“There’s something called the sad clown paradox in the stand-up comedy world, which means that those who make a living making people laugh often struggle with depression and other mental health challenges that are anything but funny… It can be perhaps be theorized that humor provides the comedian with a feeling of control over a situation in which they would otherwise be powerless.” These are the words that Sam Buck ’19 uses to describe his stand-up segment in the upcoming Senior Ensemble show.
As May approaches, the smell of old books seeps through the library walls, the cups of coffee augment, the amount of all-nighters increases and the Theatre students begin to feel more and more excitement. Every year, during exam week, Senior Theatre students showcase their semester’s work in a final production. While some past students took a literal approach and recited scenes from renowned plays, others have been more experimental and boisterous. This year’s production falls somewhere in the middle. As stated by Stephanie Daniels, professor and veteran of the Theatre Department, the current class has chosen to dive into Devised Theatre – making original performance pieces based in text, found objects, music, poetry and/or art – creating a spectacle that involves music, dance, stand-up comedy, monologues and masks. The show includes familiar faces within the department: Alivia Cross ‘19 stage-manages the show, while Isabel Pongratz ‘20 and seniors Maggie Darin, Sam Mahler, Gabrielle Eustache, Ashleigh Dunham and Lorenzo Condemi star in nearly every piece.
When asked about what they hoped the audience would take away from this final installment, Gabrielle Eustache ‘19 said, “I hope people leave with an understanding of the many sides of mental health and how it presents itself differently for everyone… [and] that no matter how dark it gets, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.” This sentiment was echoed by her castmates. As the conversation continued, it became clear that each actor and actress felt moved and inspired by the raw and emotional show, themed around mental health.
Maggie Darin ’19 commented that the decision to focus on mental health was not planned at all, but happened “rather organically… [and upon] realizing that…each [cast member] had [their] own experiences with the topic, [the cast]… felt it would [have been] a disservice to stray from [that topic].” Professor Stephanie Daniels spoke with candor about this emotional journey, emphasizing the stripped back approach her students took in crafting the performance. Daniels said that “as we began meeting and brainstorming topics and themes to explore, the students were struck by knowing about their shared struggles with mental health… I have been thrilled by their work and can’t wait for an audience to engage in their journey.” Daniels further elaborated on her point and said, “In 18 years of teaching and watching these capstone experiences, this one stands out for the diversity of performance styles and the willingness to be vulnerable and to learn from one another each week. It has been a joy to watch them lead, inspire, support, challenge and provoke one another, all with humility and humor and heart.” Rebecca Johnson ‘19, an actress in the performance, backed up Professor Daniels in her sentiment and said, “People should come to the show to witness the definition of bravery… to see a group of seven go beyond what is expected and stereotypically seen in a Theater department.”
As ring-leader and orchestrator for this Ensemble showcase, Professor Daniels strives to create a very specific environment in which each individual feels encouraged and inspired to create and experiment. Ashleigh Dunham ’19 is especially passionate about this showcase, excitedly stating, “My favorite part about creating this ensemble piece was the fact that we had so much freedom within the creative process. Along with this creative freedom, there came a bravery that all of us brought into our pieces.”
The Ensemble Experiments group will be performing at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 9 and Friday, May 10 in the Experimental Theatre in Watson Fine Arts Center. The show’s running time will be approximately just over an hour.