Students produce independent projects at Harper Joy Theatre

Hannah Bartman

Student-initiated and independently produced theater performances are few and far between outside of the main theater season, but in the upcoming month there will be three plays performed and produced solely by students. Senior Eli Zavatsky created a solo performance, “The Bat-Poet and the She-Wolf,” as his senior thesis, senior Tyle Schuh readapted a trans-feminist version of Jean Genet’s play “The Maids” in conjunction with his David Nord award, and seniors Caroline Rensel and Sarah Ann Wollett will perform “The Stronger” by August Strindberg as an independent study project. The utter difference of each of the plays is shocking and a testament to the diversity of interests within the Department of Theatre; from plot to dialogue to production, each play engages with radically different concepts with which the audience can discuss.

Zavatsky has been in the process of writing his play over the past year. Describing the play as sitting amongst the new sector of environmental theater, Zavatsky’s play began with a story that he wrote in secondgrade about “a bat and a wolf that meet and become friends and go on an adventure.” Zavatsky acquired the bulk of his play during the past six months in which he wrote every day during his summer working as a kayak instructor in the San Juan Islands and his semester abroad participating in Whitman’s Semester in the West program.

“Pretty much every sentence in this play is something that I really want people to hear [and] need people to hear,” he said.

This solo performance was a project that revolved almost entirely on Zavatsky’s own vision. Apart from some guidance from his advisor, Assistant Professor of Theatre Kristen Kosmas, Zavatsky wrote the play himself and will perform it alone two more times on April 30 and May 1 at 5 p.m. in the Black Box.

“I was really intrigued with [a solo performance] and … I know that I’m capable of it, but it’s not necessarily something I want to do [in the future],” he said.

Schuh’s independently driven project was initiated by the David Nord award. The David Nord Award gives 2,500 dollars to two students at the beginning of this semester who wish to engage with projects relating to queer topics. Schuh realized their project after reading “The Maids” in a theater course last semester. In Genet’s original work, the play consisted of two maids, who are played by two adolescent boys, who hate and therefore dress up like and perform sadomasochistic acts behind the back of their employer, Madame. In Schuh’s adaption the two maids, who are sisters, are altered to be one transgendered woman and one cis-gendered woman, and Madame is a drag queen. Schuh explains that Genet’s work is in discussion with sexual orientation whereas Schuh’s adaptation is more of a dialogue with gender identity.

“I was really struck by the poetics of [the play] and particularly how the poetics are playing with femininity. I saw so much luxury in it and it reminded me a lot of drag and these ideals of excess femininity, and these characters just started speaking to me,” they said.

Schuh’s work touches on topics such as the incarceration of trans women, the harmful portrayal of trans women in the media, the feminist movement and its close-minded approach to primarily cis-gendered issues, and the daily micro-aggressions performed surrounding transgender and feminist issues.

“A large part has been entering problematic territory and understanding the problematics but still going forward with it,” they said. “Because at least if we do something shocking and something problematic and we recognize the problematics that we’re creating, there is a shock in the audience and that allows for a conversation to be had around that.”

The play will take place in the Black Box on May 13, 14 and 15 at 8 p.m., and the last performance includes a talk-back with the three actors and with Schuh.

The play chosen to be performed by Rensel and Wollett was written in a naturalist style during the 19th Century. This one-act play consists of two characters, Ms. X and Ms. Y, only one of whom has dialogue for the duration of the 20-minute piece. In order to allow both the opportunity for dialogue, Rensel and Wollett will switch characters and perform the piece four to six times back-to-back in the acting classing on May 12 at 7 p.m., the one night that the play will be performed.

“I think we have different instincts on how sympathetic we find each character in different moments, which is really cool that two actors have widely different perspectives,” said Rensel.

The initiative of students to perform their own project, outside of the direct supervision of a professor or with a large group of other theatre students, is an occurrence less often seen at Whitman. It is also a unique experience available from which all students can learn from and enjoy.

Corrections: Caroline Rensel and Sarah Ann Wollett are performing “The Stronger,” not “Pariah.”

“The Maids” was written by Jean Genet, not Gadet.