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The Revolution Begins Tomorrow!

March 4, 2009 at 2:43 pm
By Margaret Taylor '10

There’s a revolution afoot in Little Nourse Theater.  Fortunately, this revolution won’t involve the chopping off of anybody’s heads: it’s an entirely new style of creating a play, one done collaboratively by the actors, for the actors.

Tom Weishan ’09, Annelise Lawson ’09, and Chase Kimball ’10 call themselves the directors of this new theater troupe, The Revolution, but they aren’t directors in any traditional sense of the word.  It all started two years ago, in the spring term of Tom’s sophomore year, when the comedy troupe Schadenfreude visited campus from the Twin Cities.  Tom wanted to figure out a way to integrate the different comedic talents that are represented at Carleton.  “There’s a very fertile ground for comedy at Carleton.  We’re smart people, our minds act quickly,” says Annelise.  But the sort of people who are members of Cujokra, people who write for the 24-hour show, and people who do stand-up don’t necessarily interact with each other much.  Schadenfreude’s group-writing technique opened up an opportunity to invent a brand new group at Carleton that would bring people with all these diverse talents together.

That fall, Max Leibowitz ’08, Ali Reingold ’08, and Tom got together with a bunch of Carleton writers and actors to create a “gangly hybrid of a show,” a term-long process that finally culminated with the performance of The Bakersfield Box.  The Revolution’s first creation was an entirely student-made play about a group of inmates who band together and take up a collection to save their financially troubled prison.

The revolutionary part of the Revolution is that it aims to create a play without anybody ever writing a script.  “We’re creating a full-length play ex nihilo,” says Chase.  Sure, they could have obtained an amazingly good script from a playwright, but then they wouldn’t have had the right to make the play their own.  The Revolution approaches play-making from a totally different angle: one that starts with the people.

At the beginning of term, the three “directors” cast a group of dedicated students as writer/actors – there is no distinction between the two roles.  As a group they hold a massive brainstorming session.  “This is the most egalitarian production process,” says Chase.  Everybody may throw out ideas for the direction the play will take.  The story starts with the kernel idea of a place.  The members of the Revolution came up with 75 of them, then started weeding out ones that might be inappropriate.  They were looking for locations “we feel have the potential to create interesting relationships between people,” says Annelise.  And just because an idea isn’t used in the early phase of planning doesn’t mean it’s gone forever – real gems tend to have a way of floating back into side plots.

Then the Revolutionaries forget that the location-storming ever happened for a while and focus on creating characters.  They come up with sketches of people, then start taking on roles and interviewing each other in order to find out absolutely everything they can about these people, ranging from what they most hate to what they had for breakfast.  They want to know, says Chase, “Who’s compelling?  What would be interesting pairs?”  As the writer/actors bounce around ideas about what they could imagine these characters doing, the beginnings of a plot start to materialize.

There was a strong community vibe among the Revolutionaries at their eighth week rehearsal session.  Just a week away from the performance, they were almost done with the process of creating the play.  They went over it scene-by-scene from start to finish, smoothing out all of the plot points, and even at this late point, actors still popped in with suggestions.  One character ought to be speaking more out to the audience than to the other characters, for example, or that there ought to be more resolution to the conflict between these two guys.  The electric sort of rapport going on between the Revolutionaries is something that Annelise calls “group think,” where everybody on the team instinctively starts knowing what the other person is getting at, and the result, ideally, will be a really cool play.

The actors don’t work off of a script but a “beat sheet,” an outline that lists all the things that need to happen in each scene.  The beats can be quite specific, such as “I pick up the chair to help her out,” or just “Pete doing something crazy.”  The beat sheet evolves as the term goes on – the actors improvise scenarios, and whenever they hit upon something really good, they take note of it.  “Jokes develop out of thin air,” says Tom.  The sheet is currently at 4.5 pages long and constantly changing.  Because they work off of a framework of things that need to happen, not actual lines, no one performance of the play is exactly like the next.  “There will be jokes on opening night that don’t happen again,” says Tom.

 Making a play from scratch like this takes a lot of dedication.  The directors estimate that the team has been meeting for about eight hours a week, all term, to rehearse.  “Even when you’re not in practice, you’re thinking about it,” says Annelise, planning out cooler character interactions or smoother jokes.  Some of the Revolutionaries have started having dreams about the play, and Tom jokes that he can’t wait to sleep in the day after the performance.

The culmination of all their work is coming soon: The Sky over Nacodoches will be showing Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of this week in Little Nourse Theater.  “It’s only half-made until the audience is there,” says Annelise.  The writer/actors get used to the jokes, going over and over them umpteen times in practice, but when there’s a fresh audience, they can tell what makes people laugh and what doesn’t.

The Revolution is two years old now, and the group intends to stick around for the long term.  It will fall to Chase to keep the tradition going, as the other two directors are seniors.  As for Tom and Annelise, they’re looking forward.  Annelise definitely plans a career in theater – she is going to study it at the University of Chicago next year.  Tom’s not sure, but if he doesn’t do theater for a living, it will be “at least a very active hobby.”

Expect to see these guys popping up again in 09/10.  “You can’t suppress the Revolution!”