CCM commissions a play about young people to give its students relevant acting experience

CCM commissions a play about young people to give its students relevant acting experience.

Apr 19, 2017 at 9:43 am
click to enlarge Brant Russell discusses a scene with sophomore Jacqueline Daaleman during a rehearsal. - Photo: Zeek Creative
Photo: Zeek Creative
Brant Russell discusses a scene with sophomore Jacqueline Daaleman during a rehearsal.

When college students major in theater, they’re trained to act like other people. Because many plays tell stories of mature adults, they need to learn to perform as older people — a little gray in their hair, lines on their faces. But if they’re serious about an acting career, once they graduate and start to pursue professional jobs at theaters, it’s not likely they’ll be cast beyond their natural age: There are plenty of 40-plus actors vying for work onstage.

Brant Russell, an acting professor at University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, had that simple revelation and he’s implemented several exciting and educational ways to address the situation. He’s commissioning plays about people ages 18 to 22 — the range of most college students — so CCM students can learn to act like other people their own age. He began teaching at the UC in 2013 and quickly brought forth his innovative ideas.

“I was a director and sometimes a writer in Chicago for about 10 years,” Russell says. “My wife and I decided to have a baby and I decided I better get a real job. I had the very good fortune to do a visiting professorship at Kenyon College, my alma mater. I was new to teaching but I actually loved it, so I put myself on the market and ended up at CCM. I’m really fortunate and lucky to have landed here.”

In the spring of 2015, he asked drama department chair Richard Hess if it would be possible to commission a young playwright to draft a play for CCM students.

“We were doing shows like Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet and Ah, Wilderness!, but we were not serving our students in two crucial, pedagogical ways,” Russell says. “The first was to give them a chance to play roles closer to who they are — physically, emotionally, socio-politically.”

Secondly, Russell sought to create an environment in which students could participate in a new-play development process in school. “If they move to New York or Chicago, new-play development is going to be a part of their career — it’s how they meet people, how they’re going to get cast, how they’re going to find a community,” he says. “I wanted to give them that experience here at UC.”

Hess, himself always drawn to innovation, loved the idea and Russell approached Gracie Gardner, who had been a student at Kenyon when he taught there. He had subsequently cast her in a New York production of Hedda Gabler that he directed there. He’d been impressed with several plays she had written.

“It’s really rather hard to find a person with a voice as an undergraduate,” he says. “She has a keen eye for structure and dramaturgy.”

Since graduating from Kenyon, Gardner has also been working in television on the TV show Mr. Robot, a series about 20-something computer hacker vigilantes coping with today’s world.

Gardner warmed quickly to the idea of a commission and wrote The Great Majority, a script that received a weekend-long workshop reading in the fall of 2015. A year ago, it was presented as a workshop production in CCM’s Cohen Family Studio Theater with memorized lines and stage blocking. Its fully staged world premiere happens Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the same theater.

Most of the current cast was not involved previously, Russell says. “That’s good for the students because it teaches them that sometimes you participate in a project at one level and you don’t participate in it at the next,” he says. “Students from last spring graduated. I’d love to have them back, but they’re not available. It’s also good for the students this spring to create a role they’ve seen somebody else do. They have to create it from their own perspective and their own set of skills and their own point of view.”

The Great Majority has a new title: Very Dumb Kids. It’s about the fallout among a group of young adults after a college friend, Sarah, is murdered while working as a correspondent in New Delhi. Sarah’s death causes each of them to reevaluate their own paths into adulthood, all while exploring how to live responsibly in a universe that often feels irresponsible.

“I’m very grateful to CCM for choosing to commission this play, particularly to Brant Russell and Richard Hess,” Gardner wrote in an email to CityBeat. “They took a chance on a play that began as a monologue about benevolence and the internet that I wrote back in 2014. The play is about being young and uncertain, and it has evolved over two years. Characters in this story change course mid-life and mid-sentence; they are idealists facing frightening realities. They are not ‘dumb’ at all, but they are tired of fighting so hard and so thanklessly to prove they are not.”

Russell has further institutionalized the new-play process as part of the CCM acting curriculum and broadened its impact by establishing a Playwrights Conference, having its second iteration June 12-17.

“We’ll have maybe 15 tuition-paying adult students from across the country spend the week with us,” he says. “They take morning workshop sessions with a dramaturg and observe the development process of a new play with me and playwright MJ Kaufman in the afternoons. In the evenings they have master classes with local Cincinnati artistic directors and writers and ‘Play Barn’ sessions in which they bring in pages to be read aloud by CCM acting students and discuss their work.”

The play that was developed during last year’s conference, The Earth is Flat by CCM grad Todd Almond, will be fully staged during CCM’s 2017-2018 theater season. (Almond is familiar to many Cincinnati theatergoers for his starring roles in productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and I Am My Own Wife at Ensemble Theatre a decade ago.)

Russell says it’s important that the results of these processes be at the highest level possible. The current product of Russell’s innovations might be a play about “very dumb kids,” but it’s actually a very smart move for the CCM Acting program.

VERY DUMB KIDS premieres Thursday and runs through Saturday at CCM’s Cohen Family Studio Theater. Admission is free but reservations are required. Call 513-556-4183 for tickets.