Section: Arts

Senior drama majors take final bow with thesis exercises

Senior drama majors take final bow with thesis exercises

By Elana Spivack

Every Kenyon student must eventually face the senior exercise, but drama majors have a distinct behemoth to tackle. Rather than write a gargantuan research paper, they must contribute to a performance. There are a number of ways to complete the thesis, but the final project must work towards a final performance, accompanied by an oral defense of one’s thesis and written comps.

The fall semester of their junior year, drama majors submit a proposal for their thesis to the department, outlining the experience that qualifies them for their project of choice. Actors and directors must work with at least one other senior drama major on a thesis performance, and must propose two plays to perform, one of which the department will approve.

Chair of the Department of Dance, Drama and Film Jon Tazewell discussed via email the factors the department considers when considering thesis proposals. “The department looks to see if the project will offer opportunities to learn and develop useful skills and abilities for each student by presenting them with challenges, and a good potential for success,” he wrote.

Assistant Professor of Drama Ben Viccellio outlined the ways the department helps students avoid potential failure. “We occasionally steer them away from a play with unrealistic design needs, a play in which a student actor is badly miscasting him or herself or if we feel a proposed play is not worthy of their time and attention,” he wrote in an email to the Collegian.

Generally, students choose more contemporary plays with smaller casts. “However, recent years have seen admirable attempts at larger shows (Shakespeare, Greek Tragedy),” Viccellio wrote. The performance aspect also adds another dimension to the exercise. “Having a public audience see and judge your work adds a whole different layer to the process,” Tazewell wrote. “You can’t back out and change your mind.”

The most recent thesis to go up was The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh, directed by Foss Baldwin ’15 and starring Issa Polstein ’15, both advised by Viccellio. This dark comedy underscores the importance of storytelling and operates on precise comedic timing, two factors that captured Baldwin and Polstein’s attention. “Capturing this rhythm is a challenge I wanted to take on,” Baldwin wrote in an email to the Collegian. “After you rehearse something for so long, it … becomes easy to forget which lines are funny.” Polstein had his own personal attachment to the play, which he first read in 10th grade. “I’d always known I loved it, but I never really understood it,” Polstein wrote in an email. “I love theater as a means of storytelling.”

Baldwin and Polstein said working on the play allowed them to develop confidence in their abilities. “My job was to take everyone’s best ideas and turn them into one cohesive show,” Baldwin said of directing.

Conor Tazewell ’15 and Issa Polstein '15 in The Pillowman.
Conor Tazewell ’15 and Issa Polstein ’15 in The Pillowman.

Lauren Katz ’15, a staff writer for the Collegian, is directing Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph. Assistant Professor of Drama and Film Jim Dennen serves as her advisor for the show, which stars Katz’s thesis partner, Rachel Kaplan ’15. “Being the director, I think, gives you a lot of freedom to [put life on stage] in a way that acting doesn’t necessarily do,” Katz said. However, the nature of the thesis necessitates compromise, especially between the director and actor. “[Rachel] is presenting her character in the way she feels [it should be presented], but then I’ll also make sure the way she wants her character fits into the story,” Katz said. She will hold auditions for her play Nov. 10.

Christine Prevas ’15 is one of three playwrights whose one-act play — Principia Romantica, starring Rosie Ouellet ’15 and directed by Matt Super ’15 for their respective theses — will premiere next semester. She attends a weekly independent playwriting study led by Professor of Drama Wendy MacLeod, in which she reviews and refines work on her play. Her piece, based on different principles of physics, has been her brainchild since her first year at Kenyon. Her greatest challenge has come with revisions, especially once she realized that her original idea was unworkable, and she started again from scratch. “It was a little terrifying, but liberating … to have the power to start from scratch on something I had been working for so long on that’s no longer bogged down in pages … of revisions of this old idea that wasn’t working,” Prevas said.

Amy Young ’16 is just beginning the process and sees what hurdles she must overcome. “The scariest thing is … just not getting the play that you want to do, … but I’m trying to keep an open mind,” she said. She acted as the mother in The Pillowman, and saw the performance aspect coalesce. “It was incredible watching what people can do in a month and a half,” she said.

Most of the senior drama majors hope to use their thesis as a foundation for a career. Baldwin wants to assistant direct post-grad, in Manhattan or Chicago. Though Polstein is not as sure of his future plans, the thesis has reaffirmed his devotion to acting. Katz wants to pursue a career as a drama professor, but knows theater will remain in her life. “I can’t imagine life without theater, so I know it will be there,” she said. “I just don’t know how yet.”

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