The Theater Department last week presented "New Voices," featuring works by student playwrights Emily Dendinger (left) and Richard Lawson. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Stage of Development
Talent, hard work put BC theater program 'on the map'
By Sean Smith
Try though she might, Emily Dendinger '05 just can't stay away from the theater.
Well versed in theatrical experience, the Purcell, Va., native came to Boston College figuring it was time to close the curtain on that part of her life and try something else. But by sophomore year, Dendinger had taken a playwriting course, auditioned for a student production and settled into a dual English-theater major.
When she went to England for her junior year intent on doing "something else," she wound up interning at Theatre Royal Bath's education department, where she worked with their youth program and helped put together a night of student written works.
Last week, Dendinger reached a new milestone as a semi-reluctant dramatist when her play "Swimming After Dark" was staged at Robsham Theater as part of the Theater Department's "New Voices" production of works by student authors. Senior Richard Lawson's "Zoe" also was presented.
Interviewed the day before the premiere of "Swimming After Dark," Dendinger spoke in glowing terms about her teachers and fellow students, and her many positive experiences studying theater at BC.
"To have your work selected for a main-stage production at Robsham, with the resources of the Theater Department behind it, is an incredible opportunity," said Dendinger, who plans to pursue a master of fine arts degree in playwriting. "I've learned so much here, and I feel really fortunate to have been part of a program that's given me these kinds of chances."
Barely into its second decade as a freestanding entity, BC Theater is a certifiable hit, enjoying its highest enrollment level in 25 years. The program draws rave reviews from undergrads like Dendinger, who appreciate faculty members' care and attention and the emphasis on a well-rounded curriculum. Furthermore, as Theater faculty note, the program has cultivated a reputation that is helping attract students to BC, and will be enhanced by the recent success of BC theater students at a regional competition. [See related story].
"We are on the map, no question," said department chairman Assoc. Prof. Stuart Hecht. "Our students are getting into the top graduate theater programs in the country, and going on to do very well for themselves. When I talk with high school kids interested in theater, they tell me that one thing they hear these days from counselors or at summer theater programs is, 'Look at BC.'
"What they find is, we're a program that balances the professional-conservatory approach with the purely theoretical liberal arts approach. Students here don't just stand around reading scripts, because theater is a way of making observations about the world; that means you need to deal in history, science, math and other disciplines. So we work with our students to develop their abilities in a mature, comprehensive way that equips them for life, whether in the theater or outside of it."
Hecht cites the support of College of Arts and Sciences Dean Joseph Quinn and his predecessor, Rev. J. Robert Barth, SJ, under whose watch the theater program was established. The department's multifaceted expertise is represented by the likes of Scott Cummings, who teaches playwriting and directed the "New Voices" show; acting teacher Patricia Riggin; costume shop supervisor Jacqueline Dalley; and theater historian John Houchin.
"Everyone in this department contributes so much," said Hecht.
While theater has been a staple at BC from the beginning, reflecting the centrality of dramatic arts in the Jesuit educational tradition, it was not until 1993 when the University formally established a separate department. Since then, the number of theater majors has more than quadrupled to 130, according to department statistics, while the number of courses and faculty has tripled.
In late January, the department received another kind of affirmation when several BC students earned honors at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival's regional competition, which drew hundreds of actors, playwrights, costume designers and dramaturges - those who perform literary-oriented tasks such as editing and adapting texts and writing program notes for plays - from New England undergraduate and graduate programs, many of them older and more established.
First place awards went to Megan Rulison '06 for dramaturgy and Crystal Gomes '05 for costume design, while Dendiger's "Swimming After Dark" was one of two plays selected for a stage reading. Chris Tocco '06 and Krista D'Agostino '05 were among 14 students cast for an evening of short plays. Seniors Christine Daley, Jennifer Boarini and Julienne Penza and junior Dan O'Brien competed in the Irene Ryan Scholarship Award competition, with Daley and Boarini making it to the final round of 16.
While Hecht is pleased with the honors, he is quick to point out that the theater program puts a premium on collaboration rather than individual achievement. "We think of our program as community-based. That means you need to be able to work with everyone in the community, faculty and student alike. The success someone might enjoy on stage has been made possible through a lot of effort over the years by this community into shaping a theater program that strives for academic excellence."
The "New Voices" show - which as a Theater Department presentation is distinct from the student-run productions in Robsham's Bonn Studio Theater or Cushing Hall - exemplifies the collaborative philosophy, Cummings says. Students were invited to submit scripts last spring, and out of 20, Cummings selected Dendinger's and Lawson's. Work began in earnest during the fall, with an array of readings, revisions, workshops and meetings.
"You have to consider both the play and the playwright when looking at the entries," said Cummings last week. "Sometimes, the play may not be as polished as it could be, but perhaps it's from a playwright who has demonstrated a commitment to working hard at his or her craft. I've been very pleased at our students' work ethic as well as their talent and creative imagination."
As intensely as the student authors are involved in the production, Cummings notes, they also have to know when to step back and allow cast and crew to do their work. "Fortunately, Emily and Richard have shown they know the theatrical process well enough to do that."
"Zoe" author Lawson, also an English-theater major, acknowledged that "it's been a challenge at times to keep my voice quiet, but I've come to see it's valuable to learn where I should have a say and where I shouldn't.
"More importantly, other people in the production give me insights about the play I'd never seen or thought of before. That's really what it's all about: You learn from one another, sometimes when you least expect to."