The College of Wooster Department of Theatre and Dance produced five theatre productions this fall amid challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic that are now available for spectators to view online. Directed by Jimmy A. Noriega, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance, the series includes five plays presented under the title “Theatre of Urgency: Artistic Responses to 2020.” Noriega commissioned the new plays, all by BIPOC artists (Black, Indigenous, people of color), to be created specifically for Wooster students.
“Over the course of last summer, as I thought about what the fall theatre production would look like for our students, I knew we were responding to two pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism,” explained Noriega. “It was clear to me that my directing work would need to respond to both crises and that it was incumbent on me to lift the voices and perspectives of BIPOC artists, as well as respond to the political moment.”
The series of plays deals with the topics of Black Lives Matter, forced family separation of immigrant children at the border, queer lives and visibility, authoritarian abuse and power in government, and access and equality for BIPOC students in the performing arts. The productions can be viewed online through the following links (full descriptions and credits can be found at the end of this article).
These online performances include a cast made up entirely of black women (Well Run Dry) and the first time the department presents an all-Latinx cast (CAGED) and all-queer cast (The Queers Present: A Gender Reveal Party) in its main stage season. “It was important for me to take a stand and use this opportunity to bring meaningful plays to our campus and to address some of the problems that have long been associated with theatre at the university level,” Noriega said.
Jaz Nappier ’22, assistant director of Well Run Dry, explained that, “Spending each rehearsal with a talented group of Black women, most of whom had never been very involved in the department, was such a refreshing experience. I think the commission of these five plays sets a precedent and a standard for what we can do moving forward to promote anti-racist theatre. There is no going backwards.”
“The ability to work in a space meant explicitly for Latinx peoples by Latinx peoples, despite being remote, was incredibly affirming for me,” said Teresa Ascencio ’22, who starred in CAGED. “I learned so much about myself, my acting counterparts, and the current crisis at the border, along with ways we as artists can create work that has socio-political messages and can reframe the way we see the world.” Also a member of the cast of CAGED, Victoria Silva ’22 recognized the experience as an unique opportunity. “Being able to be a part of a show that focused on Latinx issues and highlighted the need for social reform gave me an amazing opportunity to work on great theatre for social change,” she said.
The process did not unfold like a typical show. Noriega contacted the playwrights before auditions and spoke to them about the kinds of themes and topics he would be interested in presenting. “What was unique about this process was that the students were assigned a playwright; rather than auditioning for a specific role, they were auditioning to have a play written for them,” Noriega said. Auditions took place in September with a “phenomenal turnout,” said Noriega. “Nearly 60 students auditioned for the fall production, which is a record for the department.” The director cast a total of 24 performers and worked with six assistant directors and stage managers, as well as the department production team: Naoko Skala, designer and professor of theatre; Suwatana Pla Rockland, costume designer and shop supervisor; Mike Schafer, technical director; and Joe Skala, assistant technical director. New to Wooster Theatre in this far-from-normal year, Naoko Skala and Rockland found they learned from being involved. “Everything was new, unknown, and unpredictable, but I feel I became a better and stronger theatre practitioner through it all,” said Skala. About the design process, Rockland added, “It was a pleasure and delight to work with such a talented director, actors, and production team. While it was a challenge to design the costumes without actual in-person fittings, everyone communicated so well, and we were able to succeed together.”
Rehearsals began online in an effort to stay COVID safe, with the original plan to present the plays from Oct. 22-24 in outdoor spaces throughout campus. When the team was to begin working in-person and preparing for final rehearsals, Wooster went fully remote on Oct. 12. “The actors, design team, and I had to stop everything and reimagine our work completely. From that point on, we were constantly adapting to the ever-changing circumstances of the pandemic,” explained Noriega. Challenges included working from twelve different cities and finding new ways to collaborate and make theatre remotely. “It is easy to think that online theatre is much simpler or lower-effort than in-person performance,” explained Annie Sheneman ’22, a student assistant director. “However, working with new texts from professional playwrights was such an exciting prospect, and it brought a lot of energy to the process to know that we were working on a premiere. It opened doors to things that we would not have otherwise been able to do.” In the end, the entire cast and crew found joy, success, and purpose in their work. “I am grateful to all of the students and production team that worked under these difficult circumstances to make something that we are all proud of,” said Noriega.
Featured photo above: A scene from Well Run Dry, by Lisa Langford, starring Anailah Funchess, Jayla Riven, Amari Royal, Nasua Labi, and Angela Danso Gyane.
Department of Theatre and Dance Fall 2020 Theatre Productions
“Theatre of Urgency: Creative Responses to 2020”
Directed by Jimmy A. Noriega
Well Run Dry was written by Lisa Langford, a Cleveland-based and award-winning African American playwright. It is about the Black Lives Matter movement and the role of Black women in social justice organizing. At the core of the play is a lesson about valuing, supporting, and respecting the Black female experience. The performers include: Anailah Funchess ’23, Angela Danso Gyane ’21, Nasua Labi ’21, Jayla Riven ’24, and Amari Royal ’23. It was assistant directed by Jaz Nappier ’22.
CAGED focuses on the “zero tolerance” policy that separated families at the US-Mexico border and left thousands of immigrant children incarcerated in detention centers. In the play, three children grapple with what it means to endure the journey north and to be separated from their loved ones. It features Teresa Ascencio ’23, Rickey Cooper ’23, and Victoria Silva ’23 and was written by Jimmy A. Noriega (as a collaboration with his theatre company, Teatro Travieso/Troublemaker Theatre). Seth Green ’21 served as stage manager.
The Queers Present: A Gender Reveal Party was written by Brazilian-American and queer playwright Ryan Oliveira. The play takes place in some National Forest, where a band of queers throw a heteronormative gender reveal party, complete with fireworks and everything wrong with the straights. But once the party blows, the fallout is all about survival in a gender-obsessed society. The performers include Sarah Caley ’23, Max Gregg ’21, Brian Luck ’22, Louis Schwartz ’21, and Jax Wilson ’24 and was assistant directed by Cat Moreschi ’22.
SOAP is an over-the-top comedy that merges a television soap opera set with the clichés and characters of a fairy tale to tell the story of an authoritarian government and affairs of love gone wrong. It was written by Chicano playwright and solo performer Carlos Manuel and stars Rosie Cassidy ’24, Kate Conway ’24, Megan Fisher ’21, Autumn Housh ’24, Drake Pence ’21, and Louis Rosenberg ’24. It was assistant directed by Brian Luck ’22 and assistant stage managed by Claire Alderfer ’24.
The Grotowski Method is by award-winning Latina playwright Elaine Romero and stars Iván Akiri ’22, Owen Belfiore ’23, Pookar Chand ’23, Hayden Lane-Davies ’21, and Gabby Sullivan ’22. The play is about five theatre students who travel to Poland to gain a deeper connection to their training as artists, but instead realize that equality and representation are not easy ideas to live up to in this world. The ensemble grapples with questions about how to make space for BIPOC artists in the theatre and has an honest discussion about the Declaration of Independence. It was assistant directed by Annie Sheneman ’22.