In past years, spring in the department of theater and dance has seen the culmination of seniors’ work in studio projects: performances written, directed and acted by Bowdoin students. For the Class of 2020, however, the beginning of the pandemic made live studio productions impossible.
“A lot of us had been rehearsing all of that semester … and everything was in the final stages and we were going to present pretty soon after break ended,” said senior studio playwright Ian Stewart ’20 in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “It’s pretty disappointing, because the projects were basically done, and then obviously everything was put on hold.”
Last spring, Stewart authored a play called “Crash Test,” which featured a family of adult children coping with the fact that their mother is a crash test dummy. Stewart’s play was never able to see the stage in the 2020 spring semester.
This semester, however, the class of 2020 was presented with a second chance to have their work produced and to revisit their plays one year later. For the past two weeks, the department of theater and dance has presented virtual staged readings for the senior studio projects from the class of 2020, along with the projects from the class of 2021. The series has included original plays written by Ian Stewart ’20, Sebastian Hernandez ’20, Tori Clarke ’20, Caroline Farber ’20, Spencer Wilkins ’21, AJ Jackson ’21 and Jessica Speight ’21, as well as a new dance piece by Lucia Gagliardone ’20.
In previous years, students begin the studio class in the fall and work in a collaborative setting with a member of the department faculty and other theater students to create a performance piece that will be shown in the spring.
“It’s a really collaborative process—we get ideas from each other, we critique, we add our opinions if that’s what we want. It’s a really great source of confidence, knowing that you can collaborate with other people who are in the same position as you,” said Speight in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “It’s crazy to say that I saw everyone’s piece from its baby conception, and then I get to see how it is now.”
When the Class of 2021 began to work on senior studio projects this past fall, they were uncertain about how they would be able to present their final products. As it became clear that in-person performance would not be an option by the spring, students had to pivot and reimagine their work for a virtual format. .
“There were parts [of my play] where the characters spoke directly to the audience, and over Zoom, it’s not the same. There were a lot of parts where [we] really thought, ‘Okay, how’s it going to look over Zoom, how is it going to be for the actor who’s doing it,” said Speight. “It can be very overwhelming, but if you have a vision, you sort of just have to play with it and see what works the best.”
Speight wrote a play called “The Adoration of Anikka,” an hour-long piece reflecting on the experiences of a Black woman in America—an idea she began working on in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.
“Everything that happened that summer was so violent, but also there was a lot of hope as well; that sort of was my catalyst for starting this piece,” said Speight. “I began the piece by interviewing different Black people that I was close to about the protest, about how they felt during that time. I actually have the original audio recordings, and originally I was going to use them, but then the piece sort of morphed … into thinking about my experience as a Black woman, and my experiences in this country with different systems of oppression.”
Speight’s performance premiered on Tuesday and was presented as a live Zoom production. Along with writing the piece, Speight also acted in it and co-directed it with Holden Turner ’21. Turner was eager for the opportunity to work on a new original piece, but he also believed it was important to be mindful of Speight’s artistic vision.
“There was definitely a lot of really neat license to do what we wanted with it, [but] at the same time, having [Speight] as the creator of this piece here with us and actually directing and performing in this piece was an invaluable resource,” said Turner in a phone interview with the Orient. “She kind of put the vision out there for us, and we all jumped on board with it. We all followed enthusiastically alongside her vision.”
While the performances written by the Class of 2021 featured casts made up almost entirely of Bowdoin students, the revisited studio projects for the Class of 2020 were directed and acted by professional actors, many of whom work locally in the Portland, ME area
“I was a little wary of this Zoom reading at first, because especially for my play I felt like it was so rooted in the physical, but I think my director did a really good job,” said Stewart. “It was a really good experience working with a professional director and professional actors—a totally different experience than working with student actors; I think both have their merits.”
Though the projects took different forms than originally planned—some put on hold, and all presented virtually—the students in studio still expressed gratitude for the opportunity to bring their work to life and see it performed.
“I’m just really happy that the cast was so passionate about the work,” said Speight. “You sort of think as a writer, that maybe your work isn’t the best. But then when you have people who come in and they’re like ‘wow, you know, I really see your vision and I want to be a part of it’—it’s a really powerful feeling.”