Creating wonder on stage
In April 2016, the Cornell theatre department will invite an audience to turn back the clock to 1903 and join them in pursuit of a legendary Iowa monster. The play, “Those That Fall,” is being created by a process called devising. While it was created under the supervision of Associate Professor of Theatre Janeve West, she describes her role as that of a “guiding collaborator and generative artist.”
“My job as generative artist is to set them off on a path, to create the circumstances in which something wonderful might occur, but it is they who must make the wonderful occur,” says West, who heads the directing and theatre history/literature programs at Cornell. “They don’t assist me in the creation of new work, rather I assist them, and they are co-creators with their peers. The process is the innovation.”
“Those That Fall” is based on a series of turn-of-the-20th-century newspaper stories that describe events in Van Meter, Iowa, a Dallas County mining town where several of Van Meter’s most well respected citizens reported “a half-human, half-animal with enormous, smooth bat wings” flying about the town.
Those newspaper stories sparked the idea for the play. In devised theater, there is no written script to serve as a starting point. The collaborators—writers, actors, director, and designers—begin with the nugget of an idea, in this case the newspaper articles, and from that they generate a play.
During the summer of 2015, West partnered on the project with Jen Rouse, Cornell’s consulting librarian for the arts and humanities, Shena McAuliffe, the then Dana Emerging Writer Fellow, and three theater students: Jaszmyn Epps ’16, Katie Hogan ’17, and Madison Serrett ’17.
“Our team did an enormous amount of work during the Summer Research Institute,” West says. “We looked at what was happening in 1903, including the influx of immigrants into the area, technological changes underway in society, mine explosions, and orphan trains that brought children from big cities on the East Coast to new homes in the Midwest during the early 20th century. We immersed ourselves in the era, and we ended up with a large archive of research materials.
“As we did our research, our central theme emerged: ‘Why do we create stories, and how do we use stories to demonize or valorize individuals or communities?’” she says. “The work will explore the social tensions that spark the gruesome, glorious, and sometimes necessary tales that pull us together and tear us apart.”
In devised theater, everyone works to one degree or another on the entire project.
“It’s the process of making live performance and doing it collaboratively that’s important,” West says. “Devised theater upends traditional hierarchical roles. The fact that the students have direct impact on the creation of the final product goes well beyond the standard definition of undergraduate student-faculty research. This requires a level of student responsibility not often seen at this level.”
Students learn how to create characters, what devices to use to advance the plot, and how to put together the narrative sequence.
“For example, we collectively decided to add the character of a school teacher who comes to Van Meter from the East Coast. Such a character doesn’t appear in any of the stories, but we found news articles of the time that called for female teachers to move to the Midwest, and we decided we needed her to help develop the plot,” she says.
“We’re extremely fortunate here at Cornell. Very few small liberal arts colleges offer courses in devised theater, and an even smaller number offer it to any student who wants to take it, regardless of background, experience, or academic major. In our program, all are welcome, no matter their prior theater experience.”
The play will be presented in The Plumb-Fleming Black Box Theatre, April 22, 23, 29, and 30 at 7:30 p.m. and April 24 at 2 p.m.