Butterfly hunting and an imaginary abacus

The School of Drama’s strictly structured program, although effective, affords little time for its students to create their own theatrical productions. It was in response to this need that Elizabeth Bradley, director of the School of Drama, worked with her staff to create PLAYGROUND four years ago.

“PLAYGROUND is an opportunity for students to create performance or participatory experiences,” said Bradley. “It is, in theory, something that allows students to deeply express their own interests and creativity. It is very personal and honest.”

PLAYGROUND is an annual event that takes place over the period of a week, during which students from the School of Drama may explore experimental ideas, create original works, and enlist the aid of others to create cooperative, interdisciplinary groups to work on various projects. The event is a major break from the curriculum.

PLAYGROUND pieces have a 45-minute time limit, and no faculty members may participate unless directly invited to do so by a student. No awards are given to the pieces, so that the week’s creative spirit is not undermined by competition. There is no budget; the students must create or personally produce all props, platforms, sets, ideas, and performances. Moreover, there is a time constraint: the production process may not begin until the week of PLAYGROUND.

“We wanted to demonstrate that we also fostered and valued impulses for innovation,” said Bradley. “[We wanted] to highlight the students’ interests and be experimental, allow them to take self-devised work and own it in a particular way.”

Life Out of Balance

Life Out of Balance was the product of Lydia Fine and Molly McCurdy, two first-year design majors in the drama program. It was a walk-through piece with dim, blue lighting, the play capturing the typical rush of daily life in the city. The buildup was singularly affecting, including frantic repetitions of numbers, calls for order placements, and appointments made and missed. Actors barked their lines and made sharp movements in staccato rhythm, accentuating the single-mindedness of their devotion to their capitalist-based jobs.
There were five separate stations in which various, heightened scenarios were given: about making appointments, feeling frantic about a missing order, and other related avenues of capitalist activity. Each station gave out papers with facts about waste such as, “North Americans throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour.” The title of the piece matched the acting, but the acting did not have a very clear connection to the garbage facts. The point could have been better brought to light.

The Bride and the Butterfly Hunter

Translated from Hebrew to English from the original play by Nissim Aloni, the surrealistic The Bride and the Butterfly Hunter debuted by first-year directing major Gahl Pratt. Set in a garden (complete with classical background music), the play contained two characters: a once-a-week almost-butterfly hunter, and a bride whose groom seems to have gone AWOL. Watching the pair interact created a strange dynamic in which reality was distorted and the concepts of freedom, personal desires, and general discontent pulsated.

The best kinds of stories are those that contain the potential for multiple interpretations, and this was precisely of that kind. It was a piece in which resonating human yearning and social conventions filled in as the protagonist of the buried, extended metaphor of the play. Bride also seemed to have vague allusions to more political situations including the situation in Israel, but the abstraction was difficult to reconcile with reality.

Falling Into Place

Falling Into Place was a more musical piece, performed by a handful of first-year musical theater majors. The sung pieces were all written and accompanied by Sean Pallatroni, a first-year at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music, and primarily addressed relationships and the struggle to figure out the metaphorical “next step” in life. Topics of indecision included murder, divorce, heartbreak, reconciliation, and wonderment at the nature of love. Though there were especially strong performances by Skye Scott and Sophia Feldman, with the exception of two or three songs, the music mostly consisted of variations of the same melody. Though the songs sounded similar, the sounds of the voices gave new texture to the feelings evoked by the songs. The melding of these contrasting voices brought decisive closure during the finale through the use of a multi-part suspension (when only some vocalists shift chords).

A Heart Full of Milk or The Tale of the Captive Muse

The most absurdly entertaining play during PLAYGROUND was A Heart Full of Milk or The Tale of the Captive Muse, by Sam Trussell, a sophomore acting major in the School of Drama. Wickedly funny, the play was read from the script with a somewhat-improvised cast after the lead actor fell ill. The recasting and slight troubles with props (in which the audience was required to “use their imagination” for certain objects, like abacuses and raccoons) did little to detract from the play.

The naivéte of a 25-year-old child, the repressiveness of an overly doting, psychotic mother, and the mysterious Closet-Man combined forces to create an off-beat, hilarious, and wild production. The material was fresh and original, with funny lines regarding misconceptions about skin pigmentation (a satirical reflection of racism). “Pigmentation equals sin,” said Mother fondly to her son, Sylvester. There was rich imagery, which included dreams about moons and suns. The delivery was not free of faults but the actors handled the imperfections well; they either created the illusion that the mistakes were intended or used them to curry more favor from the audience.

Tickets to all PLAYGROUND pieces were free, and schools outside of the School of Drama are encouraged to view not only PLAYGROUND shows but also those put in production throughout the school year. Some PLAYGROUND pieces have traveled outside of Purnell and have been reproduced and performed in other places. Life in Plastic, a piece about women and their idealized roles throughout American history, was performed in New York City, while The Salesman, a salute to American silent films, was reproduced in Los Angeles. The question remains — what else will go, and where?