Photos by Mike Lovett.

Actor Brandon Green

 

Dream On

Brandeis' MFA actors devise their own works for the stage, inspired by everything from superheroes to superstitions

Over the past three years, audiences have gotten to know the 10 young graduate students at the core of the Brandeis Theater Company as characters in well-known plays by Arthur Miller, Chekhov and Shakespeare. Undergraduate theater students know them as teachers and mentors. April 26-27, we will get a look at who they “really” are. For their capstone performances, these actors are looking within themselves to research and devise “Ten by Ten,” 10 solo performances that will premiere during the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts.

Their strong group identity, supported by intensive training in script analysis, stage combat, singing, vocal production and diverse acting methods, opens doors to brand-new insights and experiences that lie beyond the reach of traditional theater making.

“So much of the actor’s work is organized around rehearsing a play that someone else has created,” says Marya Lowry, associate professor of theater arts, who is overseeing and advising “Ten by Ten.” “These solo projects empower the actors to be full creative agents.”

“I couldn’t have done this three years ago,” says Sam Gillam, a Baltimore native and 2009 graduate of Elizabethtown College. “You don’t start out with that kind of trust in yourself.”

When the grads arrived in Waltham in fall 2011, some were fresh from undergraduate studies around the country. Others had decided, after working in regional theater or in New York, to commit three years to further training. All were selected through an intensive national search-and-audition process. Since then, they’ve virtually lived in Spingold Theater Center, even working out together under the coaching of “gradmate” J. Andrew Young, who for several years supplemented off-Broadway work with personal training. (A five-gallon container of protein powder sits atop the greenroom refrigerator like a trophy.)

“We’ve been together so long, it’s a challenge to create something that my classmates haven’t seen before,” says Alexandra Johnson, a seasoned musical theater performer from Wichita, Kan.

The actors began a weeklong development workshop by writing freely for 10 minutes, then searching that text for the seeds of a dramatic story. (“If anyone read mine, they’d think, ‘What is wrong with him?’” recalls Brandon Green.) The devising process also demands an extension of technical skills, Lowry notes. “Physically and vocally, they can find room to bend or break, to go outside the lines and tell each story differently.”

And the stories are dazzling in their variety. “I’ll find my favorite thing: the comedy in tragedy,” says Eddie Shields of Philadelphia, who is “riffing” on Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century play “The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England” and its 20th-century adaptation by Brecht. Sarah Bedard wants to “spark a movement.” The Providence College grad gives voice to survivors of sexual assault on women in the military, based on interviews in the 2012 documentary “The Invisible War.”

Poetry — particularly that of D.H. Lawrence — and dance — by Twyla Tharp — fuel Alex Johnson’s desire to create a performance that is “hot, desperate, loud, hard and fast.” Sam Gillam is fascinated by the human brain, and Jonathan Young is playing with the idea of a support group for people who embody superstitions, like “someone who stepped on a crack and is living with the guilt of that.”

A persistent image of masking tape inspired Sara Schoch’s autobiographical piece. Alex Jacobs, a transplanted Brit, reflects with mixed affection and relief on his 10 years on the road performing in adaptations of everything from “Romeo and Juliet” to “Alice in Wonderland.” Recent Alabama State graduate Brandon Green weaves a story about an asylum patient around two of his core beliefs: superheroes and willpower. “I was the kid in the Batman pajamas who dreamed of flying through the house,” he laughs. “And I’ve spent the past three years testing my will.”

“I love that this is our solo work, but it’s also the 10 of us,” says Gillam. “We’re each other’s crew — literally — which puts the right energy out to the audience.”