Welcome to the Curse of the Starving Class blog!
In this first entry, I’ll bring you up to date on how we arrived at this idea of a blended production. In future entries I hope to share some of the discoveries and insights of the production process.
For several years the Department of Theatre at the University of Maryland has been looking for a way to work with an established professional theatre. We are sure that our students, designers, actors, and stage managers, would all benefit from direct contact with working professionals. So why not just hire some professional actors? We have done that on a limited basis. For instance, in our 2000-01 production of The Glass Menagerie Helen-Jean Arthur was hired to play Amanda. We felt it would enrich the experience for our students to work opposite a professional actor who was the age of the character; also this was a role that no undergrad could pull off successfully. In university theatre there are times when undergraduates do play middle aged characters, usually when many of the characters are of the same age approximately. This was in case in our recent production of Zooman and Sign.
However, working with an individual guest artist, while rewarding, is not the same as working with a professional theater, such as Woolly Mammoth, our partner on Curse of the Starving Class. In Woolly we are connecting with not only a 25 year old professional company, but one that has a very distinctive, edgy approach to the work. We committed to doing two shows with them.
There were several challenges in picking a play for this "blended" slot. One challenge that we always face at MD is balance of roles. The fact is, more roles are written for men than women, but there are more actresses than actors. So, we looked for a play that had several strong roles for women. Curse of the Starving Class has only two, so in that regard we didn't fare well. However one of those roles, the daughter Emma, is really the main character along with her brother Wesley. So it was a trade off. We went for the great play that had two astonishing roles for students. There are many other criteria to consider in picking plays for university theatre but I'll move on to the big challenge that faced us with Woolly: "But is it a Woolly play?" If I had a dollar for every time that question was asked... Many plays that we at the U liked had to pass the Woolly litmus test. And that was, ummm, tricky. Finally we settled on Curse of the Starving Class as one that met all our needs. Two leading roles for students and several fun supporting roles, with four more roles for "senior" actors. And it had that Woolly essential of terrific writing featuring characters pushed to edge.
Picking the director was next. CSC is a gritty, dark comedy. Here is how it is described in the blurb from the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland web site: Curse of the Starving Class is a powerfully stark, funny and exhilarating trip into the dark side of the American dream. The Tate family struggles for identity in a world without any real spiritual hope, but yet haunted by sacred images. Striking ironies abound--a valuable farm (where starving is a given spiritual condition) exists in a classless society (in which class is about the only means of self-definition). There was only one director that we considered: Daniel De Raey. I've worked with Daniel on four productions. And Dan Wagner, our department chair, has also worked with him several times. Daniel we knew to be a master at getting unvarnished, straight from the gut performances from actors. Exactly what is needed for Curse of the Starving Class. I am thrilled to be able give our students the chance to work with someone of his depth and integrity.
So, the play is picked and cast. Oh, right, the cast. Our Woolly cast members are; Caren Anton as "Ella". (This will be the second time Caren and I were "married". We were stage spouses in Passing the Love of Women at Theatre J last spring, which was directed by... Daniel De Raey. Small world, eh?) Doug Brown, also a Woolly company member, will play "Taylor", Ian LeValley will appear as Ellis, and I will play "Weston". The student cast is Sean Hoagland as "Wesley", Malinda Ellerman as "Emma", Adam Bedzow as "Slater", Brad Wilkins as "Malcom", and Chris Wilson as "Emerson".
I'm looking forward to the challenges of this terrific play and this role, especially to the three page monologue with a live sheep. (Yep, you read that right. Some might say it's the sheep that has the real the challenge;)
I also am excited about acting with my students. I know that I said we do this for them as a teaching experience, but the truth is I also do it because I get a chance to learn from them. As we go along I'll be sure to address that, as I know it will be a big part of this process.
I have the best job in the world. To be able to do this play, with these people, in this glorious building. As they say, "It's all good".