Arts & Culture

Playwrights find a venue

6 min read

From musicals to mixed media to biography, students take to stage

Chris Gummerson ’12 was driving past the headquarters of a scrapple factory in a small town when an idea for a musical came to her. What if the town’s livelihood depended on the factory, and what if a USDA official made a surprise visit that culminated in a product-recall panic, and what if the meat-eating son of the factory’s owner fell in love with the vegan-artist daughter of the USDA official, and they had to set aside their dietary differences to save the town?

More important: What if Gummerson could meet a lyricist who would embrace the wackiness of the topic and a composer who could set it to spunky music?

That last two questions are foremost in the thoughts of leaders at Harvard’s Office for the Arts (OfA), where each year students with theater aspirations submit applications to expand, explore, and produce their original works in the College’s performance spaces. This year, theatergoers have a three-day window — April 23-26 — in which to see three works written, produced, and performed by students, including Gummerson.

Additionally, members of a playwriting class taught by Christine Evans, Briggs-Copeland Lecturer on English, and Gideon Lester, 2008-09 director at the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) and lecturer in dramatics, will present new play readings April 23-26 at the New College Theatre Studio. Evans’ own original work “Trojan Barbie” will be ending a monthlong run April 22 at Zero Arrow Theatre.

Sound like a festival of original works? It’s more like a theater blitz.

“Students have always written for theater here, but this year it’s bubbling up,” says Jack Megan, OfA director. “We’ve fostered a culture that says this is legitimate. Christine Evans legitimizes it. A.R.T. and, now, its new artistic director Diane Paulus legitimizes it. And the New College Theatre makes the point that playwrights come out of Harvard. We have a cohort of theater students getting their work done, and others recognizing that it is important. But I don’t feel we’re just looking for talent. We’re trying to feed it, to be proactive, to fuel that creative spark and originality.”

Case in point: Gummerson’s idea for the scrapple love comedy became this year’s freshman musical, an annual event driven by the College’s newest talent. She found her lyricist in Brandon Ortiz ’12, her composer in Russell Huang ’12, and her director in Kellee Kim ’12, and the four of them have developed “Recall!” a full-length work running April 24-26 at Agassiz Theatre.

“The theater tradition at Harvard had everything to do with why I’m here,” says Gummerson, who wants to pursue writing for theater. “There are things that are useful about learning in a classroom, but this is different from a problem set. Theater by nature builds strong community. You have to come together to work on something creative. You’re fueling something you love.”

For the past five years, Calla Videt ’09 has looked to theater as the playground for what she loves. She has been an actor and dancer since childhood, but this year switched to the roles of writer and director for “The Space Between,” an avant-garde mixed-media piece that explores the connections between physics and art. Videt was a physics concentrator originally, but after studying the works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett with Robert Scanlan, English professor of the practice of theater, and directing with Robert Woodruff, former artistic director at A.R.T., her focus shifted dramatically.

“The Space Between,” which takes place April 24-May 2 on the Mainstage at Loeb Drama Center, is the culmination of Videt’s thinking about science, myth, and the flexibility of theater spaces. The storyline loosely follows three couples, two of which are named Adam and Eve. The third is physicist Richard Feynman and his wife. In the backdrop are science classes, a primal garden, and a trapeze artist.

“Right now — and it’s a day-to-day thing — the show is about uncertainty,” says Videt. “It’s about chaos and about finding patterns in uncertainty and trusting them. It’s about knowledge and uncertainty, about life and death. Tomorrow I might say it’s a love story.” Videt’s rehearsals are chaotic, spirited, noisy — a romp of language, choreography, sound. Her directorial hand is strong, but she also welcomes — indeed, expects — the collaboration and serendipity that come from a laboratory atmosphere. She is now a “special concentrator” in physics and theater and plans to work in a small theater company with a group of classmates after graduation.

“It helps when your extracurricular work interacts with your academics,” Videt says. “They’ve become one and the same to me.”

While Videt has been in theater since she landed in Cambridge, Zoe Sarnak ’09 is a virtual newcomer to the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, the umbrella organization for theater at the College. A jazz guitarist, she came to Harvard to play soccer and to study molecular biology with an eye toward medical school.

Last year, she wrote “The Quad,” a rock musical about college life, and applied to OfA for space to produce it. She didn’t get the space, but the project caught the eye of Eric Engel, director of Memorial Hall and College theater venues at OfA. He offered her the resources to workshop the idea. When Sarnak applied for production space a second time, she got it. “The Quad” will be presented April 23-25 in the Experimental Theatre of the Loeb Drama Center.

Engel and a team of advisers gave Sarnak notes on a staged reading in March. Engel also paired Sarnak with a practicing playwright in Boston.

Sarnak says she relies on her show’s director, Jordan Reddout ’10, an experienced theater artist, to guide her through the nuts and bolts of rehearsals and staging the play. The learning curve is steep, says Sarnak, who hopes to spend time in New York City after graduation. But even though “The Quad” is her first time out, Sarnak knows her theater experience at Harvard has propelled her toward a fuller understanding of herself as a creative person. As with Gummerson and Videt, she has found the right space for the open play of her talents and ideas.

“All my life, if you had asked me: Who is Zoe? I’d say: soccer player. Now I guess I’d say musician. But I think it sounds pretentious. So does artist. But if you ask what I wake up and want to do every day, then it’s this. This is what I want to do.”

Alicia Anstead is editor of Inside Arts magazine and was the 2008 arts and culture fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism.