April 3, 2008

Cornell Theater: A Cult of Personalities

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Last spring, two groups of individuals congregated on Ho Plaza to stage political protests. In one corner were the creationists, fiercely defending society from the hocus pocus propagated by Charles Darwin, and in the other corner stood the evolutionists, fighting for a progressive, scientific view of the world, and toting signs that said “Read your Darwin.”
Tour groups walked by the bizarre gatherings, puzzled. Faculty members just shook their heads (“Kids these days …”). Students themselves were baffled. The Cornell Republicans opposite the C.U. Dems? Random Sean Hannity acolytes versus Al Franken’s collegiate posse?
In reality, the two seemingly disparate sects were comprised entirely of members from the same clan: They were theater kids.To promote their production of Inherit the Wind at the Schwartz Center, a dozen or more Cornell students stood out on Ho Plaza last April simulating the play’s central theme — science versus religion. It was an alarming and entertaining publicity stunt designed to generate buzz for the show; judging by the raised eyebrows, the actors definitely grabbed people’s attention.
This kind of boldfaced display isn’t out of the ordinary for those participating in productions at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. Last autumn, actors in The Bourgeois Gentlemen traipsed around campus singing and dancing songs from the show. And we have it on good authority here at The Sun that another such display, aimed at promoting the upcoming As You Like It (showing from April 24 through May 3) and elusively referred to as “the running of the sheep,” should be taking place at some point in the coming weeks.
Well … that’s interesting.
It’s probably fair to say you’d be hard-pressed to find a group willing to put on that kind of a display if they weren’t really committed to whatever it was they were promoting. And whatever your knee-jerk reaction to the performing arts crowd (Risley has, on occasion, been referred to as the “different for the sake of being different” dorm), you can’t deny that they are fully, 150 percent dedicated, not only to their shows and to the craft of acting, but also to the community they have grown into.
But what’s so special about Cornell’s theater community? What’s the deal with Risley Residential College, physically just across the street from the rest of North Campus, but miles away in terms of style? And why is it that prospective performers flock to the Schwartz Center just hours after first arriving on campus for the first time and camp out there for the next four years? Those fully immersed in the theater scene might mention Cornell’s renowned performing arts programs or the state-of-the-art facilities at the Schwartz, but chances are that the answer that will resonate most clearly has to do with the incredible community fostered in Cornell theater — it’s the people who make it so special.
Corny? Yes, but definitely true. You don’t hear mechanical and aerospace engineers gushing about Kimball Hall or psychology majors bragging about the beauty of the ever-rusty Uris. This isn’t to say that engineers and psychology majors don’t appreciate what they do, just that theater majors — and other members of the theater community — have a unique love for what they are a part of.
Zack Mast ’10 rattles off a list of what keeps him coming back to perform: “Just being in that first show and seeing how it was a blast every day … everyone being excited to be there, being around all kids who are really talented, and to have a party celebrating what you did together.”
Mast fits into the same mold as a number of other performers: He’s planning on coupling his English major with an eventual degree in Theatre Arts. It’s pretty common for students to major in theater along with something else, and it is even possible for non-theater majors to be extremely involved in the program. Jeremy Flynn ’11, a student in the School of Industrial Labor Relations, enjoys all the opportunities that Cornell’s theater program has to offer. He took THETR 280: Introduction to Acting during his first semester at Cornell and performed with the Melodramatics, a musical theater group, as well.
Those involved in the theater program all got started in different ways. Mast actually began by selling tickets at the Schwartz Center. “I was just the quirky guy in the box office … I knew every single person in the department, but no one knew me.” Before long, he left the box office to appear in productions like this year’s Alice in Wonderland. Akilah Terry ’10 said that she knew she wanted to be a theater major before she came to Cornell, explaining, “I didn’t want to go to a conservatory because I wanted more of a well-rounded education.” She stressed the theater department’s small size as a contributing factor to the uniqueness of the program: “You see a lot of the same people [all the time] … we’re very involved with what each other is doing.”
Mast explains that theater people are “the most sweetest people you’ll ever meet … but [they] have egos.” He went on to say that “everyone is a narcissist [in theater], it’s just about how you come to terms with that and being able to interact with other narcissists.”
And those involved in theater at Cornell seem to be able to do that just fine. There is an established support system embedded within the theater community. Flynn stressed the “trusting relationships” that develop naturally due to the type of work that is required of the students. For instance, he recalls, when the cast for the production of The Wild Party first read through the script all together, it was “really odd” because in the first scene, his character “ended up having to rape a girl.” He had to rehearse this scene with people he had just met for the first time. The students form “very quick connections right there.”
It is this supportive and endearing community that resides within the Schwartz Center, and it’s exactly that sense of community that allows the show to go on.