All the world's a stage for Knox Rep Term students

February 08, 2007

Knox's Repertory Theatre term has been winning rave reviews in its 30 years. For the ten-week winter term students have the opportunity to transform Harbach Theatre into a conservatory setting with all of the business that is vital to operating a professional repertory theatre company.

Usually a repertory theater company is one that stages multiple scripts performed by one company of actors alternating the shows on a rotation basis.  Occasionally, though rarely, some companies take rep seasons on the road- for months at a time.

The days are long and the pay modest. Sounds like a crummy job, right? But for approximately 33 students, the ten-week term is "all the world" as Shakespeare said. The days are still long and the pay equates to college credit. They don't move from city to city, but with every moment scheduled, they can loose track of what day it is.

Knox offers Repertory Term every three years, and this year's Rep Term is the 14th since the program was co-founded in 1970 by Ivan Davidson and Robert Whitlatch, two Knox theatre professors, and former Professor Peter B. Young.

This year's Rep Term -company is producing 'The Madwoman of Challiot' by Jean Giraudoux, directed by Prof. Robert Whitlatch. 'Working,' a musical based on the book by Studs Terkel, is directed by Prof. Elizabeth Carlin-Metz, who has just finished directing a critically acclaimed production of Mother Courage and her Children at Vitalist Theatre in Chicago, where she serves as artistic director.

Every student works 15 hours a week on an assigned crew. The student's daily schedule starts with Seminar, a preparatory class that examines the critical context of the plays to be presented. Formal classes are also devoted to developing voice and movement "These classes give the students an understanding of the playwrights, the history, and the thematic relevance, of each play, and why the play was written," Choma says.  The voice and movement classes train the company in how to understand and use their bodies and voices as actors engaging a wide range of characters and texts.

The company is together daily during classes and on different crews. They get breaks at lunch and dinner, but they seem to gravitate towards each other in their downtime. "We will still find almost every Rep Term member sitting together in the cafeteria talking, laughing, eating, and sometimes singing," psychology and theatre major, Pamela Schuller '09, says.

The afternoon consists of voice and movement -- creating characters through physicality. The training helps each actor become comfortable with their characters as they move in a costume and master physical expression, and vocal characterization.

"I am actually engaged in my education in a practical and professional setting," theatre major and art history minor, Jessica Drew '07, says. Drew is not only in the cast of 'The Madwoman of Chaillot,' but she also serves as the play's associate costume designer.

Eric Feltes '08, an education and Spanish major, says, "Having honest friends as I do in Rep Term, makes it easy to point out what areas I need to work on ... We are all in a safe learning environment, and in order to utilize that environment, sometimes it is important to mess up."

Each student is assigned to a crew that they feel comfortable undertaking and that best utilizes their talents -- ranging from set construction, costumes, research or publicity. Students also select one other duty, an area of interest that is outside of their comfort zone.

Daily rehearsals start at 7 p.m. and the curtain does not drop until 11 p.m. "There are no free rides. Our evening work calls are for everyone. If one works, we all work," Choma says.

"We have learned from past shows the value of teamwork and we are all on the same page. We work and play together. But when we work, we work hard. And sometimes another student is telling us what to do, or teaching us what we need to know, but somehow it just works," Schuller adds.

The company builds two full set designs for the two shows, including set changes for different acts where called for. More than 100 costumes are needed for both shows, although every effort is made to design costumes that can accommodate both plays wherever possible. "That is enormous," Choma says.

"This is the type of theater I love -- cooperative, collaborative; everyone putting forth everything they have, putting it all together to create a living product that we all care about," Ariel Lauryn '08, a theatre major, says.

Sarah Bigus '09, a theatre and neuroscience major agrees. "When people can bring their best to rehearsals or production meetings, put it out there, and improve on it, it is a truly exciting thing. I feel myself being pushed, both onstage and off, which I feel is essential for growth."

"I have already changed tremendously, not only as an actor, but also as a person," Randy Geary '09 says. Geary is a cast member and costume crew head for 'The Madwoman of Chaillot.' "I have realized the true meaning of teamwork. I have learned to take full advantage of my leadership skills in achieving a common goal," he says.

"Theatre has the potential to train people with different life skills," Choma says. "If they are not pursuing theatre, and some of the students are pursuing other areas of study, the experience allows them to participate in their profession at a high level. This is expected of anyone who takes Rep Term."

Choma was a sophomore at Knox College when he enrolled in Rep Term No. VIII. "At the time Knox was one of four schools I was looking at. I didn't want a larger BFA university. The fact that Knox is able to have such a program during the academic school year -- providing students the chance to join a rep theatre during the year and for credit was, and still is, totally unique," he says.

Choma now has a leading role in Knox's theatre faculty. He has designed Rep Terms X, XI, XII, XIII and, now his sixth, Rep Term XIV, working on the set, lighting, and sound designs, "the technical director," he quips.

Although intense, Choma assures that the experience does not drive students into the ground. Communication is very important and the group has weekly company meetings where production timelines are discussed and assessment of issues that might be plaguing the students is addressed.

"Sometimes the schedules are so 'around-the-clock' that we remind everyone that hygiene can be a good thing and everyone needs to keep themselves healthy," he says.

As a student, Choma says that Rep Term was mysterious. "It was and is very exciting for the students. There is a bounty of energy going on. But, I enjoy this side more. I love teaching. We see these students when they come in and then how much they have grown when they leave. It is a good feeling knowing that I have had an impact."

"I feel that Rep Term has encouraged me to let myself go and envelop myself in my craft," Geary says. Drew agrees. "Rep Term is one of the top three reasons why I came to Knox. It's truly extraordinary to be able to graduate with an excellent liberal arts education having had the opportunity to experiment and create in a rigorous conservatory setting. Absolutely priceless!"

The plays are performed in nightly rotation and run for nine days, just as they might in a professional repertory theatre.

Madwoman of Chaillot
7:30 p.m. February 22, 24, 27 and
2:30 p.m. March 3
Harbach Theatre, Ford Center

7:30 p.m. February 23, 25, 28, March 2,
8:00 p.m. March 3
Harbach Theatre, Ford Center

Adam McDowell '08, rehearses his lines during a working rehearsal.

The different crews spend their afternoons building, sewing and planning.

Eric Feltes '08 studies backstage. Each student is assigned to a crew that they feel comfortable and that best utilizes their talents. Students also select one other duty, an area of interest that is outside their comfort zone.

Jess Drew'07 keeps both feet firmly planted at the wall of shoes in the costume department.