Wednesday, November 13

English TA incorporates theater in course to expand perspectives


The original version of this article contained information that was unclear and has been updated. See the bottom of the article for more information.

A chorus-led court scene with formally dressed actors and a sentimental closing monologue from the play’s protagonist highlighted the English class’s first performance.

Capturing the attention of several students walking by, teaching assistant Lauren Dembowitz’s English 4W: “Critical Reading and Writing” class performed several scenes of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Venus” in the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden Thursday morning after reading the entire play.

As part of the course’s curriculum, TAs often have students perform plays.

Dembowitz said she thinks that having her students perform Venus is an unusual circumstance due to the play’s subject matter. She says it is controversial, and the ethical implications of spectatorship and public exploitation are central to the play.

“I think that… it gives students the opportunity to understand literary analysis from the other perspective,” Dembowitz said.

The play “Venus” was inspired by the true life story of Sarah Baartman, known as Venus, and takes place during the 19th century. It begins with her being lured away from her home in South Africa to London by the promise of riches. She has steatopygia, or an accumulation of fat on the buttocks, and quickly becomes popular in the area. After a scandal, she is sent to jail, where she dies.

“’Venus’ is really unique in that it’s a very contemporary play that uses very contemporary language and effects that (are) portraying a historical event and figure in the moment,” Dembowitz said.

Dembowitz is a self-proclaimed theater enthusiast. She grew up admiring plays in the audience, and played several parts in high school plays. She recalled performing a Russian pianist twice, and in her senior year of high school she was in Moisés Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project.”

“(‘The Laramie Project’) was a very heavy play and I remember feeling a great responsibility in performing such serious subject matter at the high school level,” Dembowitz said.

Dembowitz said she wanted her students to make their parts in the play their own, as she believes that every way students perform the lines allows them to make their mark on the play.

“In … the accent you decide to use or the facial expression you decide to make, all of those things shape the final artistic product that the audience receives, and I think that’s fantastic,” Dembowitz said.

Dembowitz split the 19 students into three groups, and assigned each group a part of the play.

From there, students were on their own. They had to divvy up character roles, the costume design and what they wanted to keep and omit from the performance.

Some of her students said they expected to write essays and read in the class, and the assignment to perform came as a surprise.

“I was just kind of shocked that in an English class we would do a performance. But it’s cool to have a teacher that’s more open, making us utilize the play through acting,” said Morgan Simon, a second-year human biology and society student.

The class met at 10 a.m. on Thursday in the sculpture garden and spent five minutes warming up. They gathered in a circle and did some vocal exercises, as passersby looked on.

The play “Venus” was inspired by the true life story of Sarah Baartman, known as Venus, and takes place during the 19th century. It begins with her being lured away from her home in South Africa to London by the promise of riches. She has steatopygia, or an accumulation of fat on the buttocks, and quickly becomes popular in the area. After a scandal, she is sent to jail, where she dies.

“’Venus’ is really unique in that it’s a very contemporary play that uses very contemporary language and effects that (are) portraying a historical event and figure in the moment,” Dembowitz said.

The students also performed scenes in which the Baron Docteur, a character in the play, finds out Venus is pregnant and a final last scene in which Venus dies.

The English department’s teaching coordinator Chris Mott came to the show to give his critique of the students’ performance. Throughout the play, Mott praised their concentration and the quality of their deliverance.

“I’m really impressed because a play is meant to be performed and every gesture is an interpretation,” Mott said. “They worked together and clearly understood it.”

Although none of the students in the class are studying theater, Dembowitz said she thinks they were able to flourish on stage.

“They so far exceeded my expectations,” she said, after the applause. “Their performances were thought out and they just did it naturally.”

Dembowitz said she hopes to have future classes perform plays in her course.

Clarification: English professors and teaching assistants often have students perform in plays as an assignment.

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News senior staff

Roberto Luna Jr. is currently a senior staffer covering Westwood, crime and transportation. He was previously an assistant News editor from 2015-2016 and a News contributor from 2014-2015.


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