An act of discovery: The Brandeis theater thesis

Since 2012, honors candidates in the Theater Arts Department have generated new plays for their senior thesis

Theater arts students strike a pose in the woodsPhoto/Mike Lovett

From left: Sarah Ackerman '17, Sarah Steiker '17, Andrew Agress '17 and Jamie Semel '17.

This article originally appeared in the spring issue of State of the Arts:

Since 2012, honors candidates in the Department of Theater Arts at Brandeis have generated new plays that investigate political activism, current events, behavioral psychology, and more. The process is "academic and artistic marriage in action," explains Alicia Hyland, senior academic administrator in the Department of Theater Arts and producer of the Senior Thesis Festival. "We often say that our department productions are the 'lab' component to our classroom work. The festival takes that one step further by putting control in the hands of the seniors, allowing them to ask an artistic or creative question and to explore that question through production."

Students propose a thesis in their junior year, and as seniors, they take extra classes, find professional mentors and collect source material in preparation for their productions. By tackling their topics in fresh, experimental ways, they reap intellectual and creative rewards that cap their four years of rigorous study in theater arts and other areas.

Jamie Semel: Luna  

Not many people would willingly wade into a knee-high mud puddle for a photo shoot. Even fewer would spend over 700 days in a redwood tree to protest logging. Jamie Semel's thesis incorporates both of these unusual traits--Semel, the puddle jumper, as the writer, and Julia Butterfly Hill as the young American activist whose story Semel is bringing to the stage as a devised work called "Luna."

Devising theater work bridges the traditional roles of actor, playwright, director, and designer to collaborator. At Brandeis, undergraduates learn the technique in Adrianne Krstansky's very popular Collaborative Process class, colloquially referred to as "co-lab."  They work together to create characters, text, themes and action, until a performance is born. Semel's co-lab class bounced from subject to subject, covering current events, theater history, and the students' own experiences. One memorable project involved a trip to the local Hannaford grocery store, which segued into a play about Thanksgiving dinner.

Inspired to keep creating devised work, during her junior year Semel attended the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. There, she and her 30 classmates devised a piece about civic responsibility and Joan of Arc. She then made her way to Brooklyn and the Superhero Clubhouse, a collective of artists and scientists, founded by an NTI alum, to learn how to synthesize classical theater techniques with sustainable production methods and topics in environmental studies. (Superhero Clubhouse members will join Semel on campus this semester to lead a workshop on creating eco-theater.)

To discover the multiple interpretations of Butterfly Hill's tree-sit, Semel turns to her devising group, some of whom are members of the cast, all of whom are dedicating considerable time to helping her create "Luna."  In early development meetings, she asks them to consider the tree-sit from various perspectives. In one session, it is the perspective of the loggers waiting to cut down the tree. Later, the group role-plays radio journalists covering the event, and elementary school students writing letters to Butterfly Hill. In preparation for writing the final script, Semel has also immersed herself in Butterfly Hill's published memoir, as well as books by Henry David Thoreau and Jon Krakauer.

Is Butterfly Hill a hero or a villain? Semel wants the audience to come away with their own questions about humans' relationship to the natural world. "It's very easy to accept the destruction we enact as humans, just because it's what we've always known," says Semel. Her thesis aims to reframe and question that acceptance.

Andrew Agress: Taking Ages

Andrew Agress wants to engage an audience with his passion (and second major): history. And he'll do it through his favorite genre: sketch comedy.

He says his thesis, which takes place from the middle ages to the modern day, is shaping up to be a mix of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged" and Comedy Central's "Drunk History," with inspiration from "Hamilton."

Agress began thinking about a comedic senior thesis during his semester Second City Chicago, the renowned improv theater school. "On a break between my 5.5 comedy classes," he says, he brought up the idea with some friends. One of them happened to be Amy Thompson '11, whose own senior thesis was in sketch comedy form and who, like Agress, was a member of the Brandeis sketch comedy group Boris' Kitchen. (Thompson will visit campus this semester to lead a sketch comedy workshop and to sit in on Agress' rehearsals.)

"I wrote a comedy sketch for almost every history class that I've taken," says Agress. He has also asked friends to give him syllabi and readings from their history classes, effectively "taking" extra courses as research.

"One class [from Second City] that I'm drawing from is History and Analysis of Modern Comedy. We spent a lot of time learning about Lenny Bruce, and then [I attended] the Lenny Bruce conference at Brandeis, where I learned even more," he says. Agress is also honing his comedic skills with Boris' Kitchen as they prepare for their spring Big Show. Agress is also lucky to have his thesis director, Raphael Stigliano '18, as a suitemate. As Stigliano notes, he's "only a wall away."

The essential question for Agress is how humor can be a window into knowledge. "Whenever I hear about an event, I think about how I could make it interesting and make it funny," he says. He hopes to add his name to the line of Brandeisians in smart topical comedy, such as Josh Gondelman '07, who won an Emmy Award for writing on John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight," and viral video maker Paul Gale '12.

Sarah Ackerman and Sarah Steiker: Work in Progress  

When Sarah Ackerman and Sarah Steiker began talking about pursuing a senior thesis, they found inspiration in their shared interest in human behavior. Ackerman's second major in psychology convinced Steiker, a theater and business double major, to look to the subject for thesis material, and they settled on various forms of addiction as their topic.

Musical review is the framework, with songs, dialogue and found text forming a narrative about life with addiction, unhealthy relationships and alcohol abuse. Auditioning actors gave a monologue and a song from musical theater, as the directors wanted to see whether their cast could handle singing, acting, and any other forms of theater they might throw their way.

Steiker and Ackerman have experience in a wide variety of performance genres. When it comes to theater with darker themes, Steiker has the benefit of having played Wendla in a student production of  "Spring Awakening" and the mentally ill title character in "Grace," a senior thesis by Charlie Madison '15. Ackerman brings years of professional experience on television and stage, including an episode of  NBC's "30 Rock." Clearly, both creators have the experience necessary to synthesize material from different theatrical sources and discover connections that will make the narrative flow smoothly. Adding to their experience is Sara Schoch, MFA '14, who visited campus to coach Steiker and Ackerman and give a vocal recital.

 "Sarah and I spend a lot of time looking at text that can inform our work or even be used in the performance," says Steiker. They are conducting interviews and surveys through their social networks in order to understand personal experiences with addiction and abuse, including those of friends and family members. Ackerman is researching neuropsychology and the scientific explanations for addiction.

In short, the show has enough science and story to satisfy any kind of major or viewer. The students' use of research and analysis will help ground the show in the scientific side of addiction, while the testimonies that Steiker and Ackerman are gathering will round out the show, adding poignancy to the scientific research that is portrayed.

With devised plays, sketch comedy, and musical reviews taking aim at serious topics from many different angles, this year's Senior Festival has something for everyone. And with students whose backgrounds span from the National Theater Institute to Second City to off-Broadway, one can be sure that these devisers, writers and assemblers will deliver. The festival will run from March 31 to April 2 in the Laurie Theater in Spingold Theater Center.

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