Lee University's Theatre Department kicked off this year's drama season with a beloved satire, performing “The Importance of Being Earnest” in the Communications Arts Building's newly minted black box theatre.
Written by Oscar Wilde, the comedy classic follows the story of two young men who habitually use the pseudonym “Ernest” to get out of unpleasant social situations. When each man falls in love with woman of his dreams while using the fake name, however, a hilarious case of mistaken identities ensues.
Christina Williams, associate professor of theatre and show director, explained that it was a conscious decision to make the first play performed in the black box an ode to more traditional theatre.
“This play is now over a hundred years old, and has been a staple in every theatre in the world, and I think that this [staging] brings new life to it and allows us to take something that may seem old and dusty and wipe it off a bit - give it a new twist,” Williams said.
The black box theatre was configured in a “theatre in the round” staging format for all six shows, meaning that audience seating was situated on all four sides of the square stage.
Dan Buck, assistant professor of theatre, believes that this arrangement in the intimate space allows audience members to have a unique viewing experience.
“I think that this [format] really demands of the actors to be very human, because they are under such a close microscope-you can't put on a mask, so to speak, when you are this close to and completely surrounded by an audience,” Buck said.
Senior history education major and lead actor Brennen Davis said he thrived on the transparency of the staging.
“The audience is right there beside you, and when [you're on stage] it feels like you are gazing through the walls of the room,” Davis said. “It's a completely submersive experience.”
Davis, who plays Jack Worthing, the play's protagonist, also expressed that the close quarters allowed the actors to feed off of audience energy and reactions, making the performance feel especially collaborative.
“When the audience laughs, you are completely surrounded by a wall of laughter [with this staging] and it makes you feel like you are in a comedy show,” Davis said.
Alisha Ammons, a senior theatre major who plays the role of Lady Bracknell, said that this particular staging of the play worked very well given the genre of the production.
“Because there's so much mystery and intrigue in this play, and so many questions of who's playing who and who's telling the truth, I think it's really interesting that audience members get to see the show from different angles,” Ammons said.
Because of the unusual staging, actors were allowed-and had to-turn their backs to the audience as they moved about the set, creating different experiences for audience members depending on where they were seated.
“Someone on one side of the room may see me make a face, while someone across the way may miss it and catch something else, which adds to the intrigue of the show,” Ammons said. “If we [had been] in the Dixon [Center], people wouldn't [have been] able to see as many subtleties of facial expression and movement, but this way each audience member [got] their own personal show.”
This black box replaces the Edna Minor Conn space, which is located on the third floor of the Vest Building. Unlike the EMC, which was originally a small lecture hall that was converted into a theatre space, the new black box is incredibly modifiable.
“This is an extremely flexible space-all [the] risers and chairs are movable, and we are able to format the stage into a thrust configuration, where the audience is on three sides, or even an alley configuration, where you have long narrow rows of seats and a slender strip of stage right in the middle,” Buck said.
These new staging combinations allow directors to be much more creative when designing sets and shows, and will give audiences the opportunity to experience non traditional formats that deviate from the standard proscenium staging style.
Buck said he was pleased with how the production worked in the space, and looks forward to how the black box will continue to enhance the theatre department's work.
“So much of what makes theatre matter today, in this time when movies and TV are so predominant, is because it's so alive, so urgent and present and close, and this kind of space really accentuates that,” Buck said.
The production of “Earnest” was also special in that it marked the 25th anniversary of the Lee Theatre Department.
Williams has been impressed with how far the department has come since her arrival at Lee eight years ago, as well as with the upward trajectory of the program since its creation.
“When I first came here and told people I taught at Lee, their response would always be �Lee has a theatre program?', but over the years we've become much more visible [to the community],” Williams said. “We've doubled the number of majors since I first came and our quality of students and productions has vastly improved over the years.”
Buck echoed this sentiment.
“We're not celebrating [25 years] just because we have a new building, but because we're really seeing the fruit of the school and [administration] caring enough about theatre that they have invested in us, and that's really cool,” Buck said.
Williams looks forward to the continued influence Lee Theatre will have on Lee's campus and the Cleveland community.
“I want to instill the desire to try more theatre,” Williams said. “I hope that [the audience] took away that we put on a good show with [“Earnest”]-that they feel like it was worth their time to go see, and that they are proud to be part of a community that produces these unique experiences.”
The theatre department is currently gearing up for the opening of their second production of the season, a rendition of Arthur Miller's family drama "All My Sons".
"All My Sons" premieres on the Dixon Center stage Friday, Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m., with shows continuing through Nov. 15.�Tickets are free for Lee students, $10 for adults and $7 for children, seniors and students, and can be picked up at the ticket booth on the first floor of the Communications Arts Building.