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Theater graduate students gear up to direct modern, classical thesis projects

Taking place at Macgowan Hall (pictured), the plays produced by the theater department aim to add modern twists to classical stage shows this upcoming year. (Megan Cai/Assistant Photo editor)

By Alexis Jones

Sept. 16, 2022 6:02 p.m.

The UCLA theater department is taking a contemporary approach to classical works.

For the upcoming academic year, theater department chair J.Ed Araiza said the program will produce plays directed by graduate students and acted by undergraduate students. Similar to past years, the shows are the thesis projects of second- and third-year graduate students in directing. The catalog also features the “New Playwrights’ Festival,” which Araiza said involves producing the original plays written by third-year graduate students in playwriting.

“It’s our job in this department in particular to support the vision of the student,” Araiza said. “It’s more like, ‘What are you really interested in saying, and how can we help you say that to the best of your ability, using the resources of the university?’”

[Related: Cast and crew make ‘Pippin’ distinct with personal affinities, mystical set design]

To better facilitate the selection process of next season’s catalog, associate professor of theater Michelle Liu Carriger said she created a class in fall 2021 dedicated to planning which plays the department would produce for the following academic year, which is the decision of the students. She said the course was intended to address the controversies of casting for the diversity in the department and the larger theater community when students chose productions.

Students used a rubric to guide their decisions on which shows to produce based on their wishes to reflect the diversity of the department and the theater world as a whole, Carriger said. The criteria included how producible the play is, given the budget and availability of licensing rights, the size of the cast and the effect of the text’s social and political messaging on audiences. She said the students also considered how the show would allow for diverse voices to speak out against the prejudice and oppressive systems seen in modern day society.

“I want to see plays in our season that are going to provoke thought or stay with you for a little while longer after you leave the theater,” Carriger said. “Or that maybe you’ll want to have a conversation with the person you went with afterwards.”

Carriger said the productions also had to account for the educational needs and artistic pursuits of students. For example, she said the season includes classical and contemporary plays to expose acting students to different performance styles, such as dramatic prose and verse comparable to Shakespeare. Design students similarly wanted to create period and modern costumes, she said, in addition to both larger and modular, more streamlined sets.

As the theater department’s vice chair and head of directing, associate professor Marike Splint said she assisted the graduate students in directing by finding material that covered the school’s training concerns and the conversations professional playwrights are currently presenting in their works. She said she emphasized including themes student directors wanted to use – including their real world topics of interest such as the queer experience and women’s rights – and the emotional level at which they communicated these subjects.

“When you pick a play, as an artist, you have to be able to, … on a personal level, be like, ‘How do I deal with this? What is my attitude to the theme, the issue, the question that the player is addressing?’” Splint said. “When there is a personal relationship or when they (the director) can find a personal stake in the play that they choose, that brings out something very powerful in the work.”

For instance, Sophocles’ play “Antigone” features strong female characters and reflects upon their position in society – feminist themes Splint said speak to Staci Mize, a graduate student in directing. Addressing the catalog’s desire to produce a classical play and a show directed by one of the graduate students, the department’s upcoming fall production of “Antigone” invokes the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, Splint said. The show will interpret the Greek chorus as reporters and incorporate live cameras, she said, to comment on how the media informs public opinion.

Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” also engages in current sociopolitical issues and will be the annual department musical, said head of the Ray Bolger Musical Theater Program and adjunct professor Jeremy Mann. Though students particularly chose the musical to honor Sondheim passing away last year, “Assassins” also grapples with gun violence, which Mann said is relevant to audiences because of recent national events.

[Related: Jennifer Chang to join theater department, hopes to inspire diversity in program]

Araiza said the department hopes to foster more conversation within the UCLA community through the representation and variety of shows presented in this season’s catalog. In addition, he said he wants to provide students at all levels and concentrations – directing, acting, playwriting and design – with the opportunity to develop as theatrical artists.

“In theory and in truth, this year, all of the plays should service students’ growth, be really an interesting challenge and be entertaining for the audience,” Araiza said. “That’s the hope.”

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Alexis Jones | Arts Editor
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