All of Harvard's a Stage

From backstage, I can hear only the rustle of papers and the clatter of metal chairs against the hollow risers. Through the cracks in the set, I peer first with one eye, then the other, only to glimpse slits of faces that sharpen into focus and then become unfamiliar and disappear. I have to wipe my sweaty palms on my wool sweater and try to slow my breathing. Of course, now I have to go to the bathroom. Not now...please? Suddenly, I am enveloped in a blackness that startles me into readiness. I grab the hand that is desperately offered to me, and am hurriedly scurried into more blackness as the clanging of chords on a rickety piano signals my entrance into another world, the world of Skid Row. The lights go up, but bright as they are, they do not blind me. I am still aware of lines of faces with all their eyes on me. But those faces must remain a blur to me now, for the show begins.

So went my first experience performing in a Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club production. I played Crystal, a "doo-wop" girl, in Little Shop of Horrors, the first of three productions staged during the summer-theater season in the Loeb Experimental Theatre (the "Ex").

The rehearsal and performance schedules were grueling. For two weeks, we practiced in suffocating music rooms or the frigid dance studio at the Loeb Drama Center, desperately attempting to piece the musical together in time for opening night. We then went on to perform 19 shows. My quiet, relaxing summer in Cambridge melted away--for one hectic month I was at the theater until 10:30 every night.

But my whimsical decision to participate in Harvard summer theater allowed me to experience a thriving aspect of undergraduate life. Of course, there was no need to juggle course work and additional extracurricular commitments, a balancing act that most of my fellow performers managed during the academic year. The play was our sole passion, however short-lived or long-lasting this burst of theatrical energy turned out to be. Admittedly, well before the end of our run, my thrill at hearing the applause had abated somewhat, particularly when the roar I thought I heard on opening night dwindled to a few smatterings of clapping hands. Not that this ever deterred us in our quest to entertain, to dazzle, and to thrill. Both the cast and the crew succeeded in establishing a rhythm, a nightly ritual of emotional excitement that culminated in the rise of the curtain. The actors readied themselves for performance through a series of breathing exercises, vocal warm-ups, and energy boosters. I learned to rely on my fellow actors, as they relied on me. The frustrations of the day slid to the floor as we rolled our shoulders around and back, again and again, relieving tension, inviting relaxation, building vital nervousness and energy.

Of the eight members of the cast of Little Shop, I was the dabbler. Even though I had participated in the odd musical and a Shakespearean comedy in high school, I was only vaguely familiar with the performance ritual, and had never counted theater among my true passions. Every other individual--from the other doo-wop girls to the plant--intended to pursue a career on the stage. And not just casually: Harvard students involved in theater are not simply "interested" in singing or acting. To a remarkable degree, pursuing theater at the College means making a definite commitment to the tradition of drama and the community of artists that Harvard has developed and nurtured. It is a commitment that dozens of undergraduates make, with an intensity every bit as encompassing as that shown by students who participate in varsity athletics, comp the Crimson, or follow the pre-med track.

The Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) is the parent organization for theater productions performed at the College. Each year, under the auspices of the HRDC, four student productions are put up on the Loeb's main stage, and 16 more in the Ex. The HRDC also oversees many of the shows produced in Radcliffe's Agassiz Theatre and the undergraduate Houses. In addition, specialized theater groups operate under the HRDC umbrella, including On Thin Ice, Harvard's 13-year-old improvisational comedy team, and Calling It Rape, a theater troupe that explores date and acquaintance rape for audiences at local high schools and colleges.

To select the necessary on-stage talent, each production or troupe holds auditions during Common Casting, a system that allows Harvard and Radcliffe performers to try out for four months' worth of productions--some opening less than a month after being cast--during the first week of classes each semester. This fall, aspiring performers filled the Ex from six p.m. to midnight. Some rehearsed audition songs and monologues, some performed breathing exercises or did jumping jacks, but all strained in unison to hear their names called for the auditions they had signed up for--as many as eight in just a few hours.

Among the more than 250 students who tried out for 20 shows during Common Casting was Chloe Cockburn '01, who had already auditioned for 10 shows by Thursday evening, when I talked to her. "This is less stressful than other auditions that I've been to," Cockburn assured me. "Unlike other systems, it's not an open audition. The only people who watch you and listen to you are the ones that need to be there, like the director and the producers. No one else is there to assess his or her competition. Actually, everyone supports one another through the process." Jim Augustine '01 had a bleaker first impression of theater life at Harvard. "That was the most evil thing I've ever done," he moaned, mouth agape and eyes glazed after his On Thin Ice audition. He must have come across as funnier than he feared: he eventually captured one of four coveted spots in the improv group.

In addition to devoting most of their extracurricular time to the theater, many Harvard students have successfully channeled their love of drama into the classroom as well. Marisa Chandler '99, who won the lead female roles in both West Side Story and The Fantasticks in her first two years at Harvard, has chosen English as her concentration. When she thinks about balancing her academic concerns with her desire to become a professional actress, Chandler finds role models in women such as Jodie Foster and particularly Mira Sorvino '89, who won an Academy Award in 1996 for her performance in Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite. "These women are taken seriously, because they have proven that they are intelligent and that they can perform," Chandler notes. "That is part of the reason I decided to go to Harvard instead of to a conservatory to earn a performing arts degree. I became an English concentrator because the department allows for a focus on the theater arts. I can take classes on Shakespeare, the history of theater, and modern drama, and I'd eventually love to take a course on play writing."

But there are also a substantial number of Harvard thespians who come from fields as far removed from the humanities as the natural sciences or mathematics. Daniel J. Goor '97, for example, plans to attend Columbia Medical School in the fall of 1998. While at Harvard, he was actively involved in HRDC productions, and this past May received the Jonathan Levy Award, which recognizes the most promising male or female actor at the College. Goor was continually balancing his involvement in drama with rigorous work in biochemistry, sometimes even on stage and in the middle of a performance. "I was playing a statue in The Murder of Crows, and my costume consisted of a pair of Speedos and full gold body paint," he recalls. "I had to stand still for 40 minutes as gold paint slowly dripped down my body and dried on my face. From the first second the lights came up, I itched and itched, but I couldn't scratch myself. I couldn't do anything but stand there. I had a biochemistry test the week we opened, so while I brilliantly imitated a statue, I tried to remember every amino acid's chemical formula. This was a pretty decent method of study, except that I could never pick up a textbook to see if I was right."

How do these self-disciplined actors judge the quality of their work, in the absence of letter grades or test scores? Chandler relies upon her audience as the appropriate gauge of her success as an actor. "For me, acting is not as much about myself as it is about the people watching me," she says. "I strive to make them leave the theater understanding the emotion I wanted to convey. I want to touch them, to make them different people." Paul Siemens '98, who has already performed in an astounding 17 shows during his undergraduate career, agrees. "At the very least, theater here is just great fun; but at its maximum potential, theater can become a profound way of communicating with others," he maintains. "In those not-so-rare moments of connection, actors and stage technicians help share an experience with the audience. And when the audience leaves having been touched, and having learned something about human nature, the theater reveals its magic."

As I have learned from my own fleeting moments in the spotlight, there is a certain magical quality about dramatic performance, which few other pursuits may boast: it is the opportunity to escape into another world, to play some other part. Although I will never pursue a career on the stage, what inevitably draws me back to the magic is the chance to shed wholly the mundane obligations of class and work, and to travel back and forth through time and space into a realm of fantasy that I have not been able to touch since my earliest childhood. What can be so alluring about the theater is this interaction with the fantastic, that electric shimmer that hangs in the air on opening night. That allure, however expressed, has worked its magic on thousands of Harvard undergraduates, and will continue to keep the curtain rising on Harvard productions for many seasons to come.

Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellow Tara B. Purohit '99 is studying history and literature and lives in Dunster House. A former member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Opportunes, she is now exploring the production aspect of theater through music and vocal direction.

Read more articles by: Tara B. Purohit
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