Young alumni making careers in the performing arts share the lessons they learned on the stages and in the spaces of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, which is now entering its second decade.
Lauren Hester ’07 still recalls the intense process of developing and staging four original plays the fall of her senior year as part of Theatrical Self-Production. The course explored the successes and failures of contemporary theater ensembles, and then students created a company of their own to mount the productions. “We were left to create our own content,” she says, “to explore several methods of devising.”
Their canvas was the CenterStage, a black-box theater in the newly opened (at the time) ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance. The students were encouraged to make use of the entire space, including rigging and movable balconies and seating, to maximize audience interaction. They took turns serving in administrative, artistic and production roles.
Spike Friedman ’07, who was in the self-production class with Hester, says it was “the closest thing to real-world preparation in theater-making that I can imagine being offered in an academic setting.”
It also led directly to the creation of the Satori Group, a Seattle-based theater ensemble founded in part by Hester, Friedman and four other classmates shortly after their graduation. The group has since presented some 20 works in various stages of development—most of them original, and nearly all in Seattle. These include Linedry, a haunting, nearly wordless performance set in the woods; Microdramas, a series of intense theatrical “experiences” intended for one audience member at a time; and Returning to Albert Joseph, an experimental play about love and language that had a two-day run at the ’62 Center in September.
With plans in the works for a national tour of Albert Joseph, and increasing recognition outside of Seattle, where the ensemble is a darling of the arts-friendly press, Satori is poised to enter its second act. Its members are just some of the young alumni who benefited from the ’62 Center and are now making names for themselves in the arts world.
Actor and writer Donald Leungo Molosi ’09 splits his time between the U.S. and his native Botswana, where he founded a theater company, writing and performing in solo shows. Scenic designer Cate McCrea ’13 is developing an impressive portfolio that began with student productions and a career-launching internship at Williams. And experimental artist Randy Reyes ’14 is creating, performing and teaching in Berlin, Germany; Olmue?, Chile; New York, N.Y.; and West New York, N.J.
For these alumni and many more, the ’62 Center has been an incubator, a lab and an inspiration.
The Satori Group was founded in 2007 by six Ephs and five graduates of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music with the goal of generating new work “with an eye toward audience experience,” as the company’s website states. They started out in Cincinnati, where their first production, iLove, won Producer’s Pick at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. A second production, rsvp, premiered at the festival in 2008.
Satori then set out to find a permanent home, choosing Seattle for its vibrant theater scene and affordable, incubator-like spaces. For a time members worked for free, each donating monthly dues to cover the cost of rehearsal space and provide seed money for the group’s first regional work, Tragedy, in 2009.
Today, the group has a core company of 11, including seven Williams alumni. There are also 10 associate artists. Many Williams students have spent summers working at Satori, and some, like Liza Curtiss ’10 and Quinn Franzen ’09, are now core members.
Much of Satori’s philosophy is deeply rooted in its founders’ Williams experiences. The company encourages ideas, no matter their origin. Developing those ideas takes time—years, in some cases—with audiences invited to view and participate in the process.
Albert Joseph, Satori’s most recent work, has been in development for five years. “The look, feel, aesthetic and means to tell the story all derive from the work of our ensemble and guest artists,” says Friedman, who was an economics and theater major at Williams. “Large chunks of the show transpire wordlessly. The movement and look of those moments was first scored in a workshop back in Seattle with Satori company members and codified with the group in Williamstown.”
The ensemble makes use of its Seattle headquarters in the sprawling [email protected] much in the way its members used the ’62 Center as students.
“We were encouraged, as soon as we entered the ’62 Center, to think of every inch of the building as usable space, and I enjoyed my time on those brand new stages,” says Hester, who was an English and theater major, referring to the flexible CenterStage, the MainStage proscenium theater, the Dance Studio and the renovated Adams Memorial Theatre (AMT). “But we learned so much by staging scenes for act- ing or directing class in the dressing rooms, on the catwalks above the theaters and in every little niche we could find. We use that immersive audience experience in our work to this day.”
Satori maintains a close relationship with Williams through artistic residencies, alumni events and the work of founding member and artistic director Caitlin Sullivan ’07. Sullivan, who was a political science and theater major, also serves as artistic director of the college’s Summer Theatre Lab, a seven-week program at the ’62 Center that immerses students in every aspect of stage production.
The summer lab has transformed theater education at Williams, says Robert Baker-White ’80, theater department chair. In the past, faculty and students cleared out of the Adams Memorial Theatre in the summer to make way for the Williamstown Theatre Festival. But the 160,000-square-foot ’62 Center has plenty of space for students to remain on campus, “functioning as a company and producing their own work” as well as helping theater professionals participating in the lab to develop their own projects, Baker-White says.
Sullivan says the Summer Theatre Lab has made her a “fierce believer in the potential of academic institutions as an incubator for new theater and performance.”
“Students get exposure to professionals working at the top of their craft,” she says. “They get to immerse themselves in the process of creating and producing art and build a network that will be invaluable when they enter the field. Artists get the incredibly rare opportunity to develop work free from commercial or critical pressure. And Williams students’ curiosity, creativity, humility and work ethic make them a resource in the development process.”
Going Solo: Donald Leungo Molosi ’09
When Donald Leungo Molosi ’09 returned to the CenterStage in December 2012 to perform his one-man show Today It’s Me, the story of legendary Ugandan musician and AIDS activist Philly Lutaaya, it was a homecoming in the truest sense.
As a student on that stage, Molosi says he gained “a holistic appreciation of the creative process.” But Williams also gave him what he calls “the liberty to be a rounded human being.” Molosi began acting in high school in Botswana and at the Taft School in Connecticut. He chose Williams over a school of fine arts or conservatory program because he knew he wanted to major in political science in addition to theater.
But first he took a turn on Broadway as a lead in Damn Yankees in 2004. He also played supporting roles in the TV series Breakfast in Hollywood, which aired in 2006 and starred Paul Boocock, and the film Green Zone, which was released in 2010 and starred Matt Damon.
At Williams, Molosi deepened his understanding of writing and acting. Omar Sangare, a theater professor affiliated with the Africana studies program, “mentored me into professional solo performance,” Molosi says. In 2010 Sangare founded the United Solo Festival in New York City, billed as the world’s largest solo-theater festival.
That year, Molosi staged Today It’s Me at United Solo, performing all the live music and singing, and he was nominated for a Best Actor award. He then won United Solo’s Best Short Solo award in 2011 for Blue, Black and White, his play about Sir Seretse Khama (1921-1980), Botswana’s first president, which Molosi wrote in Sangare’s Solo Theatre course.
“The piece he wrote in class reached its presentation on 42nd Street, a dream address in show business,” Sangare says. “Seeing his dedication in my class years ago, I was immediately convinced that his commitment would help him achieve his artistic goals.”
Another one of Molosi’s solo shows, MOTSWANA: Africa Dream Again, a meditation on identity and the African continent, premiered at United Solo in 2012 and was scheduled again for November. He’s performed all three of his plays all over the world.
Certainly, Africa figures prominently in his work. In fact, after finishing a master’s degree in theater and performance studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he returned to his homeland to form the Folk Tale Theatre Company. Calling it the first fully professional theater company in Botswana, Molosi says it’s “changing lives because I am hiring people and enabling them to pursue their passions full time.”
Molosi’s own passions are “fragmented and transdisciplinary.” But conceiving of and performing in solo shows are his deepest loves.
“Performing live is difficult, and performing solo, live, is even more demanding, so I do solos partly because I want to challenge myself,” he says. “Unlike television or film, where you record your performances, on stage you get only one continuous take—and to do that solo and do it successfully is exhilarating. I love chasing that feeling.”
Designing A Career: Cate McCrea ’13
A Winter Study course on lighting design her freshman year set Cate McCrea ’13 on the path to becoming a freelance scenic designer in New York City.
The history and theater major loved the hustle and bustle of the ’62 Center, working late into the night on class projects and designing sets for student productions.
“Whether those shows were produced by a student theater group or the theater department, it was incredible to be able to put the things I learned in class into practice, go through a full production process and, ultimately, see my work in front of an audience,” she says. “Working in the ’62 Center as a student comes with a challenge—can you create work that will look good in and live up to the standards of that facility? The spaces themselves can push you to do your best work.”
For her senior honors thesis, McCrea designed the set for a production of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass, directed by theater professor David Eppel. Eppel served as her thesis adviser along with Marion Williams, a visiting professor who designs sets and costumes for theater, opera and dance across the country. The designer introduced McCrea to Neil Patel, an Obie Award- and Helen Hayes Award-winning production and set designer for the stage, feature films, opera and TV.
The introduction led McCrea to a two-month internship at Patel’s studio. She now regularly works with him as an assistant designer. Their credits together include Blueprints to Freedom, which opened at the LaJolla Playhouse in September, and The Civilians’ musical Pretty Filthy, which ran at the Abrons Arts Center in Manhattan in the spring. McCrea also assisted Williams scenic design professor David Gu?rc?ay-Morris ’96 on Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men at the Public Theater in 2014.
McCrea has been lead set designer for many shows herself, including Megan Campisi’s The Subtle Body, which the Gold No Trade Theater Company staged earlier this year in Manhattan, and the Satori Group’s productions of Returning to Albert Joseph in Seattle and Williamstown.
To ensure that more students have access to internship opportunities like McCrea’s, the ’62 Center recently unveiled a formal internship program as part of its CenterSeries. Over the summer, four professional artists who are scheduled to be in residence and perform at Williams during the 2015-16 season each hosted a Williams student on-site for a four- to five-week paid internship. The students then act as ambassadors for the performers when they arrive on campus.
McCrea now works on as many as four shows at a time. But she welcomes the pace because it gives her “a piece of everything.” She also finds it “a useful way to stay fresh on things” because she can “turn away from one thing, work on another and continue mulling problems at the same time.”
Between productions, she builds her composition and visual communication skills. She might attend a figure-drawing class or sketch a piece of sculpture on view at a museum. That way, she says, “when my busy time comes around again, I’m an even better designer than I was a couple of months earlier.”
Breaking Barriers: Randy Reyes ’14
As part of his senior thesis at Williams, Randy Reyes ’14 staged a gallery opening in his dorm room as a way of destabilizing the traditional gallery space. He opened PIELES, a queer nightclub, in the Spencer Studio Art Building’s Wilde Gallery to investigate how queerness is embodied on the dance floor. And he engaged a cast of dancers in a site-specific performance at various locations around campus.
He credits all this to a rare contract major in experimental dance and performance studies that took hold in the ’62 Center.
Reyes came to Williams via the QuestBridge National College Match, which helps low-income high schoolers gain admission and four-year scholarships to the nation’s most selective colleges. He was involved in dance at the Berkshire School but planned to study medicine.
At Williams, however, “I decided to follow my passion and intuition and allow my creative energy to become my drive,” Reyes says. “I felt the calling and social responsibility to create work that would have an impact on culture through my own respective history and truth via abstract, magical and artistic ways.”
Reyes found mentors in Sandra Burton, the Lipp Family Director of Dance, and Hana van der Kolk, a visiting artist who connected him with Tanzfabrik, a contemporary dance program in Berlin that Reyes attended as a junior.
The close relationships between students and faculty “put forward important examples of ways to work and to live as an artist,” Burton says. “As a faculty member, you listen hard to the direction a student believes in, but you also put things on the table that they never considered.”
Reyes was introduced to concepts such as experimental performance, improvisation, instant composition, performance art and site-specific work—with the ’62 Center providing a blank slate on which to build.
Says Erica Dankmeyer ’91, artist-in-residence in Williams’ dance department, “When you walk into the building, you feel you have to answer to it, to deliver its potential. That’s what the center is about.”
Reyes returned to Berlin after graduation for a SMASH intensive session in physical performance. From there he traveled to New York City’s Chen Dance Center, where he was artist-in-residence for the New Steps Series and collaborated with Malik Nashad Sharpe ’14 and Myya McGregory ’14 on Made With Organic Ingredients, presented in January.
Reyes then traveled to Olmue?, Chile, for a three-month session of KiM Post School of Visual Theater Dance (KiM is short for Kosmos in Movement). The program blends choreography, dance and performance with exploration of nature, Chinese medicine and how working on a farm affects participants’ creativity. Works were presented in locations including a beach and a mountaintop national park.
He’s now pondering graduate school while working on Barrio Cartography, to be performed soon in his hometown of West New York, N.J. Developed as a walking tour, Reyes hopes it will cultivate “centers of intimacy” that bring to life “a common cartography full of interweaving stories, histories and memories.”
Barrio Cartography, he says, is inspiring him to think about “the framework of the predominantly Latino immigrant community of West New York and how queer voices emerge and become visible.”
Connecting Performance to Curriculum and Community
Campus pathways lead into and through the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance. Its oversized glass windows offer views of what’s happening inside. And when its lobby doors are flung open, with people and light spilling out along Route 2, the building is “a billboard announcing culture, right as one enters town,” says Joe Thompson ’81, director of MASS MoCA in neighboring North Adams.
Over the years, the ’62 Center has collaborated in myriad ways with MASS MoCA and other cultural beacons in the region, including Jacob’s Pillow, the Clark Art Institute and the Williams College Museum of Art. They share spaces for shows and presentations, offer integrated programming around performances and exhibitions, and generally broaden the cultural reach of the Berkshires.
This kind of “creative R&D,” as Thompson puts it, is one of the artistic and competitive strengths of the region, and “the ’62 Center is one of our region’s primary destination attractions.”
That’s due in part to the Williamstown Theatre Festival. But long after the summer tourists leave, the ’62 Center continues forging connections among the curriculum, campus life and the community.
These connections can be found in A Marvelous Order, an opera about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs that debuts on the MainStage March 12 as part of the ’62 Center’s CenterSeries. It’s a collaborative work by composer Judd Greenstein ’01 and director Joshua Frankel ’02, with choreography by Will Rawls ’00 and a libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy K. Smith.
In January, Greenstein and Rawls will teach the Winter Study course Portrait of an Opera. Greenstein is also teaming up with music professor W. Anthony Sheppard to teach the spring-semester course Opera Since Einstein, and Rawls will teach Choreography. A panel discussion about staging urban environmental history, hosted by the Center for Environmental Studies and the Department of Anthropology, takes place on March 8. Sheppard is leading a post-performance Q&A.
The production will also be integrated into the curriculum at Mount Greylock Regional High School, with Rawls leading a performance class and a discussion of the pre- and post-industrial landscape of North Adams.
A Marvelous Order is just one of five CenterSeries productions for 2015-16 offering integrated programming for the campus and community. And it’s one of more than 130 individual events staged at the ’62 Center during the academic year.
That’s “several orders of magnitude” beyond what the college offered before the center opened in 2005, says Cosmo Catalano, technical supervisor, production manager and lecturer in theater. Back then, there might have been four or five theater department productions and one or two small touring groups or solo shows presented in the 40,000-square-foot Adams Memorial Theatre (AMT), summer home of the theater festival.
Now, the 160,000-square-foot building includes the 550-seat MainStage, a 150-seat configurable CenterStage, a Dance Studio and several production and design shops in addition to the 200-seat AMT. And with the addition of the Summer Theatre Lab, a seven-week program that immerses students in all aspects of theater-making, the ’62 Center is abuzz with activity year-round.
As a performance space, the ’62 Center attracts world-class artists including Ping Chong, the SITI Company, the Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company and the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The guest artists visit classes, offer workshops and participate in audience feedback sessions and Q&As.
“The CenterSeries brings in an amazing array of nationally and internationally known touring performance,” says Caitlin Sullivan ’07, artistic director of the Satori Group ensemble. “Consuming work is such an important part of being a young artist.”
Ken Keuffel, a writer specializing in the arts, is based in Winston-Salem, N.C.