried it before,” she says. “I lucked into a fantastic cast. It was natural and  collaborative, kind of a dream process. Stuff that actors improvised during rehearsal ended up staying in the script.”

She vividly remembers the tension of opening night: “Sitting in the audience, waiting with bated breath to see if people laugh at the parts I meant to be funny. It feels so good when people laugh at them. It was a vindication of all my hard work.”

Burroughs is pursuing a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard Extension School, and nurtures her theatrical side through involvement in the student-run MIT musical theatre guild in Cambridge.

“Transformative” is another word for the student directing experience. Physics major Rob Lemire ’10, who directed three productions (as well as Shakespeare scenes on the Bard’s birthday), is finishing a master’s degree in theatre education.

“It was my first leadership role in the theatre and I absolutely loved doing it,” he says.” He recently assisted an Emerson faculty member in directing a full-length play, and he teaches high school drama classes. He hopes to get a Ph.D. and teach at the college level, with an emphasis on directing.

“I absolutely love to take a play that’s just written words on the page and come up with a vision and make it happen on stage,” he says.

  • nicholas james

    Thank you for sharing your talent to all of us. Truly an inspiration