A faculty director is taking cues from his student actors -- in both text and character development during rehearsal. At the same time, in the play itself, masters are taking orders from their servants. These "role reversals" are taking center stage in a Knox College theatre production.
The show that's turning two worlds upside down is an 18th-century French comedy, "The Island of Slaves," performed Oct. 28-31, 2015 in Knox's Harbach Theatre. Neil Blackadder, professor of theatre, is directing the production of his new translation of the play, written in 1725 by Pierre Marivaux.
Originally set in ancient Greece, the play depicts two masters forced to switch places with their servants -- servants become masters and vice versa -- after they're shipwrecked on an island. Marivaux's fictional island -- identified in the play as The Island of Slaves -- has been long occupied by a group of escaped slaves who created a new social order in which masters are put down and the lowest in society are raised to the top.
At the same time that the cast and crew are producing a play about a reversed order in society, Blackadder has empowered his students to take leading parts in developing the production, something often left up to the director.
"I was particularly excited about working on the translation with the students, and the students have been contributing to the approach we've taken to the different scenes," says Blackadder, who's translated numerous plays from French and German.
Four students, in particular, were put on the spot, when Blackadder gave them responsibility for developing their own characters.
"I took one character in the original and divided his lines among an ensemble of four 'islanders,' played by four students," Blackadder says." Using the lines they were given, the students had to develop their own characters in rehearsal."
"A lot has come out in rehearsal," Blackadder says. "Students will say 'what if we do this?" and 'I have an idea!' Sometimes I've said 'no,' and sometimes we use it. Today (in a production meeting) we were talking about one character who's always eating apples. It's funny, it's eccentric, and it was all the student's idea."
The students have found Blackadder's process surprising and challenging.
"Initially, I was a little concerned that all the ideas (suggested by the cast) would make the show cluttered, but it's worked out really well," says one of the "islanders," Peter Rule a first-year student from Colorado with extensive acting experience in high school. The Knox difference: "In high school theatre you are told exactly what to do," Rule says.
"I know that for myself, I can be indecisive," says another islander, Nabiha Mansoor. "In the beginning, I was clueless, but my castmates said that some of my lines sounded like a flight attendant who wants to organize and get things done. Based on that, I've been developing my character. It's been a learning experience," says Mansoor, a first-year student from Illinois.
"It's great to be part of a production where you're not sitting there every day, following one set path," says islander Parker Adams, a junior from Illinois. "Instead, you have to ask yourself, "What could I do to further develop my character? What could we do to further enrich the scene? It's definitely interesting and fun to be in a production where you have that kind of freedom."
Photos above and below: Cast and crew of The Island of Slaves, in rehearsal with director Neil Blackadder