Category Archives: Williston Theatre

COMEDY OF ERRORS: Tech Week Begins

I mentioned collaboration in my last post. This is, truly, one of my favorite parts about being a theatre person. Tech Week for The Comedy of Errors began on Saturday and the power of collaboration was on full display.

For weeks the actors have  been rehearsing, the technicians have been building the set, and lighting designer Charles Raffetto and Costume Designer Ashley Tyler have been creating unique looks for the show. While we were working separately all of us had our eyes on the same prize: creating a cohesive, outlandish, ridiculous production of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. Our job was to stay true to Shakespeare and his influences, while bringing something new and fun to the table. Yesterday we got to see if our individual work came together in all the right ways. Needless to say, when I saw Ashley Tyler’s costume designs on the set Charles Raffeto designed, with the lights hung by tech theatre students, I did another happy dance.

Assistant Stage Manager Risa looks over the prop table with crew members Britanie and Ha.
Assistant Stage Manager Risa looks over the prop table with crew members Britanie and Ha.

 

As blog readers know, Shakespeare was influenced by the Italian Comedy which  also heavily influenced our production. Charles Raffetto wanted to bring the “town square” feeling of a commedia performance to our theatre and created an open playing space ready for a modern-day commedia troupe.

The town square waiting for the actors to arrive.
The town square waiting for the actors to arrive.

We thought long and hard about what present-day actors would be in such a travelling troupe and came to one conclusion: hipsters. You will see that influence in the base costumes Ashley Tyler has given each actor. Prepare yourselves for vintage hair, lots of scarves, and at least two pairs of suspenders. Layered on top of our base costumes are character-specific pieces. Commedia was an art form of survival– troupes got by with very little. Ms. Tyler took this idea and ran with it, crafting her outlandish costumes with found items like coffee filters and post-office envelopes.

Dr. Pinch, Antipholus of Ephesus, and Luciana's costumes wait in the wings for their entrance.
Dr. Pinch, Antipholus of Ephesus, and Luciana’s costumes wait in the wings for their entrance.

All of this is to say that we hope to bring the same energy to our production as there was the night Comedy was first performed. While we don’t want our audience to riot like that night in 1594, we hope you do have a riotous good time. This will be thanks, in large part, to the “theatre magic” created through the work of our designers.

Nina and Glede apply Ashley Tyler's wacky make-up designs.
Nina and Glede apply Ashley Tyler’s wacky make-up designs.

Comedy of Errors: The Ab Fab Collab

Theatre is an inherently collaborative genre. There is, quite literally, no way to do theatre alone. It’s only natural that the author of this blog post, Emily Ditkovski, Director of the Williston Theatre, would seek collaborators wherever she can.

The source material for our fall play, The Comedy of Errors, comes from two comedies by the Roman humorist Plautus, primarily The Menaechmi (cue Latin teacher Ms. Cody). The play is also heavily influenced, as devoted blog readers know, by commedia dell’arte (cue AP European History teacher Mrs. Klumpp). I reached out to my colleagues last spring  to see if we could work together. They agreed (cue Ms. D doing a happy dance.) Ms. Cody, an expert wordsmith, named this project The Ab Fab Collab(oration) and thus something truly exceptional was born.

After some great and entertaining conversation, Mrs. Klumpp, Ms. Cody, and I decided that it would be most powerful for our students to teach our community about commedia and Plautus. Ms. Cody’s Latin IV Honors students read The Menaechmi (parts of it in Latin, ladies and gentleman!) and planned a lesson to teach the cast of the play.

A few weeks back Ms. Klumpp generously invited Ms. Ditkovski to her AP European History classes to introduce commedia dell’arte and discuss it’s influence on Western comedy. Some of you might have noticed me crossing campus with a vintage suitcase and wooden sword wondering what I was up to. Well, you are about to find out! Inside said suitcase were various props relating to commedia: a slapstick, a pair of pants, Barbie and Ken (delightfully dressed for a day at the beach), a bucket full of coins, among a few other things. Acting as detectives, students needed to connect the objects to commedia. At the end of the class they were given the opportunity to try on the body language of a few stock characters. The point of this exercise was to entice them to learn more about commedia so they can, ultimately, teach the entire Williston community a thing or two about the famous art form. I don’t want to give away Mrs. Klumpp’s secrets, but I know she is planning an AP Euro takeover of the Willistonian’s Instagram and perhaps a commedia board game or two available at the dining hall. Judging by their enthusiasm during my visit, I think we’re in for a good time!

The famous suitcase full of props.
The famous suitcase full of props.
img_1345
AP Euro students decipher the connection between commedia, an apron, and a slapstick.

After tackling The Menaechmi in class, Latin Scholars planned a visit to a rehearsal for The Comedy of Errors . Last Friday the night of their visit arrived.  After describing the characters and plot of The Menaechmi with gusto (and props!), the Latin students helped us played a little Kahoot to test our knowledge of the plot.

I was so impressed with the notes that the Latin IV Honors students made I had to take a picture!
I was so impressed with the notes that the Latin IV Honors students made I had to take a picture!

It was incredible to hear about how much Shakespeare was inspired by Plautus. Perhaps inspired is too generous a word…he essentially stole every major plot point from The Menaechmi. (Before we get upset and start calling Shakespeare a plagiarist, we need to understand that this kind of lifting from source material was a wide-spread practice back in the day.) In both plays we have twins separated at birth, a jealous wife, a husband accused of cheating, a man locked out of his house, and more. What Shakespeare adds to his play, however is all his own. In the scene-by-scene breakdown given to us by the fantastic Latin scholars, we see a  that Plautus was playing exclusively for laughs. Shakespeare, never content with superficiality, endows The Comedy of Errors with existential questions of belonging, family, and identity. Shakespeare’s gift for storytelling was truly brought home by the visit with Ms. Cody’s students. (No offense, Plautus.)

The Latin IV Honors students give us a scene-by scene breakdown (props included!).
The Latin IV Honors students give us a scene-by scene breakdown (props included!).

Why all of this collaboration, you ask? Besides the fact that it is just fun for us teachers who usually work solo in the classroom,  collaboration brings home how interconnected we are. Plautus wrote in Ancient Rome, commedia’s big moment was in the Renaissance, and here we are hundreds and thousands of years later thinking about these works of art and the themes they raise like class inequity and sexism. We stand to learn a lot by looking backwards in time from every angle that we can: theatre, Latin, history.

Latin scholars and the cast of The Comedy of Errors.
Latin scholars and the cast of The Comedy of Errors.

 

The Comedy of Errors: Shakespeare (Scholar) Visits the Cast

Dr. Adam Zucker, with his brown hair and long beard, is often mistaken for William Shakespeare himself. This is fitting, as he is Associate Professor in the English Department at UMass Amherst with a focus on Elizabethan Theatre.  We were lucky enough to host Dr. Zucker in the Williston Theatre on Wednesday to discuss The Comedy of Errors with the cast of our production.

He shared some fascinating scholarship with us, most notably that even in this most light-hearted of Shakespeare’s plays, the Bard still manages to ask deep, philosophical questions about belonging and family. Dr. Zucker began by reading his favorite lines from the play, Antipholus of Syracuse’s speech in Act I, Scene II:

I to the world am like a drop of water

That in the ocean seeks another drop,

Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,

Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself:

So I, to find a mother and a brother,

In quest of them, unhappy lose myself.

This marriage of light and dark is a huge presence in this play. We begin with Duke Solinus reminding Egeon that he will die by the end of the day, our Dromios (who are just trying to do their jobs) are repeatedly beaten, and Adriana is deeply wounded because her husband ignores her. Shakespeare is carrying on the very long tradition of using comedy to bring to light the darker sides of society.

Dr. Zucker also reminded us that this play from its very inception, despite the dark undertones, was meant to be festive. After its first performance, which was for an audience of lawyers, there were actual riots. These were not political riots, but a result of people having a bit too much fun. In Elizabethan times lawyers were not the upstanding citizens they are today. They were, in Dr. Zucker’s own words, rich hipsters who tended to have too much fun. Even thought a modern audience shares little in common with Elizabethan lawyers, we are supposed enjoy the experience of the play and let loose a little.

This marriage of light and dark, tension and release, makes good sense for our production. While we have embraced the legacy of The Comedy of Errors’ riotous past, the darker elements of the play have not disappeared. The cast and crew has often remarked how the experience of our Antipholi feels like a nightmare come to life. It is. Imagine a world where everyone recognizes you and you know no one. Or that your closest friends and family are convinced you have said things that never came out of your mouth.

Leave it up to the Bard to brings these two seemingly different worlds together miraculously in one place. We are grateful to Dr. Zucker for reminding us that Shakespeare, even in his shortest work, is a masterful playwright.

Dr. Adam Zucker discusses The Comedy of Errors with the cast of our production.
Dr. Adam Zucker discusses The Comedy of Errors with the cast of our production.

Comedy of Errors: An Introduction

The Comedy of Errors was long thought to be Shakespeare’s first play. It is by far his shortest play with what, at first glance, seems like a very simple plot. All the evidence pointed to the fact that he was a new playwright who hadn’t developed fully as writer. However, scholars have since discovered that Comedy was first performed around 1594 (still early on in his career) at the hall of Gray’s Inn likely during Christmastime for an audience of nobleman and royalty.  The play’s brevity is due to the fact that it was an after piece– a short, boisterous comedy that completed a night of fun and merry-making typical of the Elizabethan holiday season.

The play was inspired by the great Italian Comedy of the Renaissance (commedia dell’arte) and the Roman comedies of Plautus. Anyone who has spent any time in the Williston Theatre knows that I love commedia dell’arte, the professional theatre troupes that grew out of the Renaissance. Almost all of the comedy we see today is derived, in one way or another, from commedia. These troupes were well-organized and often had women in charge (something that, even now, is a rarity in professional theatre). They roamed the countryside of Europe, creatively subverting the status quo by using improvisation, familiar stock characters, gibberish and broad comedy. Like today’s best stand-up comedians and sketch comedy artists, commedia poked fun at all of the things that were wrong with society. Audiences loved it, the government and the Catholic church did not.

An artitsts’ rendering of a commedia troupe performing in a town square.

Because commedia is the basis for all Western comedy (especially Shakespeare’s comedies, which were heavily influenced by commedia), I invited local commedia expert Brianna Sloane to lead a physical comedy workshop with the cast of The Comedy of Errors. Ms. Sloane is the artistic director of Theatre Truck, which crafts “mobile and site-specific  theatre sustainably and playfully.” Her current piece, The Water Project, is an interactive and immersive piece about the  communities that were flooded to create the Quabbin Reservoir and will be performed at the Swift RIver Historical society later this month. She has studied commedia dell’arte at the Accedemia dell’Arte in Florence, Italy and holds an MFA in Directing from UMass Amherst. Her vibrant energy kept our actors engaged for the duration of the two-hour workshop!

After a terrific warm-up that involved lots of moving and shouting (like any good theatre warm up!), our actors got a chance to explore the major stock characters of commedia one at a time. Starting with the Zanni (the lowest of the servants who are struggling for basic survival) and all the way up  to the Lovers, the  cast could make connections between their characters and their commedia counterparts. The Comedy of Errors is incredibly physical. Without a basis to create the bodies of our characters, we would end up with a play that is  boring and doesn’t stay true to Shakespeare’s intentions. We look forward to applying all of the wonderful and wacky things we learned in our workshop to the rehearsal process as we bring the show to life. When you come see the play, try and see which commedia character influenced each actor! See below to learn more about some of the stock characters of commedia.

ARLECHINO

Arlechino, one of the most famous characters in commedia, is a servant trying to survive. With his wily imagination he gets himself in and out of heaps of trouble. He is pictured here with the slapstick that his master, no doubt, will beat him with for messing up one task or another.

COLUMBINA

Columbina is a strong, witty, servant who knows more than anyone in the play. She is often the object of Arlechino’s affections.

 

PANTALONE

Pantalone is also very well known and is the basis for lots of contemporary comedy (think Mr. Burns from The Simpsons). He is an old man with lots of money that he doesn’t want to lose. Most of his plots revolve around trying to marry off his daughter so he can make even more money. Pantalone’s female counterpart, El Strega, is nearly forgotten. An old witch with magical powers, her distant relatives can be seen in fairy tales like Snow White.

IL DOTTORE

Il Dottore is Pantalone’s nemesis. A doctor who knows virtually nothing and speaks nonsense, he is usually the father to the son of whomever Pantalone is trying to marry his daughter.

 

CAPITANO

Perhaps my favorite character in commedia, Capitano brags of having done the most brave and terrifying things in battle, but when push comes to shove he is afraid of everything. All characters in commedia posses some kind of duality along these lines.

 

INNAMORATI (THE LOVERS)

The lovers, central to all commedia plots, are obsessed with themselves only slightly more than their love-interests.

 

To learn more about Theatre Truck visit http://www.thetheatretruck.com/

Tickets for The Comedy of Errors will go on sale in early October. Visit http://williston.com/theater for more information.

 

Theatre Season 2016-2017

School is back in session and the theatre building is already teeming with life. Lots of students, old and new, have excitedly found their way back to the studio theatre inquiring about auditions for the fall play (which are TONIGHT– we waste no time here!). It seems fitting then, for us to announce the season to a broader audience so you can get as excited as we are. Without further ado, here are the plays for the 2016-2017 school year!

 

FALL PLAY:  THE COMEDY OF ERRORS by William Shakespeare

To celebrate the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Williston is producing one of the Bard’s most outlandish and ridiculous works. The Comedy of Errors is a raucous and hilarious play that follows two sets of twins who were separated at birth in a sea-storm. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse, arrive in Ephesus, which turns out to be the home of their long-lost twin brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant, Dromio of Ephesus. When the Syracusans encounter the friends and families of their twins, a series of wild mishaps based on mistaken identities leads to a near-seduction, arrests, and accusations of infidelity, theft, madness, and demonic possession. Inspired by both the Roman humorist Plautus, and commedia dell’arte of the Italian Renaissance, The Comedy of Errors is truly comedy at its best. In light of this, we are planning special collaborations with our Latin and AP European History students, so stay tuned for more info about that!

October at 27 and 29th at 7:30pm, October at 28th at 8pm. Join us for a talk-back after the show on Thursday October 27th. The performance on October 28th is free for Williston Families.

WINTER THEATRE LAB

Have you ever wondered what happens when you ask a bunch of theatre students to collaborate on a series of one-act plays? Well, it’s pretty fabulous and we call that THEATRE LAB. Students direct, act, design, and stage manage four short plays which gives them a 360 degree look at what goes into theatre-making. Look out for an exciting new twist this year and the names of our four directors!

February 23-25 at 7:30pm.

SPRING PLAY: PETER AND THE STARCATCHER. Written By Rick Elice. Based on the Novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Music by Wayne Barker

Based on the popular novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Peter and the Starcatcher follows the adventures of a nameless orphan and his new-found friend Molly Aster as they keep a secret treasure safe and out of the hands of the pirate-villain Black Stache. Set on the high seas and a remote island, Peter and the Starcatcher takes its audiences on a magical adventure as we meet lords, orphans, mermaids, sea creatures, and pirates. The story, which serves as a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy, is theatre magic at its best and guaranteed to touch the hearts of audiences ages 9-99.

April 27-29 and May 4-6 at 7:30pm. Please join us for a talk-back with our cast and crew on Friday April 28th. That evening’s performance is also free for Williston Families.

 

 

For ticket information for these productions visit www.williston.com/theater. Tickets will go on sale approximately four weeks before opening.

Theater Alums Make a Triumphant Return

At this morning’s assembly Archivist Rick Teller explained the word “commencement.” It’s a strange word, considering it is, in fact, the ceremony that marks the end of ones school career. But, as he said, it also marks the beginning of the rest of the graduates’ lives. Our graduates are about to embark on new, uncharted territory and have thrilling new adventures. They are curious to see what the future holds. Theater students will get a glimpse of what that this future might look when two alums visit campus this Thursday.

If you happened to set foot in the Williston Theatre between 2011 and 2014 the names Oliver and Ben will be familiar to you. Both graduates of the Williston class of  2014, Ben Sarat and Oliver Demers  delighted audiences onstage in plays like Rumors, The Servant of Two Masters, and Urinetown. Both skilled comedians, their senior project, a combination of live improv and filmed sketch-comedy, played to a sold-out house. Ben and Oliver were more than skilled performers. Like many of our theatre students, Ben and Oliver were role models. Our younger actors and designers (now seniors themselves!) wanted to be just like them. From Ben and Oliver these younger students learned about the dedication it takes to do theatre and how critical it is to set up a welcoming and safe environment for everyone.

Oliver as Bobby Strong with the company of Urinetown, Spring 2014
Oliver as Bobby Strong with the company of Urinetown, Spring 2014

 

Ben as Caldwell B. Cladwell with the company of Urinetown, Spring 2014.
Ben as Caldwell B. Cladwell with the company of Urinetown, Spring 2014.

It is no surprise that Ben and Oliver went off to do some pretty exciting stuff at college.  Both rising college juniors now studying theatre, Oliver has already performed off-off Broadway and Ben’s college improv team, The Dimple Divers, won the top prize at ImprovBoston’s College Comedy Festival.  They’ve both studied at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade and other legendary comedy institutions. You can imagine my delight when they expressed interest in coming back to share what they’ve learned with current Williston students. It’s safe to say that their expertise has now outpaced mine!

The two will be returning to campus tomorrow, Thursday May 26th from 3-4  in the Studio Theatre, to lead an improv masterclass with our current students. We invite anyone who has taken a theatre class at Williston to join us for an afternoon of true hilarity. Be prepared to try some new improv games and learn new tricks of the comedy game. I can’t wait to see what Ben and Oliver have up their sleeves. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at editkovski@williston.com.

Spring Arts Events Kick off End of School Year

May is Arts Month at Williston, and it’s been busy! Over the past few weeks we’ve featured our sold-out Spring Musical, In the Heights (see photos at our Flickr page) and our Spring Instrumental Concert (photos coming soon!). As the year comes to a close, several more fantastic student performances are coming right up, so mark your calendars! 

  • Friday, May 20, and Saturday, May 21: Spring Dance Concert, “Music Made Visible,” Williston Theatre, 8 p.m.
  • Tuesday, May 24: Spring Choral Concert, “Songs of Love and Betrayal,” Phillips Stevens Chapel, 7:30 p.m.
  • Wednesday, May 25: Williston Scholars Artists Reception, Grubbs Gallery, 6 p.m.
  • Thursday, May 26: Eight Grade Art Show and Shakespeare Performance, Williston Theatre, 6 p.m.

In the Heights: Meet the Neighborhood

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of In the Heights, used people in his own life as inspiration for the characters in his play. (In fact, Nina is based on his sister; Vanessa, his sister’s best friend.) As we discovered while talking with members of the original Broadway cast back in January, the experiences of the characters from In the Heights felt very real to the lives of the cast members’ families and loved ones. Part of our responsibility in producing In the Heights is to educate our community about the struggles of traditionally under served, immigrant communities like the one we see in the play. So, without further ado we introduce you to the characters from In the Heights. Be sure to check out the links below for more information about the community and people of Washington Heights.

The company sings IN THE HEIGHTS during our final dress rehearsal. Photo by Joanna Chattman.
The company sings IN THE HEIGHTS during our final dress rehearsal. Photo by Joanna Chattman.

THE COMMUNITY

The ensemble. L-R: Destiny Nwafor, Sarah Lucia, Abby Berry, Nick Hill,, Caleb Stern, Eric Chen, Kai McCalla, Nate Gordon, Henning Fischel, Haley Beecher, Triniti Slaughter, Anna Wilinsky, and Josh Calianos
The ensemble. L-R: Destiny Nwafor ’17, Sarah Lucia ’16, Abby Berry ’16, Nick Hill ’17, Caleb Stern ’19, Eric Chen ’16, Kai McCalla ’17, Nate Gordon ’16, Henning Fischel ’17, Haley Beecher ’18, Triniti Slaughter ’18, Anna Wilinsky ’17, and Josh Calianos ’18.

Mr. Miranda writes the ensemble into nearly every song in his play– songs that would normally be solos like BREATHE and PACIENCIA Y FE have the entire ensemble  bring the song to life. This is not an accident. Mr. Miranda wants the audience to feel the presence of the community in Washington Heights. When they sing “Mira, alli esta nuestra estrella!” (Look, there is our star!) during Breathe we feel their faith for Nina and what her accomplishments mean to them. When they sing “You better learn Ingles” with Abuela Claudia, we feel the pressures that immigrants, past and present, have faced and continue to face today. It’s unusual for a musical to have the ensemble woven in to the story like this, but thankfully Mr. Miranda gives us the gift of these characters who enrich the play.  Without them the community wouldn’t feel like home, and the end of the play (no spoilers– come see the show!) would make little sense. Read this article to learn more about Washington Heights.

PIRAGUA GUY and GRAFFITI PETE

Josh Holmberg '18 and Gabby Record '17 as Piragua Guy and Graffiti Pete
Josh Holmberg ’18 and Gabby Record ’17 as Piragua Guy and Graffiti Pete

Piragua Guy is a beloved character from In the Heights. Played on Broadway by Eliseo Roman (who we had the honor of meeting on our trip to New York in January), Piragua Guy’s character grew in the development of the show because Mr. Roman brought so much depth to the role.  Anyone who has spent any time in New York City in the summer has probably seen a Piraguero– Spanish for Piragua Guy.  More than just giving New Yorkers relief on those humid summer days piragua, Puerto Rican snow cones, provide a link back to the islands and gives locals a taste of home. Piraguero’s are typically recent immigrants. They do what they can to survive, often sending money back home, while speaking very little English.  Watch this YouTube video about Piragua. Try not to let your mouth water too much, though!

While Unsavi calls Graffiti Pete “this little punk I gotta chase away,” Graffiti Pete saves the day. To learn more about graffiti read this blog post about our work with Wane COD, a graffiti writer from the Bronx.

DANIELA  AND CARLA

Makenna Hambley '17 and Neha Nascimento '17 as Carla and Dani
Makenna Hambley ’17 and Neha Nascimento ’17 as Carla and Daniela

Daniela and Carla are brash and fun. Daniela owns the salon next to Usnavi’s bodega. They both love to spend their days gossiping about what’s going on in the neighborhood. Despite their love of a good piece of juicy gossip, Daniela and Carla’s support for their friends runs deep. After years in business, Daniela is closing the doors of her salon and moving to the Bronx because she can no longer pay the skyrocketing rents in Washington Heights. This is an all-too real conflict for mom and pop shops in communities all over New York City.  Read this article  from December 2015 to find out more about the current state of gentrification in Washington Heights.

THE ROSARIOS

Cam Stanley '16 and Noah DeVos '17 as Camila and Kevin Rosario
Cam Stanley ’16 and Noah DeVos ’17 as Camila and Kevin Rosario

Kevin and Camila Rosario immigrated from Puerto Rico when they were eighteen. They worked and saved for years before they were able to open a car service in Washington Heights. Taxi cabs are a way of life for wealthy New Yorkers, but many taxis won’t take passengers to low-income communities.  In response, local, mostly family-owned, car services provide the transportation yellow cabs refuse to. The Rosarios have done everything they can so their daughter, Nina can truly live the American Dream. They represent the voices of hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the U.S. and the sacrifices they must make in order to make a better life.

BENNY AND NINA

Calvin Ticknor-Swanson '16 and Julia Wise '16 as Benny and Nina
Calvin Ticknor-Swanson ’16 and Julia Wise ’16 as Benny and Nina

Benny has worked at Kevin’s dispatch booth since he was a kid. He has big dreams of going to business school and opening his own dispatch one day. Nina Rosario comes home after her first year at Stanford University. Nina was the star of her neighborhood. She defied the odds and got a full scholarship to Stanford– the first in her family to go to college. The challenges of transitioning from an underserved neighborhood to an Ivy League college proved to be greater than she’d imagined and she returns home after dropping out of school. The phenomenon of high-achieving first-generation college students struggling when they leave home is all too real. Listen to this story from This American Life, which Julia Wise used as character research, to learn more. It’s about an hour, but worth every minute.

ABUELA CLAUDIA AND SONNY

Hana Brown '16 and Calvin Frye '16 as Abuela Claudia and Sonny
Hana Brown ’16 and Calvin Frye ’16 as Abuela Claudia and Sonny

Abuela immigrated to Washington Heights from Cuba in the 1940’s. While Abuela means grandmother in Spanish, as Usnavi says “She’s not really my “abuela,” She practically raised me. This corner is her escuela (school).”  Abuela Claudia is the caretaker on the block. She looks after the neighborhood kids whose parents are working and makes sure they all stay on the right track. Through her song “Paciencia Y Fe” we see the correlation between the immigrant experience in 1943 and now. Sadly, not much has changed.

Sonny is the youngest character in the play. He works with his cousin Usnavi in the bodega but he has big dreams of becoming a community organizer. With his rap in 96,000 we get a glimpse into the changes he wants to bring to the neighborhood, and the world. See this list of community organizations working to empower the residents of Washington Heights.

USNAVI AND NINA

Verdi Degbey '16 and Leeanna Albanese '16 as Usnavi and Vanessa
Verdi Degbey ’16 and Leeanna Albanese ’16 as Usnavi and Vanessa

Usnavi, born in the Dominican Republic but raised in Washington Heights by Abuela Claudia, is a bodega owner. Bodega’s are a way of life in New York City (see a brief definition in this article from the Gothamist) and the owners are the caretakers of the block (a skill Usnavi undoubtedly learned from Claudia). They know what everyone orders for breakfast in the morning and exactly how they take their coffee. Usnavi dreams of returning to D.R. one day and opening a small bar near his parents’ hometown. He harbors a long-time crush on Vanessa, who has big dreams of her own. Growing up with a dysfunctional mother, Vanessa has worked at Daniela’s salon with hopes of saving enough money to move out of Washington Heights. Sadly, she lacks the good credit necessary to get an apartment in downtown Manhattan.

To learn more or to purchase tickets to the show visit our ticket website.  Seats are going fast so make your reservations soon.

In the Heights: Director’s Note

On closing night of In the Heights, which ran for over twelve-hundred performances, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator, composer, and star gave an impassioned speech. Freestyling in rhyme for almost eleven minutes, Mr. Miranda thanked everyone who helped bring the show to life. (The speech is on YouTube but– be warned– it contains some pretty colorful language!) He closed by assuring fans of the show that In the Heights would not end with its close on Broadway– it would have a second life in high schools all over the country. High school was, after all, where Mr. Miranda discovered his passion for musical theatre. He hoped In the Heights would, amongst other things, “teach kids in Ohio what a Puerto Rican flag looks like.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda freestyles his closing night speech for In the Heights.

In the Heights brings to life stories that typically don’t get told on the Broadway stage. The actors involved in the original Broadway production, most of whom were first or second generation, were able to play characters that reflected the experiences of their families—something that is, sadly, incredibly rare in the entertainment industry. How then, does a school like Williston take on a production like In the Heights? If Mr. Miranda had not explicitly urged high schools all over the U.S. to produce the show with actors who, likely, did not share the cultural background of the characters they would be portraying, we would not be doing the show. With a widespread practice of white actors playing non-white characters on the stage and screen (which still occurs at a disturbingly frequent rate) the voices of actors, directors, and writers of color have been systematically excluded from mainstream media. We see this continue today in the hashtag #oscarssowhite. But Mr. Miranda, the child of Puerto Rican immigrants, asks non-Latino communities to do his play. More than that he asks us learn about the immigrant community of Washington Heights. I took Miranda’s message to heart– not only because he asks us to, but because it brought back memories from one of the best times of my life.

In September of 2002 I started teaching theatre to seventh graders at IS 90,  a middle school on 168th and Jumel Place, the southeast corner of Washington Heights.  All but two of my students spoke Spanish as their first language and many hopped between the Dominican Republic and New York frequently.  My students’ drive to connect was fierce and their positivity was overwhelming. Do you guys want to do a talent show? Yes! Do you want to go downtown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Yes! Do you want to see a commedia play at Julliard? Yes! Families with whom I could barely communicate did their best to connect with me and I learned as much Spanish as I could.  Life was not perfect by any means. Outside of their neighborhood my students felt invisible. They wondered how they would survive past high school and help support their families back in Puerto Rico and D.R. But the closeness of the community made life’s challenges more bearable. I was only in my second year of teaching when I started at I.S. 90 but it was the relationships with students and families there that set me on a path as an educator.  It is no surprise then, that I have always wanted to direct In the Heights– I see the stories of my former students onstage in Mr. Miranda’s play.

I.S. 90, now a KIPP Charter School, on the corner of 168th and Jumel Place in Washington Heights.

My connection to Washington Heights made it even more important to follow Mr. Miranda’s directive.  Luckily, the production team of Williston’s In the Heights was on board. (In fact, without Debra and Aaron Vega we would not have had half of the amazing experiences we had!).  Heshima Moja, an international recording artist, came on board as dialect coach. Moja not only taught us the difference between how Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans might say “Por Favor,” he taught us the cultural significance of each Spanish phrase and brought to life the exhaustion of trying to communicate in a language you do not speak. Knowing that the neighborhood is as much a character in the play as any of the people on the stage, we brought the cast to Washington Heights. We walked past I.S. 90 and the bodega where my students used to buy soda and lollipops after school. We saw Caridad (the Dominican restaurant Kevin Rosario refers to in Act I). We heard Spanish being spoken on the street and, sadly, witnessed first-hand the gentrification Usnavi warns about at the end of the play. (To read more about our trip to New York read this blog post from January.)

The cast of In the Heights gets ready to take the train uptown to Washington Heights.
The cast of IN THE HEIGHTS  gets ready to take the train uptown to Washington Heights.

We came back to Easthampton armed with enough research to start building our characters—almost. That’s when our panel of Dominican and Puerto Rican community leaders from Holyoke came to visit. Sharing stories of what it feels like to constantly feel pulled between to homes, two cultures, two languages, it almost felt like Sonny, Vanessa, Nina, and Usnavi were in the room with us. All of these experiences deepened our connection to the characters in the play, but more than that they taught us about the contemporary immigrant experience.

In_the_House_panel
Dialect coach Heshima Moja, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission Member Josh Garcia, C-Town owner Tony Diaz, Holyoke Director of Planning and Development Marcos Morrero, me, and State Representative Aaron Vega (with special guest Odin Vega) share the stage during our panel.

We invite you to come talk with us about what we’ve learned. Share your family’s story with us, or about the time you discovered the true meaning of home. Hopefully this will make the reach of our research a little larger and open the door to make lasting change where all voices and experiences are heard with equal weight.

In the Heights is a play about the power of community, and this production would not have been possible without the thoughtful contribution of members of our own community. We are very grateful to those who have given their support along the way, especially the following:  the Academic Dean and Dean of Students’ office who approved our New York trip, athletic coaches who let their players out of games or practices to attend the trip, Williston parents who drove their children to school at the crack of dawn so we could get the most out of our time in New York, Debra and Aaron Vega who graciously invited their friends to contribute our panels and discussions, Priscilla Kane Hellweg at Enchanted Circle Theater who connected us with Heshima Moja, and Austin Sarat and Stephanie Sandler’s whose donation to the theatre program helped fund our trip to New York.

IN THE HEIGHTS runs April 28-30 and May 5-7. For tickets and more information visit our ticket website

 

 

In the Heights: What is a Sitzprobe?!?!

Lin-Manuel Miranda (Usnavi) and Karen Olivo (Vanessa) during the sitzprobe for the original Broadway production of "In the Heights."
Lin-Manuel Miranda (Usnavi) and Karen Olivo (Vanessa) during the sitzprobe for the original Broadway production of “In the Heights.”

I’m sure most of you haven’t heard that word before. It’s a German word that means “seated rehearsal.” Sitzprobes came to prominence in the opera world. They soon became part of the musical theatre process and something everyone on a show looks forward to because it can only mean one thing—opening night is coming soon.

You are still probably wondering what we actually do at a sitzprobe. Well, sorry to disappoint you hardcore German speakers out there, but we don’t actually sit at all. We stand!   And the most exciting part of the sitzprobe: we get to sing through the show  with an orchestra for the first time!

Music Director, Orchestrator, and Conductor of the original Broadway production of "In the Heights," Alex Lacamoire, gets ready for sitzprobe.
Music Director, Orchestrator, and Conductor of the original Broadway production of “In the Heights,” Alex Lacamoire, gets ready for sitzprobe.

During most musical rehearsals a pianist plays along with the singers while the team works their way through the show. Separately,  musicians learn their music and have rehearsals with their conductor. In Williston productions the orchestra doesn’t come in until tech week. Sitzprobe, in this case about a week before our first tech rehearsal, is the opportunity for the musicians, singers, and music director to work together.

It’s an exciting time! Our sitzprobe was Monday, April 18.  With the orchestra playing with us we certainly felt the reality of our situation—opening night is coming up fast. It was also particularly special because the music in In the Heights is as much of a character as any person you will see on the stage. The sounds of the neighborhood are in the percussion. The feeling of the Caribbean comes through in the horns. Suddenly the hustle and bustle of New York City and the smell of salt air in  Puerta Plata D.R.; La Vibora, Cuba; and Arecibo, Puerto Rico don’t feel so far away.

Some of the percussion as it's being loaded in to the theatre.
Just some of the percussion as it was being loaded into the theatre.

The excitement is even greater this year because thanks to the generous senior class gift, the Williston Theatre program is now the proud owner of a set of individual wireless microphones. These mics, which will be worn by anyone with a singing solo, will enable our audience to hear the actors perfectly. While we rented them for our last musical, Urinetown, these mics are ours!

Sitzprobe was a busy night. We tested mic levels and orchestra tempo. We had to make sure the mic packs fit the actors and the mics themselves were staying in place. Despite all that, spirits were pretty high as we put more of the finishing touches of the musical in place.

In the Heights runs April 28-30 and May 5-7. For tickets and more information visit our ticket website