Friday, April 3, 2009

Studio Theatre

Just the words give me a rush--Studio Theatre. When I was in college it was where the action really was. We had big main stage productions (even a rotating stage) but the shows conceived and directed by students were in the Studio--that's where I did most of my acting, all my directing, and where the plays I wrote were mounted. Plus it was where I saw my first Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, Genet, etc. Some of those productions still stay with me. When I think of Krapp's Last Tape, I get an image from the production I saw there, not from the one I saw in New York.

Studio Theatre isn't just a college phenomenon--I remember going to a big showy and not very interesting production of Romeo and Juliet at Stratford, Ontario but I stuck around for a play in their studio theatre that night, mounted by the actors on their own, and it was thrilling.

But the studio theatre is where university student work is usually done, often in the spring, as for-credit projects. I remember going to several such productions at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, especially when it was a play I wanted to see but hadn't seen yet. That's where I saw Joe Orton's farce, What the Butler Saw, and it was one of the most enjoyable shows I can remember seeing anywhere.

Anyway, it's been a few years since I've been back to the HSU Studio Theatre but I did see two student shows in the past week that reminded me of how bracing and fun this kind of theatre can be.

On March 27, Megan Hughes directed two short plays by David Ives (in a program she titled "The Ives of March,") both with the same cast: Kelly Whittaker, Ethan Heintz and Clayton Cook. The first one, "Time Flies," is a terrific very short play, about the very short lives of a couple of Mayflies, with a guest appearance by nature documentarian David Attenborough. It's funny, poignant, imaginative and beautifully constructed, and the cast hit all the right notes. The second play, not sure of the title, is about 3 workers on a highrise beam who aren't what they seem. This didn't have quite the same sure rhythm, but it was still an effective presentation. I'm glad I saw them both. Thanks to Megan Hughes and her actors, my afternoon was considerably brightened.

Yesterday evening I saw the first performance of another project, the first act of Patrick Marber's Closer, directed by Steven Robert King, featuring Jamie Banister, Johanna Hembry, Omari Howard and Jessi Walters. This is an edgy contemporary play, witty and provocative. The actors were all very good, very sharp. They also all had a lot of presence, and that's something you can't necessarily teach. Through instruction, experience and directing, performances can improve and styles can develop. But if you start with presence, you are way ahead.

I was particularly impressed with Jamie Banister (who I haven't seen act before) and Omari Howard (who I recall seeing just once.) Jessi Walters did well with her character, which was a difficult one. (Omari's character was also difficult in that he went through a big unexplained change, and was basically mercurial anyway.) I've seen Johanna Hembry a number of times, and this seemed to me like one of her best performances, particularly in relation to the other actors. They all worked together well, which was necessary in this piece, particularly in selling the quirky dialogue. That's also a compliment to the director, who staged the play well, given the limitations of these very basic studio theatre productions. It's crisply paced, a bit rough or unsure in places, but I've certainly seen more formal productions that have deeper flaws and less energy. I enjoyed it.

Closer continues in the HSU Studio Theatre (entrance is to the left of the Van Duzer doors) on Friday and Saturday (May 3 & 4) at 7:30 and on Sunday at 2. Admission is free. It's one hour--just the first act--so on the way home, you can try to imagine what happens to these people in the second act. Be forewarned that sex is the subject and though the behavior on stage isn't very graphic, the talk is.

Both of these productions reminded me of what studio theatre can do, especially when participants are engaged by the material, and have chosen to do it. That feeling of risk and commitment is part of what makes the studio theatre still whisper possibilities.

Johanna Hembry also designed this poster--she designed most of the HSU theatre posters over the past few years. Johanna impresses me in a number of ways, including how well she has used her time at HSU, as a theatre and art student. Now she has all these posters, which for the last year or two at least are professional level work. And she's been in all kinds of plays. She's been an enthusiastic participant in the publicity photo shoots for those plays--apart from being photogenic, she understands what these photos are about. When the photographer, director and I ran out of ideas for the shoot of the staged reading earlier this year (The Fire-Bringer), she staged what became the central image for the production. She's made the most of her opportunities, and that's heartening.

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