Monday, August 19

Hackett modernizes old plays

Hackett modernizes old plays

UCLA professor directs comedies for Getty museum

By Jeanna Blackman

Imagine the Getty museum asking you to direct two ancient
comedies. And ­ by the way ­ your work will be judged by
theater-goers as well as specialists in ancient history.

Director Michael Hackett, a UCLA theater professor, faced that
exact situation. A production of Menander’s "The Woman from Samos"
and Plautus’ "Casina" was the result. Under Hackett’s guidance,
graduate and undergraduate theater students, as well as established
equity performers, had to work together to produce something that
was entertaining and accurate.

"I didn’t want it to be a history lesson," Hackett says. "These
plays created the conventions we know of in western comedy." What
Menander did then had now become stereotype. This is part of the
reason why these ancient comedies haven’t lost their appeal.

"No matter how different we may seem from the Roman Empire, some
things remain the same ­ misunderstandings between children
and their parents, tension between men and women and the struggle
for social position and money," Hackett says.

The music, composed by Nathan Birnbaum, is something that helped
quite a bit in giving it a more modern feel. "The music can hold
things together," Hackett says. All of the designers had a similar
task ­ to create an image that was historically accurate and
still interesting to the contemporary theater audience.

Hackett turned to graduate theater design students to tackle the
problem. Wesley McBride, set designer, Alex Jaeger, costume
designer and Jane Fitzgerald Hall lighting coordinator, all worked
with Hackett to achieve his vision.

In fact, several students worked on this equity production. Five
undergraduate actors had the opportunity to be in the chorus, which
most considered to be the learning experience of a lifetime. "There
is a process in how focused they are," says Antonia Bath, one of
the students.

Jeremiah Wiggins, another chorus member, says that the
experience was especially educational because the equity actors had
such distinctive styles of working. "At this age, you want to think
you know everything," says Wiggins. They showed him otherwise.

But the students weren’t the only ones getting an education.
"UCLA students are so talented that (the process) is a mutual
learning experience," says Hackett. Each group has its own
expectations and make their own contributions. "The professionals
brought stamina and consistency," Hackett says, "while the students
have a sense of community and an idealism the professionals found

However, no one said it would be easy for the students and the
professionals to become a whole. "We had to make an effort to
create an ensemble company," says LaJessica Mathis, another one of
the chorus members. She credits Hackett for bringing the two groups

The weather also seems to have played a part. "The first night
in the space, it was raining hard," Wiggins says. "But dealing with
it really brought us together as a cast." Yet all three
undergraduates were quick to point out that most of the equity
performers were very approachable when the students needed some
advice, such as what to do after they graduate.

Mathis mentioned an additional benefit that came with their
professor being the director in an outside production. "It was a
new deal that you could say something back to the director. That
was a trip," she says.

The three females in the chorus had an additional worry when it
came to the dress rehearsals. Their costumes were bulking objects
that had a large stuffed phallus hanging between their legs. "I
don’t know how men walk around with a penis," Mathis says.

"It was interesting to learn to walk like a man," Bath adds.

But overall, the experience as a whole was a positive one.
According to Hackett, working with the students, the professionals
and the Getty has been "wonderful."

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