Curtain Call: The diversity of Georgetown’s theater scene

By: , , and
11/20/2014

Few come to Georgetown for the theater scene. Until recently, the university did not even have a theater major or administrative structures to support acting or set design. In spite of this, Georgetown boasts four active, student-run theater groups. With their unique quirks and history, each campus theater group occupies a niche in the theater community.

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Mask and Bauble

by Lara Fishbane

In February of 1853, The Dramatic Association of Georgetown College performed its first play, Pizarro, which depicted the conquering of the Incas. During its earlier years, the group only held daytime performances, relying on natural light to illuminate their stages in Healey, Old North, and other locations around campus.

“We continued staging plays each year until World War I, when the entire university was drafted into the armed forces reserve,” Technical Administrator Will Redmond (COL ‘15) said. “When we resumed, we adopted the name we currently have, The Mask and Bauble Dramatic Society.”

Now in its 163rd season, Mask and Bauble is the oldest continuously-running student theater troupe in the country. Throughout its tenure, Mask and Bauble has built up an impressively long list of alumni, which includes the notorious John Wilkes Booth.

Each year, the group performs at least four plays in Poulton Hall’s Stage III. These works include a classic work and a student-written work in the fall, a modern classic in late winter, and a musical to close the season in the spring. “Because we were founded so many years ago, our group definitely has more of a draw toward older, more traditional plays,” Associate Producer Katie Rosenberg (COL ‘15) said.

For its first show of the semester, Mask and Bauble performed Inherit the Wind, which originally debuted almost 60 years ago. “The play raises the issues of being free to think, but also being part of a community. These are things that currently matter at our university,” Redmond said. “If we had a campus community that failed to put on older more traditional plays, we would be neglecting an important part of our cultural heritage and also a lot of stories that can still speak to us.”

There are currently 86 active members involved with Mask and Bauble, but after its inductions this December, there will be over 100 in total. “We do have the most stringent requirements for membership of any of the theater groups on campus,” Redmond said, “And part of it is the realistic practice of doing theater at a university. We think that it’s really important to educate our members on all of the different aspects of theater.”

Mask and Bauble requires each of its members to complete two show credits before they can be inducted. At least one of these requirements must be a technical requirement. “You cannot be just an actor at Mask and Bauble. It is impossible to leave without having hung a light or painted a fence or designed props,” Rosenberg said, “It builds a lot of respect. No one is too good to climb a ladder or work a wrench.”

Although the group has two advisors from the theater department, Toby Clark and Susan Lynskey, all of the production work is executed by the students. According to Rosenberg, this experience was a crucial part of her education at Georgetown. “The majority of things I have learned here have come from my experience at Mask and Bauble, from learning how to design a website to learning how to plumb a toilet,” Rosenberg said. “From very specific stuff like that to more general things, like how to build a community and lead a room of fifty people. It’s all really meaningful to me.”

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Nomadic Theatre

by Steven Criss

“We were just some angsty kids who wanted to do angsty plays.”

The Nomadic Theatre mantra has been passed down for decades through multiple generations of oral history, and the spirit of that original angsty troupe, according to Executive Producer Arianne Price, is just as powerful today as it was back when the group was founded in 1982.

The founding members of Nomadic Theatre were previously members of the country’s oldest collegiate theater troupe, Mask and Bauble, but decided that they were not fully satisfied with the traditional kind of productions M&B had become known for. For them, there was only one option if they truly wanted to pursue the darker, edgier pieces they were passionate about. And so, they started Nomadic Theatre in an effort to make this daring artistic vision a reality. More than 30 years later, the troupe is still challenging the norms of theater.

“What Nomadic does now are works that we have coined as being technically ambitious and socially engaged,” Associate Producer Kathleen Hill said. “We like to do more modern works by modern playwrights that may not have that direct appeal on the surface.”

Instead of putting their efforts into hackneyed works and well-known classics, Nomadic Theatre focuses almost completely on contemporary pieces that allow them to experiment with different technical elements, whether it be lighting, sound design, or even projections as a part of their sets.

“What M&B does is a bit more classical theater—the names might be a bit more familiar to people because that’s what they grew up doing in high school and when they were younger. Those were plays that their parents would take them to. We’re basically the plays that your parents would never want to take you too,” said Hill. “They really make you think … I think more than any of the other groups, we challenge our student designers to really push themselves to find new ways to express themselves.”

The plays put on by Nomadic Theatre do not simply serve as a mode of self-expression for the actors and artists themselves, but also provide an avenue for the group to make an impact on the community. According to Price, each year the group tries to have at least one of their shows engage with the D.C. or even international community. For their next play coming in January, Sick, the group plans to include dialogue with the university’s mental health organization or with another from within D.C. as a part of the production.

“It’s a little dark and it’s a little hard to watch sometimes, but if we can say that we made people leave the theater thinking about something that they may have not walked in thinking about, it’s powerful,” Hill said.

With their theater preferences approaching the avant-garde side of the spectrum, Nomadic Theatre gives members of the opportunity to step outside what is commonly expected of a theater production and open up a new realm of interpretation.

“Theater is really special in that people pay for you lock them in a black room and tell them what to think about,” Price said. “Then they think about it that night, and they think about it the next day and they talk about it in the car ride with their friends. I think being able to do that in a way that’s really fun, it doesn’t feel like work. It doesn’t feel like this big thing, but at the end of it we get to reach out to members of the community and give back in a way.”

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The Black Theater Ensemble

by Dayana Morales Gomez

The Black Theatre Ensemble was formed in 1979 in an effort to fill the persistent holes in the diversity of Georgetown performing arts groups. The group seeks to better accommodate black student actors in campus productions by using its performances to give a voice to minority communities.

“Looking at the shows that make it big, a lot of them are white-centric,” Executive Producer of the Black Theatre Ensemble Joshua Street (COL ‘15) said. “There aren’t very many African-American roles in theater as a whole. It kind of mirrors society’s racial tensions that have grown throughout the years,” he said.

Since its beginnings in the late 1970s, the Black Theatre Ensemble has grown to become a tight-knit theater troupe among a cohort of more conventional groups.

“It had been a very short time since segregation had ended when BTE was founded,” said Street. “There were still many racial tensions between people. It was founded as a way for black students to find their voice in the theater. There were black theater students, but they couldn’t really do anything in the theater because those roles weren’t there for them.”

The Black Theatre Ensemble is open to students of all races and backgrounds, priding itself in its open, less conventional structure. Besides the usual staged show offerings, the Black Theater Ensemble strives to establish a strong social presence in the campus community. The troupe has recently started putting together regular events like coffeehouses and open-mic nights so the wider Georgetown community has the opportunity get to know the Black Theatre Ensemble’s members and board.

“Our coffeehouses show the true spirit of BTE,” said Aloysia Jean (COL ’16), the Black Theatre Ensemble’s board secretary. “Honestly, it’s like a weird family dinner where we eat breakfast foods and watch people perform. Beyond that, in our coffeehouse we are inclusive, caring, and supportive above all else … We want to support [the Georgetown community]and feed them pancakes covered in Nutella.”

Throughout its history, the group has had trouble maintaining a strong presence among the theater community at Georgetown and this problem persists to this day. The board has even considered changing the name of the group to make it more accessible to a wider audience.

“Our goals have evolved to include minorities of all colors, creeds, races, religions, and everything,” Street said. “We don’t strictly do black plays. We do plays about minorities—those voices that are not always represented.”

According to Street, the group ultimately decided against changing its name “because of the fact that it carries such a huge, historical value.”

In keeping with the Black Theater Ensemble’s philosophy of inclusion, the troupe’s next production, That Face, will be cast with a multicultural family despite the fact that the show has a British playwright and traditionally put on with an all-white cast. “You might look at it and think, ‘You wouldn’t see this kind of family in real life,’ but at the same time, you can see through who we cast that the problems that they are facing can be anyone’s problems,” Street said.

The Black Theatre Ensemble’s nontraditional approach has seen great success. This year’s production of In the Red and Brown Water sold out multiple times and garnered significant public acclaim. Co-produced with the Department of Theater and Performing Arts, the play had ample resources and funding, allowing for professional direction and a two-week run.

Jean hopes that the group’s recent success will only grow in the future. “Over the next few years, I see BTE reemerging as an inter-sectional theater group with shows that promote underrepresented stories at Georgetown,” Jean said. “We work hard to bring all members of the community together. Hopefully, one day, we won’t have to remind people that ‘you don’t have to be black [to join]’ over a megaphone at SAC Fair.”

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Children’s Theater

by Christopher Castano

There are multiple theater troupes on campus, but few allow for casual commitments or membership by inexperienced students. For anyone who is still looking for their niche in the theater, look no further than Children’s Theatre.

“We end up singing Disney songs half of practice,” said Caitlin Snell (COL ‘16). Snell is president of Children’s Theatre and has been a part of its productions since her freshman year.

“I talked to the president after O Show, learned more about the organization,” Snell said. “It aligned well with a lot of theatre I had done in high school, working with kids off campus, and it was a low time commitment and sounded super fun.”

Children’s Theater fills a very specific niche in the theater community at Georgetown. The troupe works to put on shows for children in environments where they otherwise might not be exposed to the performing arts. In addition to staging performances on campus, this mission entails travelling off campus to after-school programs throughout the District and holding performances in children’s hospitals. No matter where they’re headed, both the actors and the young audience are bound to enjoy themselves.

“It’s really, really fun. Not that the other groups on campus aren’t, but we pack a large punch in a little amount of time,” Snell said. Members of a Children’s Theatre show give up the majority of their Friday afternoons during the semester to go perform in D.C.

“The kids really enjoy it,” said Snell. “They’re at their afterschool programs and they’re doing their homework, or they’re playing outside, but when we come they get to experience something completely different.”

The students in the audience benefit from the performances in several ways. For instance, some of the children have never seen a play, and didn’t know that being an actor is a pastime they can learn about before they see one of Children’s Theater’s performances.

“The opportunity to pursue theater is important,” said senior Children’s Theater actor Nathan Oakes (COL ‘15). He’s currently playing the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. “It’s good to expose elementary students to these opportunities and show them that this can be fun, exciting, and cool.”

While getting groups of young students to sit still for a performance can be challenging, both Snell and Oakes have myriad success stories that prove the work they do is both engaging and valuable.

“Even if you feel the performance didn’t go very well the kids are always enthusiastic and they want to come up at the end and ask you questions,” Oaks said. “They think you’re awesome!”

Snell points to one very specific example of a time when she felt like she was truly making a difference. “We went into the props carpet looking for a magic carpet because we were doing Aladdin. We found this giant plank on wheels and turned it into a magic carpet. So we were dragging this thing around the rehearsal space and I said to myself, ‘This is amazing, and ridiculous, and great, and I love it. When we went to the play, and the kids got to ride on the carpet, everyone started bawling with happiness.”

While Snell is happy to put a smile on the faces of these young students, she also hopes that the work of Children’s Theater will encourage children to to set goals and work hard in the future. “They know we go to Georgetown, and it starts to make them think, ‘Maybe I can go to Georgetown and maybe I can be an actor someday.’”

***

These four groups all make valuable contributions to the arts at Georgetown. The campus theater community would not be complete without them. While Georgetown’s overall interest in theater performance is mainly recreational, the high quality of the theater troupes keeps the scene fresh and engaging. They work together, like pieces of a puzzle, neatly forming a professional, yet tight-knit group of experts who all collaborate to hone their craft.

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Steven Criss


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