Tuesday, April 12, 2016

April 2016: Dead Man's Cell Phone

She doesn’t fall down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass. But in a quiet cafe on an ordinary day, a young woman named Jean innocently enters her self-made Wonderland... by answering the Dead Man’s Cell Phone.

 Dead Man’s Cell Phone the imaginative comedy and surprising love story by renowned American playwright Sarah Ruhl is performed Friday and Saturday April 22 and 23, and Thurs.-Sat. April 28-30 at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday May 1, in Gist Hall Theatre on the HSU campus. 


 Tickets are $10 general/$8 students and seniors, with a limited number of free tickets for HSU students at each performance, from the HSU Ticket Office (826-3928) or at the door. Directed by Michael Thomas, produced by HSU Department of Theatre, Film & Dance.

Media: Times-Standard Urge, Mad River Union, North Coast Journal, Humboldt State Now
    The widow (played by Madison Burgett-Feagin) meets Jean (Stephanie Lemon.)

Jean is sipping soup in a cafe when the cell phone at a nearby table keeps ringing, but the man sitting there won’t answer it. Jean confronts him but when he doesn’t respond, she answers it herself. By this time she’s beginning to realize that the man is dead. 

 Answering that phone and looking into the dead man’s face begins a poignant, comic and eventually transcendent theatrical journey for Jean and everyone she meets as a result, including the dead man’s widow, his mother, his brother and his mistress.
       
Jean and Dwight (Jesse Benefiel), the dead man's brother, bond over paper.

 But unlike Alice, Jean enters a Wonderland that she largely creates with her own continually surprising decisions.  She evens finds her way to love.
“From the very beginning, this is a play of surprises. One surprise after another,” says director Michael Thomas. 

             
Dead Man's Cell Phone has been described as a contemporary fairy tale, a theatrical dream and a fable of the digital age. Like the rest of Ruhl’s work, writes New York Times critic Charles Isherwood, this play “blends the mundane and the metaphysical, the blunt and the obscure, the patently bizarre and the bizarrely moving.”
Like many open-hearted plays by Sarah Ruhl, Dead Man's Cell Phone inhabits a special territory between the real and the imagined—and the audience is part of what brings them together.

Dead Man's Cell Phone: Cast and Production

Madison Burgett-Feagin
Cast

A Woman, Jean: Stephanie Lemon
 A Dead Man, Gordon: Anthony DePage
 Gordon’s Mother, Mrs. Gottlieb: Connie Hill
Gordon’s Widow, Hermia: Madison Burgett-Feagin
Gordon’s Brother, Dwight: Jesse Benefiel
The Other Woman/The Stranger: Caitlin Hatfield






Jesse Benefiel
Production

Director: Michael Thomas
 Scenic Designer: Marissa Day
 Costume Designer: Isabella Cejas
 Sound Designer: Chris Joe
 Makeup Designer: Delaney McNeil
 Prop Designer: Camille Borrowdale
Lighting Supervisor: James McHugh
 Stage Manager: Margaret Champoux
 Production Manager: Derek Lane
 Assistant Director: Michelle Purnell
Assistant Stage Managers: Roman Sanchez, Heather Karns
Costume Shop Manager: Catherine Brown
 Scenic Shop Manager: Jayson Mohatt
Prop Shop Manager:Emma Lubin
Electric Shop Manager: Pablo Midence
 Administrative Support: Debra Ryerson,                                                                   Lorraine Dillon                                                                                                         Photography: Kellie J. Brown
                                                  Publicity/site copy & design: Bill Kowinski

Stephanie Lemon

Dead Man's Cell Phone: The Director

“From the very beginning, this is a play of surprises. One surprise after another,” said director Michael Thomas. He gave a series of examples... but why spoil the surprise?

 Still it’s fair to say that in this relatively short play, the themes are large. “Sarah Ruhl gives us plenty to think about. Lies, secrets, communication, what’s selfish and what’s selfless.”

 And of course new connections to old issues brought about by the digital age. “The ubiquitous cell phone—it’s always there, but does it bring us any closer?”

 Thomas identifies aspects of this play that are common to Sarah Ruhl’s work. “Small things can be charged with meaning. Objects can be important. It’s also typical of her plays that we see a side of people we don’t normally see. Everyone has a part no one knows about. Everyone has surprises that appear once in awhile.”

Behavior by the characters in Dead Man's Cell Phone is so surprising that Thomas believes the question audience members will be asking themselves is: “Would I do that?”

 And there’s lots of humor, some of it outrageous. “There are some very funny moments.”

 Both as a director and as the artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theatre (a position he is leaving after 15 years), Michael Thomas has read a lot of plays. He’s learned to trust that first reading.

 “Those first gut reactions are important, especially as a director. Those first impressions, the moments that jump out, they stay with me in how I direct the play. The more I’ve directed, the more I’ve learned to trust those first instincts. Other people will have valid suggestions but it’s not your initial feelings. You can somewhat temper and alter those feelings but basically what I first thought when I first read the script is still important to me. It usually works out that way.”

 When directing at HSU it’s also important to him to cast HSU students whenever possible. “We had good auditions and I was able to cast every part with students—even the 65 year old woman, who will be played by an actress in her 20s."

" I’m very happy with this wonderful cast. I especially appreciate that they got off book early. There’s a point where you can’t really go any further with the book in your hand, when you act with your body. Being off book early was great.”

Dead Man's Cell Phone: Play and Playwright

A Wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, from a passage quoted by Sarah Ruhl in the published script of Dead Man’s Cell Phone.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone premiered in 2007 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. (starring Polly Noonan, who bears an uncanny resemblance to its author, Sarah Ruhl.) It won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play in the Washington DC area for that production.

 It was produced in New York City at Playwright’s Horizon in 2008, with Marie Louise Parker as Jean. In his New York Times review, Charles Isherwood called it a “beguiling new comedy.” He quoted a typical line from the play and commented: “This seemingly absurd statement is typical of the startling leaps made by the characters in Ms. Ruhl’s work, which blends the mundane and the metaphysical, the blunt and the obscure, the patently bizarre and the bizarrely moving.”

 “Dead Man’s Cell Phone is like a fairly tale,” said Jessica Thebus, director of the Steppenwolf production in 2008. Of Ruhl she said “Her plays are very theatrical, and I would say not unlike Greek theatre. There are many differences of course but they share a mythic landscape that contains very human problems. In Dead Man’s Cell Phone you get a magical place...and yet the problems and issues the characters are dealing with are extremely familiar and sometimes mundane. The combination of the mundane and the magical is fertile theatrically, and it makes Sarah a playwright who is uniquely well-suited to the theatre.”

 “Dead Man’s Cell Phone works as a sustained trance or dream, from the moment the audience enters the world until the end,” said Andre Pluess, sound designer for that production.

 North Coast theatregoers may remember the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production in 2009. For Oregon Live, Marty Hughley wrote that it “draws us so fully into Ruhl’s mix of the poetic and the silly that there’s no cause to question the logic.”

 “It’s a joyride through the absurdity of trying to make simple connections in a world overwhelmed with interconnectivity,” wrote Robert Hurwitt, reviewing the 2009 SF Playhouse production in San Francisco. “That it’s strangely touching as well is just another reason to get to the Playhouse. Ruhl rules.”


Sarah Ruhl grew up in Wilmette, Illinois, a leafy suburb of Chicago, some 14 miles from downtown. She came from a happy family, though she felt her father was limited by his job marketing toys. He loved music and words, including puns. Her mother taught English and in the evenings acted and directed. Sarah remembered her mother coming down the stairs to dinner reciting a speech from Ionesco’s Bald Soprano.

 Both parents engaged Sarah and her sister Kate in play that had educational purposes. Sarah was soon part of her mother Kathleen’s theatrical life. “One of the most intense theatrical experiences for her was when I directed Enter Laughing,” Kathleen said. “She got to know all the actors. By that point, people would ask her for her notes. She was six or seven.”

Eurydice
In school however fellow students were not always charmed by Sarah’s intelligence, but her home life gave her confidence. “In third grade, somebody sent me a poison-pen letter,” Ruhl said. “I corrected the punctuation and sent it back.”

 Though she wrote a play in fourth grade (a courtroom debate between an isthmus and an island that her teacher declined to produce) and participated in a youth theatre group with such future luminaries as actors John and Joan Cusack, she resisted pursuing a career as a playwright-- even after a workshop with playwright Paula Vogel, when Vogel told her she could have one.

But after Brown University and a year at Oxford studying English literature, she wrote Passion Plays, which Vogel arranged to be produced at Trinity Repertory in Providence. It was an immediate success. It has been produced several more times in an extended version.

 Vogel was not surprised. “She’s going to become her own vocabulary word,” Vogel said. “There’s not anyone else like her.”

The Clean House, Goodman Theatre
 Ruhl’s beloved father died when she was 20. The humor and grace with which he faced cancer and death influenced her plays, particularly the two produced in 2004: The Clean House and Eurydice. The latter also makes explicit her engagement with myth, both Greek classics and Lewis Carroll. The Clean House was a Pulitzer Prize nominee. 

In 2006 Ruhl received a MacArthur “genius” grant. That year her play Demeter in the City was produced, again reflecting her interest in myth.


Probably her best-known play premiered at Berkeley Rep in 2009: In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play). It was her first play to make it to Broadway, and her second Pulitzer Prize finalist. Locally, Ferndale Rep produced it in 2012.

 In between came Dead Man’s Cell Phone. At the time of its New York production, New Yorker theatre critic John Lahr wrote an extensive profile of Sarah Ruhl for that magazine. Specifically about this play, Lahr wrote that it is “ a meditation on death, love, and disconnection in the digital age; like her other works, it inhabits a dramatic netherworld between personal suspense and suspended time.” He also describes it as “a mad pilgrimage of an imagination as it is invaded and atomized by the phone, which transforms private as well as public space."

 “Cell phones, iPods, wireless computers will change people in ways we don’t even understand,” Ruhl told Lahr. “We’re less connected to the present. No one is where they are. There’s absolutely no reason to talk to a stranger anymore—you connect to people you already know. But how well do you know them? Because you never see them—you just talk to them. I find that terrifying.”

 In explaining her approach to playwriting, Ruhl told him: “Aristotle has held sway for many centuries, but I feel our culture is hungry for Ovid’s way of telling stories,” she said, describing Ovid’s narrative strategy as “one thing transforming into another.” I like plays that have revelations in the moment, where emotions transform almost inexplicably,” Ruhl said. This certainly applies to Dead Man’s Cell Phone. 

But Ruhl is also committed to an approach that is fundamentally comic. In explaining this to Lahr, she referred to a 1980s essay by the great Italian writer Italo Calvino, published in his book Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Calvino suggests six qualities that should inform literature in the future, including quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity. But above all, Calvino championed “lightness.”  He wrote:

 “Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times—noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring—belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.”


 Lightness isn’t stupidity,” Ruhl told Lahr. “It’s actually a philosophical and aesthetic viewpoint, deeply serious, and has a kind of wisdom—stepping back to be able to laugh at horrible things even as you’re experiencing them.”

Ruhl's favorite play, she told the New York Times Book Review earlier this year, is either King Lear or A Midsummer Night's Dream, "depending on if I'm feeling melancholy or optimistic."

And whom does she want to write her life story?  "J.K. Rowling, of course."

Thursday, March 31, 2016

April 2016: HSU Dance Concert SOMA SPIRITU

    Claire Patterson, Bekah Staub, Moira Winchell in “Impulse” by Lauren Baker

Exploring the interplay of body and spirit, eight student choreographers and two faculty members present their latest work—including a recent regional prize-winner—in the HSU spring dance concert, Soma Spiritu.

Soma Spiritu is presented Thursdays through Saturdays April 7-9, 14-16 at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday April 17 in the Van Duzer Theatre on the HSU campus. Tickets are $10 general/$8 students and seniors, with a limited number of free tickets for HSU students at each performance, from the HSU Ticket Office (826-3928) or at the door. Produced by HSU Department of Theatre, Film & Dance.

Media: Mad River Union, Times-Standard Urge, North Coast Journal, Humboldt State Now.
         Austin Silvaong in “Self-Refraction” by Kassie Guimapang.

To express relationships of the body (“soma”) and spirit (“spiritu”), HSU choreographers employ a variety of styles and thematic starting points, within the idioms of contemporary dance.
Claire Patterson in her solo dance “magna feminem artifex.”

How do social problems affect us, physically and spiritually? Claire Patterson takes a dramatic approach in her solo dance about the oppression of women in the arts. It was judged to be among the top ten dances presented at the recent American College Dance Association Western Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona.
    Ginger Greenlee, Lisa Drew, Moira Winchell, Nathalie Mostrel, Kassie Guimapang, Bekah Staub in “Idiosyncrasy” by Emily Mensing.

Emily Mensing uses comedy to puncture pomposity in her dance, “Idiosyncrasy.”
    Austin Silavong, Eric Sorensen, Emily Mensing, Lauren Baker, Erika Barnet, Ginger Greenlee, Sarah Martin in Lisa Drew's "Passing Through"

Lisa Drew examines the contemporary obsession with time, and Lauren Baker explores how a dance can use time, rhythm and space.
    Back row: Myranda Dominguez, Bekah Staub, Gino Bloomberg, Sarah Martin,    Moira Winchell Front row: Austin Silavong, Cary Alexis Turner, Emily Mensing in “Self-Refraction” by Kassie Guimapang.

Dances by Kassie Guimapang, Moira Winchell, and English exchange student Megan Newbold explore conflicts within an individual.
          Ambar Cuevas in "Gratia Incarnare by Jonny Wisan

Jonny Wisan presents a spiritual narrative, Linda Maxwell depicts the history of jazz dance, and Sharon Butcher evokes her family’s Appalachian history.
Ashley Carillo, Kassie Guimapang in "It's the Rhythm" by Linda Maxwell

A silent auction will be held on the second Saturday of the run (April 16) to help support the dance program and especially to cover expenses of participating in the regional dance conference. “The spring dance concert and the American College Dance festival are the two most important things that this program does,” said dance director Sharon Butcher.

SOMA SPIRITU: The Dances

  
Until We Are Lost

Choreographer: Megan Newbold

A journey through confusion and loss of self into renewal and self-discovery-- “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” (Henry David Thoreau) 

"Megan is our exchange student from England. She has been a lovely addition to our program-- we love her energy and her talent. This dance was the result of making movements to images and concepts inspired by this quote."--Sharon Butcher, dance program director

“magna feminam artifex”

Choreographer: Claire Patterson

A postmodern work grappling with the institutionalized sexism of the art world, as well as the more general societal constraints forced upon women throughout time.

"The adjudicators at the western regional American College Dance Festival raved about this solo by Claire Patterson. They loved everything about it—her use of gesture, the imagery evoked by her choice of costume, and her treatment of the subject.  They selected this dance as one of the top ten dances in the western United States."
     Megan Newbold, Lisa Drew, Kassie Guimapang, Lauren Baker, Emily Mensing

Irresolution

Choreographer: Moira Winchell

A contemporary work capturing the hesitancy and conflict felt by one who is ready to move onward, yet is reluctant to release the comfort and familiarities of  past and present. 

"Moira is a dance major from Portland, Oregon.  The concepts she used in building movement material for this dance are very familiar to a lot of college juniors and seniors."
    
Impulse

Choreographer: Lauren Baker

A blend of classical ballet and contemporary movement. It is an abstract exploration of the music, the movement and shape potential of the human body, and of the stage designs possible within group choreography.

 “Lauren is a beautiful dancer with strong ballet training. She explores how a dance can use time, rhythm and space in a well-crafted composition, danced beautifully by her dancers.”
   Bekah Staub, Ginger Greenlee, Lisa Drew, Nathalie Mostrel, Kassie Guimapang, Moira Winchell

Idiosyncrasy 

Choreographer: Emily Mensing

A contemporary piece that juxtaposes outlandish movement against formal, classical music. The over-the-top, pompous attitudes of the dancers add more than a touch of hilarity. 

"Emily came up with some really interesting, creative movement.  Her sense of humor started to come through in her movement invention.  The music brings out the absurdity--it's a brilliant combination."
    Claire Patterson, Austin Silavong, Sarah Martin, Ginger Greenlee, Emily Mensing.

Passing Through

Choreographer: Lisa Drew

Focusing on the concept that society is continually consumed with time and explores how challenging it can be to break away from that fixation. 

"This is another dance that judges at the American College Dance festival raved about.  Lisa identified a theme and explored it thoroughly, resulting in a really strong composition with exciting movements."

                                               Ambar Cuevas

Gratia Incarnare

Choreographer: Jonny Wisan

Danced from the perspective of the Virgin Mary, it alludes to three significant events: the Annunciation of the Angel, the Crucifixion, and the death of Christ.

"Jonny Wisan is Humboldt County born and raised.  He's a multi-talented singer, actor and dancer.  He has a strong spiritual faith and is dedicated to his church and his church community, which inspired him to create this dance."

    Emily Mensing, Moira Winchell, Bekah Staub, Gino Bloomberg, Myranda Dominguez

 Self-Refraction

Choreographer: Kassie Guimapang

An emotionally-driven dance based on the internal struggle that seems to split a person apart. It is through the transformative powers of love, support, and kindness that we are made whole again. 

"Kassie is a dancer and performer who radiates on the stage, and knows what to do with the attention.  She's very athletic, and this shows up in her dance.  It has strong athleticism, and good use of lifting and partnering."
                                  Ashley Carillo, Kassie Guimapang

It's The Rhythm… ( Jazz Through The Ages)

Choreographer: Linda Maxwell

 An historical look at jazz dance, from the 1920's to current times, with emphasis on various syncopated rhythms used in the Jazz style.

"Linda is well known and well loved as a jazz and ballet teacher, and a choreographer for many local musicals.  She brings her vast experience in the dance entertainment field to this suite of shorter segments exploring jazz rhythms."
    front: Ayanna Wilson, Kassie Guimapang. back: Lisa Drew, Lauren Baker, Ginger    Greenlee, Kimberly Henderson, Emily Mensing,

Roots and Tubers

Choreographer: Sharon Butcher

 "One of my earliest memories of my mom was watching her getting ready to go square-dancing. These are two sections of a five dance suite, inspired by my Appalachian roots, and all the potato farmers, railroad men, coal miners, barn dancers and the many colorful characters who blossomed on my family tree. My mom was the last of the generation that lived on the family homestead, connected to all these past generations. She passed this January. So this is dedicated to my mom, Mildred."

Monday, February 29, 2016

February 2016: Jungalbook

The gym teacher—a big bear of a man—surveys his fourth and fifth graders at recess, inert and buried in smart phones and laptops on their battered schoolyard. He challenges them to enter a jungle of imagination, to take on the roles of animals and the young human foundling raised by wolves, who faces life and death decisions, and the future. 

So begins the HSU production of Edward Mast’s prize-winning play Jungalbook, a family drama with comedy and magic based on tales from Rudyard Kipling’s famous The Jungle Book

Jungalbook is performed by HSU students in the Van Duzer Theatre on Friday and Saturday, February 26 and 27 at 7:30 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday evenings, March 3-5, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday March 6. Tickets are $10 general/$8 students and seniors, with a limited number of free tickets for HSU students at each performance, from the HSU Ticket Office (826-3928) or at the door. Produced by HSU Department of Theatre, Film & Dance.

Media: Eureka Times Standard Urge Magazine, Mad River Union, Humboldt State Now

Friday, February 12, 2016

Packed with action, comedy and magic, unfolding in short, fast-paced scenes, the Jungalbook story centers on the coming of age of Mowgli (played by Camille Borrowdale), a human baby left in the jungle but saved by the panther Bagheera (Bryan Kashon), who bargained with Akela, the leader of the wolf pack (Hanah Toyoda), to protect and raise the infant.
Matthew Hern, Camille Borrowdale, Jenna Donahue.  All actors are HSU students.
Now Mowgli is ten, befriended by Baloo the bear (Matthew Hern) but endangered by the tiger Sherakhan (Jenna Donahue.)  Other animals--elephant, python, monkey, vulture and hyena--populate her world, as she learns the laws of the jungle.  Mowgli faces questions of identity, and whether the jungle or the human village will be her home.
Other themes include loyalty, trust, friendship and dealing with fear. Moving the jungle to “the blackboard jungle” also focuses a contemporary issue: “One of the major themes of the play is bullying,” said director and new HSU Theatre, Film & Dance professor Troy Lescher.
“There are a lot of light moments in the play, moments of joy and humor and pleasure,” Lescher said. “But also some heavy and darker moments, and surprises. The jungle is a place of adventure but also of danger. That’s one reason this play appeals to young and old.”
Jungalbook runs about 75 minutes. In addition to public performances, more than 600 students from Eureka, Arcata and McKinleyville elementary (grade 3 and higher), middle and secondary schools will attend a special show on the morning of March 2.

Jungalbook: Our Cast and Production

The Cast

Baloo: Matthew Hern
Bagheera: Bryan Kashon
Sherakhan: Jenna Donahue
Mowgli: Camille Borrowdale
Akela: Hanah Toyoda
Grab: Roman Sanchez
Hathi: Elio Robles
Grey: Ivan Gamboa
Kaa: Rilo DeAnn
Perchy: Ashlyn Mather
Chill: Josh Banuelos
Hyena/Baby Buffao: Isabella Ceja

Production

Director: Troy M. Lescher
Scenic Designer: Derek Lane
Lighting Designer: James McHugh
Assistant Lighting Designer: Makenna Baker
Costume/Hair Designer: Alexander Stearns
Sound Designers: Derek Lane, Cory Stewart
Props/Puppet/Mask Designer: Sydnee Stanton
 Production Manager: Derek Lane
 Assistant Director: Heidi Voelker
 Assistant Director: Heather Karns
 Stage Manager: Jillian Park

Assistant Stage Managers: Sarina Rodriguez, Sammi Stowe



Light Board Operator: Kai Lassen
 Sound Board Operator: Cate Hatfield
 Head Dresser: Sarah Haley Burfoot
 Hair/MakeUp Crew: Connie Hill
 Costume Shop Manager:Catherine Brown
Sound/Projections/Lighting Manager:Pablo Midence
 Prop Shop Manager: Emma Lubin
 Scene Shop Manager: Jayson Mohatt

Administrative Support: Debra Ryerson, Lorraine Dillon
Photography: Kellie J. Brown
Publicity/site copy & design: Bill Kowinski

Jungalbook: The Director

Director Troy Lescher
As the HSU production of Jungalbook got closer to opening night, the cast was working on fight choreography and brushing up on their drumming for a percussive moment. Director and new HSU Theatre, Film & Dance department professor Troy Lescher paused to talk about what audiences could expect.

 “There’s a lot of action,” he said. “In our staging, scenes are short and fast. There are a lot of light moments in the play, moments of joy and humor and pleasure, but also some heavy and dark moments. The jungle is a place of adventure but also of danger. That’s one reason this story appeals to young and old.”

 New audiences can be captivated by the characters coming to grips with themes of loyalty, identity, friendship and coping with fear. But older audiences can share in the discovery. “We sort of know what The Jungle Book stories are,” Lescher said, “and we sort of don’t.”

 “It’s also a play that has fantasy and magic in a realistic setting,” he said, “so it’s a challenge to create that with lighting and sound and transforming the space.”

 Using the startling premise of Edward Mast’s script (and all of his words), the play is set in a contemporary playground. But Lescher also devised a framing story that provides a rationale for skeptical adults, and especially skeptical kids.

 “Our story begins with a group of fourth and fifth graders, all in drab school uniforms, during recess in an urban schoolyard. The recess monitor, a PE teacher, notices that they are so absorbed in technology that they aren’t engaging with one another, and they aren’t using their imaginations."

" So he gets the idea of sending a jolt of electricity into the playground by involving them in an activity called The Jungalbook. The students discover pieces of clothing in the ‘lost and found’ container, and use them to inhabit various animals in the story. And that’s how human characters transform into the animal characters.”

 The main character is Mowgli, who starts out believing she is a wolf, then wonders if she is a bear, before deciding what kind of a human she will be. Although Mowgli is a young boy in The Jungle Book stories and the Jungalbook script, she’s a girl in the HSU production, played by Camille Borrowdale.

 “For most of the parts, gender isn’t specified,” Lescher said. “Once I cast the antagonist—the tiger Sheracon—with a female actor (Jenna Donahue), I thought it made sense to cast a woman as the protagonist as well. From a storytelling perspective, that works better.”

 “Also, one of the major themes of the story is bullying, and although we sometimes think that young men do all the bullying, research has shown that young women do as much, but in different ways.”

 As a theatre actor, Troy Lescher was following a fairly conventional path. From elementary school and high school in his hometown of Bloomington, Illinois, he performed in the usual plays and musicals. He continued on that path in college at the University of Virginia. But then he won a job as the performing mascot—the Virginia Cavalier—and everything began to change.

“I was one of three young men who performed at football and basketball games, wearing that costume and a huge mask on my head.” Some of the actor’s primary tools—words, voice and facial expressions--were gone. “I began to embrace physical acting work, where it’s more about the body as a communication tool in storytelling. That got me into clowning.”

 After college he moved to New York City, interned with a clown troupe and became a street performer. He clowned at corporate gigs, took a one-person puppet show to public schools and libraries, all while acting in off-off Broadway shows and pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts at Brooklyn College.

 He started teaching during his nine years in New York, and completed his doctorate in Texas with a dissertation on clown training. “I was still drawn to movement work,” he said. “It’s amazing what our bodies can tell an audience.”

Cavalier Troy 
Lescher couldn’t account for his interest in theatre. “My father was a truck driver, my mother was a hair stylist. How I wound up in this I don’t know.” It was only much later that he learned his maternal grandfather had performed for awhile—as a clown.

 While his wife began teaching English at CR, Troy started his latest gig--as an assistant professor in the HSU Theatre, Film & Dance department—and almost immediately, as the director of Jungalbook.

 That process began with concept meetings with designers in September, and auditions in November. Then the havoc of an academic schedule came into play. “There are lots of breaks in this period—Thanksgiving, Christmas, semester break and a week when everybody goes to the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Plus finals. So what’s normally a six or seven week rehearsal period is spread out over six months.”

 But that did provide opportunities for actors to go deeper into the story and their characters, on their own. After early weeks analyzing the text and building an ensemble, Lescher gave them some homework, relevant to the physical acting they were learning.

Most would be portraying animals--not only the bear, tiger, wolves and panther that drive the main story, but also elephant, python, monkey, hyena, vulture and buffalo.  “I asked each of them to screen four or five Youtube or National Geographic videos of the animal they were going to play, to zero in on postures, style of movement, respiratory patterns, the sounds of their animals, so we could incorporate this into their acting work.”

 He also asked them to read the appropriate pages of Animal Speak, a popular book by Ted Andrews about animal totems. “The book talks about individual animals, what they represent, the energies they give off and their connection to the world. I asked them to read the sections that apply to their animal, to give them an idea of that animal’s significance, what makes it unique. I wanted them to develop respect, and fall in love with their characters.”

 Inhabiting their characters physically provided student actors with insights beyond this play. “Teachers talk about ‘the light bulb moment’ when students suddenly understand an important idea. I love to see when actors do something with their bodies or voices or even their emotions, when they make an acting choice that surprises them—and they realize ‘That was in me, and I just found it.’”

 Lescher is eager to experience how they apply these insights to performing Jungalbook. “I want to empower them as storytellers. And that’s what I tell them—it’s your story, you’re the ones who will go on stage and share this tale with the audience. I hope they will enjoy and embrace every moment they have on stage. The run is over in just a couple of weeks, and I hope they own and embrace every moment along the way.”

 “So I’m excited to pass the torch to the students come opening night, and see them run with this thing--and blow the doors off. Because that’s what we should be doing.”