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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Ancient Greek Theater Is Alive And Well: A Dramaturg's Perspective

Second year graduate student (and Costume Assistant extraordinaire!), Lexa Grace has been hard at work over the summer preparing for her role as a dramaturg for ELECTRA. As she traveled through Greece she studied first hand the art and culture of ancient Greece! Lexa was kind enough to share her journey with us and how she has discovered the timeless universality in Greek tragedy. Check out Lexa's blog and learn more about Sophocles' ELECTRA which opens tonight at Villanova Theatre!

I found out I had been selected as the dramaturg for Frank McGuinness adaptation of Sophocles Electra back in May. I was eating dinner with one of my non-theater friends, when the email appeared on my phone. I squealed with excitement as I scrolled through the message.

Im going to be the dramaturg for Electra I told my friend.

Whats that? he responded, having never heard the term before. 

Its the person who does all the research for a production, I explained. I then gave him a laundry list of things a dramaturg does including, providing the cast and crew with relevant historical research, writing program notes, organizing speakers night, creating a visual file, and so on.

So, what do you do? he asked again, after my spiel. I looked at him, dumbfounded. Hadnt I just gone through all of the duties of a dramaturg for him?
I mean, what do you research? he asked. You keep talking about all these things you will do with your research, but what are you actually researching?
I froze with a piece of sushi halfway to my mouth, pondering this very simple, yet incredibly large, question. 

Greek Theatre? I suggested after a moment. Sophocles Frank McGuinness, mythology…” While I was correct in assuming I would touch on all of these subjects, I had no idea how deeply I would fall in love with all of these source materials, nor how much the research I would provide would affect the production.
One of the first areas of research I began to look into was the mythology surrounding Electra and her family. The stories ooze out of the ancient Greek tradition of oral story telling. While at first glance the story might appear to be an ancient relic, full of Greek gods and heroes whose names are barely recognizable; the more I read about Electra and her family, the more I felt as if I was reading a Game of Thrones spinoff novel. The myths of Electras family are full of brutal bloody murders, passionate love affairs, unbearable grief, and incredible joy. These themes and paradoxes are the backbone of all ancient Greek drama and the very ingredients that make these plays still relevant and entertaining in the 21st century.

After learning about the legend of Electras family, I began to research how Sophocles version of Electra would have been performed in ancient Greece. I found that while the themes present in ancient Greek drama remain universal, performance styles have varied greatly over the past several years. Ancient Greek performances were full of spectacle. The plays were traditionally presented during City Dionysia, a six day festival in March, usually right after a sacrifice to the gods was made. Choral songs and dances were interwoven into the plays and represented a huge aspect of ancient Greek theater. My favorite aspect of the Electra process has been getting to see how my research on this ancient form of spectacle has entered into and been interpreted by the design team. Our director, Father David, has done an excellent job of interpreting ancient Greek traditions and mythologies in a way that greatly benefits our production.

As we get closer to opening, I can see the importance of Electra’s mythology and the traditions of ancient Greek theater has on the play. The performance does not demand that the audience have an intense understanding of Greek mythology or theater, nor does it attempt to imitate the ancient Greek tradition. However, the actors have used the research I have provided to inform their performances in a dynamic way that transcends the specificity of a traditional ancient Greek drama. It has been an absolute joy to watch the cast and crew create a performance that uses the traditions and legacy of the play, without making it feel like a history drama. I am incredibly excited for the actors to perform their work and show our audiences how exciting and universal these ancient stories still are.

Villanova Theatre's production of ELECTRA runs September 20-October 2nd. Get your tickets at www.villanovatheatre.org or give us a call at 610-519-7474.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Living and Learning in Ireland

Ever wonder what Villanova Theatre's Abbey Theatre Exchange program is like? Villanova Theatre is incredibly lucky to continue our partnership with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin to offer students an immersive learning experience abroad. We sat down with second year acting scholar, Dan Cullen, who gave us an inside scoop about the program!

This summer I was fortunate enough to participate in the Abbey Summer Studio – made possible through Villanova’s partnership with Ireland’s National Theatre. 

This was the second year of their Summer Studio, and it is an incredible opportunity for any Villanova student.  The program was made up of ten students from the University’s graduate theatre, literature, and liberal studies programs; about a dozen undergraduates; and a handful of students from University College Dublin. The variety of backgrounds that the Summer Studio brings together makes for a unique learning opportunity: not only were we spending a month immersed in a rich artistic culture, but we also were able to see how students of other disciplines perceive the same material in such different ways.  All too often academic programs can feel as though their subject matter exists in a vacuum.  The greatest strength of the Abbey Summer Studio is the way it highlights the intersectionality between the theatrical and the literary, between the Irish experience and the American, between the academic and the practical.

The first three weeks of the program takes place in Dublin.  Every morning there is a classroom session which is a combination of lecture and discussion.  Students are asked to read a selection of modern and contemporary plays by Irish authors chosen to demonstrate the impact of drama on Irish society.  We discussed the place of theatre in the Irish political discourse, especially throughout the 20th century, how instrumental the Abbey Theatre in particular was in the Irish struggle against colonial rule and the creation of its national identity.  It was inspiring to see how these plays worked in terms of literature, influencing the national consciousness, and comparing it to how social commentary works on the American stage which enjoys far less institutional support.

Afternoons were spent in the Abbey Theatre’s rehearsal space where we examined the canonical literature we had discussed in the morning in a much more theatrical way.  The Abbey’s educational staff took us through workshops in voice and movement, and we applied these skills to create sketches based on the themes and language of the texts.  There were also creative writing workshops that allowed students to create new pieces in conversation with the great works we were studying, and demonstrate how those themes relate to contemporary Irish and American experiences.  These sessions were geared toward a performance at the end of our time in Dublin at the Abbey’s intimate Peacock Theatre.  This performance showcased the literary analysis we had done, the voice and body training we received, and the creative spirit of the program.

The remainder of our time in Ireland was spent at the National University of Ireland at Galway.  The library there has a comprehensive archive of materials from the Abbey that date back to its very foundation.  We were asked to engage our newly acquired knowledge of Great Irish dramatic literature with the materials in the archive to create a research paper.  Here again we were asked to synthesize the texts of the plays and their place in Irish history with what had taken place in production – how the activities on the Abbey stage related to the social, political, and cultural climate of their time and place.  We discovered how Ireland is a case study for the effective power of the theatre whose aptitude rivals the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Ideally this experience will allow us to apply the lessons offered to us by the Irish theatre and elevate the theatre to such an influential level in our own culture.      

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Universal in TRANSLATIONS: A Dramaturg's Perspective

Graduate Student, Elise D'Avella, has been hard at work this year. She's closing up the year by completing her thesis, directing Sarah Kane's CRAVE, and dramaturging our upcoming production of TRANSLATIONS. Elise was kind enough to share her thoughts on her process this year, and how Friel's play drenched in Irish history has stolen her heart. Check out Elise' blog post below and learn more about Friel's play, Translations, transporting audiences to Ireland starting next week. 

I’ve taken on many different roles at Villanova this year. I stage managed the mythical production of Eurydice, got into the body of a witch in Macbeth, I am directing the daunting Sarah Kane’s Crave for my directing thesis, and now I am dramaturging the upcoming production of Brian Friel’s Translations. By taking on all of these varying roles I’ve discovered that through the experience of each, you develop a unique type of ownership, a love, a connection to each production:

As a stage manager, I developed a maternal love for Eurydice, supporting the production as it grows into its full potential and being there to catch it when it falls. As an actor, the love is more selfish. Macbeth is clearly witch 3’s story, I don’t care what anybody says. Which of course is ridiculous, but completely necessary. It is your responsibility as an actor to go to bat for your character even if you’re the only one on their side. As a director, you fall in love with the story. Is the production visually, aurally, emotionally telling this story as meaningfully as it can? You fawn over every little detail, down to the positioning of an actor’s foot at any given moment. Finally, as a dramaturg, you develop a love for the playwright, the text, and the core of what gives the play its staying power.

I could not have asked for a more beautiful play to fall in love with during my first dramaturgical experience. In researching Translations, I have discovered that almost every line has at least one layer of meaning underneath of it, and yet, Brian Friel is so skilled at his craft that you do not see the layers of work, you only feel them. I was blown away when I found out that he thought this play would never succeed. He said in an interview, “Nowadays, to write a three-act naturalistic play set in the 19th century in the Gaeltacht is a recipe for some kind of instant death, so its success astonished me.” In a way, he has a point. This play is extremely specific and at face value doesn’t seem like it will relate to a universal audience, but somehow it does.

I have been fascinated throughout this rehearsal process- constantly trying to figure out what exactly is it about this play? How does it bring someone like myself, who knew next to nothing about Irish history, to tears every time?

Time and time again, it comes back to what Friel had said about his play, although the politics in the piece are unavoidable, Translations is solely about language. It is about what connects us as humans; are words the sole means of communication or is there a language that exists without words? Translations also engages with the inevitability of change and transition. As history teaches us, empires are destined to fall, and it is only those who can adapt that survive. Friel was concerned with what is lost in these moments of transition. Is it possible to hold onto a cultural identity across all borders or is it doomed to be lost in translation?


The English language is now Ireland’s language, and yet, it’s not. In Friel’s opinion, Ireland has yet to learn to absorb English, and it was his mission as a playwright to rediscover the Irish identity within the English language. For this reason, Translations was very close to his heart.

He described writing Translations as a form of Pietas, a sense of loyalty or dutifulness to one’s home. This sense of loyalty is something that can be universally related to, and may be the key to why,Translations continues to inspire and communicate with us today. 

-Elise D'Avella

Villanova Theatre's production of Translations runs April 12-24. Get your tickets at www.villanovatheatre.org or call us at 610-519-7474.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Get Into The Spirit With Some Irish Tunes

Today is Saint Patrick's Day. We have a barn built in our theater for Brian Friel's Translations. It only seems appropriate that we create an Irish themed playlist to keep us in the spirit all through April.



We pulled together our favorite Irish and Irish American artists for this special playlist. The Cranberries, Van Morrison, Dropkick Murphy's, RIVERDANCE- the Irish have a lot of tunes to keep your toes tapping.



We may have had too much fun creating and we hope you have as much fun listening to it! Translations runs April 12-24 here at Villanova Theatre. Click here for tickets and more information. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Brighten Your Day With Some Barbershop

As we approach the Opening Night of A Wonderful Noise we're grooving to the  nostalgic tunes of barbershop quartets. We were inspired by the harmonies of the 40's and began collecting songs for our special "Happy Harmonies Through the Ages" playlist. From Queen to the Pentatonix, this special playlist features songs that riff off of the quintessential barbershop style. Visit the Villanova Theatre Talk Blog to check it out! And then there is always Steve Carrell.




Let us know some of your favorite harmonies!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Peek Inside The Evaluation Room: Building a New Play With Kristin Miller

Villanova Theatre is thrilled to present our first Graduate Student produced Studio Show, The Evaluation Room, written by second year Kristin Miller. This program was started to provide a unique opportunity for our Graduate Students to collaborate and produce original work together. Kristin was generous enough to share her process and feelings over the course of developing and staging her new work: 

Playwrights are always listening to characters fall in love, fall out of love, argue, lie, break down, and reconcile. Every character lives a full life, and becomes a person, inside the creator’s mind. I care deeply about every person I dare to offer the world. It doesn’t matter to me how many lines she speaks or how many pages she’s in—each person is worthy of my full attention and careful consideration. All of this probably makes me sound a little bit obsessed. I think, as a playwright, you have to be a tiny bit obsessive or you’ll never give in to the agony it takes to flesh a piece out completely.  The internal life of a play in my head can be satisfying by itself, but the greatest reward is watching other artists pull everything I’ve been thinking out onto the stage in front of me.

I was very nervous when we sat down for The Evaluation Room auditions. Would people pick up on the quirks and vibes of my characters? How would the energy flow between actors? Did these characters even make sense? Do they need to make sense? When I was a senior in college we staged a rehearsed reading of this play, but this was the first time people had ever actually auditioned for a play I wrote. For the first ten minutes my fists were clenched and my lips were pursed—I was trying to look very serious in an attempt to mask my urge to burst into anxious tears. But then something magical happened: just as I opened my mouth to say something about a character, Meg (the director) was already saying it. I turned, a dumbstruck look on my face. Suddenly every restless feeling in my body melted away. Of course, I already knew that Meg understood my aesthetic, but hearing her say something I was thinking at the exact same moment was enough to make me swoon!

That moment with Meg was the first moment of spontaneous harmony, but it was definitely not the last. There have been so many times over the past weeks when my brain has been directly linked to Meg’s and Amanda’s (dramaturg and actor!) that I don’t think I could mention each instance if I tried. Before we started this process I believed revisions were needed. I started writing The Evaluation Room when I was 21 years old, and since then I have evolved as a person tremendously I knew that some perspectives would shift. However, I did not expect to find and develop a completely new ending and add almost 40 pages worth of new material!
There are many questions that playwrights cannot answer for themselves. There are things we cannot see when we look at the words that directors, dramaturgs, actors, and designers see immediately. I sat down for a casual lunch with Amanda, after our first read of the script, knowing that we’d have a great conversation about structure, arc, and character development. I found out something much more important during that lunch, though: Amanda cared about the play just as deeply as I did. I didn’t think it was possible for another person to have the same ardent passion for this play. I listened with new ears during our second read of the script, and heard genuine devotion in the voices of every person in the room. It’s a feeling I cannot accurately describe. The best I can say is that I continually have wonderful realizations that everyone involved in the development of The Evaluation Room is as invested as I am. This experience clarifies beyond any shadow of a doubt that the theatre is the place for me.


This blog post has turned into a bit of a love letter to the cast and production team, but that feels entirely right. A play is just words on a page without people willing to lift it onto its feet and put it in front of an audience. I am honored that such talented and generous artists are dedicating themselves to realizing a play that lives so close to my heart. Each of them has been instrumental in The Evaluation Room’s growth. Inspiration comes in the most mysterious ways. Whether it was a late night text message from Ebeth (Lizzie), a chat on the way to the car with Jess (Frank), an off-the-cuff remark from John (Prince) or Mark (J-Man), or the perfect facial expression from Lize (Gabe). Everyone has offered something invaluable to the development of this play. In fact, just when I thought the play was nearly complete I sat with Elise to talk about her character Mags and found that the character I’d created was awakened by Elise and emerged more beautifully than I had ever imagined. 

Meet Kristin's characters and be the first to see this world premiere production! The Evaluation Room will run January 26-31 in the Vasey Hall Studio. Tickets are free but seating is limited. For more information and to reserve your tickets click here. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Falling in Love With The 40s: A Dramaturg’s Perspective on A WONDERFUL NOISE

Graduate Student, Alix Rosenfeld, is completing her thesis as the dramaturg for A Wonderful Noise. We are lucky enough to have the inside scoop of her process working on this Philadelphia premiere which will transport audiences to the 1940s. Check out this excerpt of Alix's thesis proposal and learn more about this fantastic musical comedy by Villanova's very own Michael Hollinger, who serves as the Associate Artistic Director for Villanova Theatre. 

I first fell in love with this musical when “Chit Chat” was sung at the season selection announcement last spring. The song is incredibly entertaining, rich, and comical—truly a knockout number. It is a song that is pure joy, but it also acts as a time machine, propelling us back into another era that initially feels foreign, but actually sits comfortably in our cores. After my first encounter with the music and the script, I found that this holds true from beginning to end. The audience is transported to 1941 St. Louis with all of the innocence that accompanies a bygone era, and that feeling is reinforced masterfully by the music, the words, and the character relationships created by Michael Hollinger and Vance Lehmkuhl. In this musical we get the opportunity to be enchanted as we leave the modern world behind yet somehow land in a place that feels like home.

Though 1941 seems like a fragment of the past that we have forgotten, the brilliance of this piece is its ability to live in that past but still reach forward in time and speak to issues that affect us today. That is where its power lies: comedy and guilelessness charge forward throughout, but the threat of war bubbles almost imperceptibly under the surface. A Wonderful Noise packs a very unexpected punch, and it is the effect of the war that keeps it from simply being an evening of camp and good times. Instead, it is a wonderful blend of witty hijinks, heartfelt emotions, and just enough solemnity, working in harmony to create a beautiful, well-rounded experience for the audience.

Throughout the research process, I’ve continued to discover avenues into this musical that strengthen my connection to it. As a woman, I find Mae’s (and the rest of the quartet’s) determination to create more equal opportunities for women incredibly inspiring. Despite it being nearly seventy-five years later, we still live in a society where women have to fight for equality, and the quartet’s struggles for recognition represent this conflict on a small yet meaningful scale. In this vein, I also can’t help but note that our production is incredibly timely. The presidential primaries will be just days away from opening night, and with one very serious female contender for the democratic nomination, it’s exciting (and oddly prescient) to have references to a woman in the white house in the song “Give a Girl a Chance.” And while I don’t necessarily have a strong connection to the male quartet’s feelings of brotherhood and “esprit de corps,” I think we all can understand the desire to maintain a legacy put in place by one’s forefathers and a need for adventure. In this musical, there truly is something for everyone.

In this way and many more, A Wonderful Noise is extraordinary. Hollinger and Lehmkuhl have tapped into a remarkable ability to take the universal and distill these big ideas into a heartwarming and enjoyable story. Because of its universality, it transcends its very specific snapshot of time and breaks open issues that we contend with today, such as immigration, otherness, equality, war, and patriotism, to name a few. If asked, “why this play now,” I think the only answer is perhaps the most obvious: we need this piece. Recently we have been plagued with bombings and other acts of terrorism, people being displaced from their homes, and other heart-heavy events that could easily bog us down and make us lose our humanity. A Wonderful Noise reminds us, specifically in the song “Out of the Blue,” that through these atrocities we can still find camaraderie and strength despite adversity. 

Villanova Theatre's production of A Wonderful Noise runs February 9-21. Get your tickets at www.villanovatheatre.org or call us at 610-519-7474.