We are in the Academic sowing season here at USC School of Dramatic Arts. Sewing season as well, of course, with three MFA Rep shows just recently open and many more extensively costumed shows in the pipeline. That’s a given. But in the sowing season, in a parallel universe, the faculty and admissions staff examine and sort the young shoots, graduating high school seniors, measuring the potential of promise and growth to seed the next crop of USC students, for creative, self-initiating, productive and impactful artists. We stand in the field, tilling the soil around our current crop, watering, feeding, fertilizing and thinning. At the end of the early days in February, we also head out to assess the potential in the greenhouse.
Farming feels like home to me, having grown up in rural Pennsylvania, where my childhood home was surrounded by rolling, agriculturally fertile fields. While I didn’t grow up on a farm myself, I feel a deep connection with the benefits of hard work and an appreciation for the alchemy of a favorable series of events and practices needed to bring in a good crop. I read the recent obituary of arts philanthropist Henry Segerstrom, an Orange County developer, who died at 91, after transforming rural Orange County into a fertile community of business with thriving arts centers sporting his name. As Segerstrom’s obituary indicated, to the end of his life, he would introduce himself as a farmer. He identified with the first enterprise of his family, raising lima beans, but perhaps also it was a nod to the nobility of raising food and feeding people. As theatre educators and practitioners, we define training theatre artists to portray our humanness an ambitious and noble pursuit.
Like the farmers, we engage in long days of activity: early teaching and administration, reviewing portfolios online, culminating our productive days with five-hour interview sessions. It’s a serious charge, choosing the next cohort of actors, designers, stage managers, technical directors and sound designers; one in which we are all deeply and passionately invested. The applicants are many, and the choices we make are often difficult.
Please forgive my weedy farming metaphor, but I have been “in the field” with one of our Professors this weekend, director Stephanie Shroyer. We are in tech for our upcoming production of Peter Barnes’ “Red Noses,” a play about the ravages of the bubonic plague in 14th century France, and the transformative nature of laughter and comedy by a group of traveling clowns led by a fervent priest. This is a powerful metaphor for Stephanie’s process, which is equally transformative. In the four weeks of rehearsal, the atmosphere of collaborative ensemble-making she has developed with the cast is palpable. Shroyer’s work,both in the classroom and in the theatrical productions where classroom principals are applied to the productions fuels the growth of these BFA Junior actors.
One of Stephanie’s directorial strengths is her acute ability to visualize actors and objects moving in space. As the production manager, I know it will be unlikely that she will ever decide to set a play in a proscenium configuration. She sculpts each different drama using complex and innovative intertwining of actors and scenic elements. In spite of the improvisational nature of the rehearsal process, the process has been carefully mapped out. She sketches preliminary scenic configurations before her first meeting with her scenic designer. In spite of that early spatial strategy, she nourishes collaboration, stretching the designers by suggesting things that they may not have considered, or imagine were possibilities.
There is nothing casual about Stephanie’s work. She bounds into the acting space to guide actors how the prop and scenic elements could fit to create shapes that are surprising and unexpected and funny. In the Sunday tech, while working out the details for a dinner scene, she suddenly asked for a stick, energetically disappeared into the hallway props storage area, emerged with a stick, and threaded four metal mug handles over it before dangling it out to the actors to deliver the mugs for the scene. Subsequent blocking to lay a table cloth displayed her iconic wit. Her call for an extra basket sent one of the actors scurrying off into the wings and returning with a basket. The students engage and participate in active ensemble-making. Shroyer delights in their discoveries, casually self-depricating when she has, temporarily forgotten the complex details of an earlier scene; she jokingly encourages the students to take advantage of her failing to tease her. The energy in the room is fun and intense and focussed. Everyone is involved. This kind of nurturing takes time but is ultimately vitally fruitful.
Each semester brings me the privilege of watching Professors like Stephanie Shroyer and guest directors cultivate their crops. The variety of teaching techniques and processes make the selection of our future students take on so much more importance. We welcome you to come see the fruits of our labors in performances of Peter Barnes’ “Red Noses” next weekend at USC.