O’Neill students recast Shakespeare’s ‘Shipwreck Plays'

Buy Photo Tim Cook/The Day National Theater Institute students work on a production of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford on Dec. 11.

During storm Sandy, O'Neill theater students - like so many other people - took shelter. The college kids, studying in Waterford this semester at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Theater Instititute, were told to gather in the campus's 200-year-old Hammond Mansion.

The building did, after all, survive the Hurricane of '38. And, even as the ocean water swept up the field below, the mansion held strong and its generator hummed.

The youths slept on their gym mats that Monday night, and, the next morning, they were back at work, studying theater. Soon, the students - who have no TV and are encouraged to stay off the Internet - began realizing the enormity of Sandy's destruction elsewhere.

Rachel Jett, NTI Artistic Director, recalls, "When we started getting the papers and reading about what was happening, it was news to (the students), and it was so profound the effect because we felt so lucky and so blessed."

So, when it came time for Jett and Visiting Associate Artistic Director Michael Cadman to determine a topic for the students' final project of the semester, Jett felt it should have something to do with the storm. Cadman suggested using certain Shakespeare plays as well; the students had seen "The Tempest" and "Comedy of Errors" - Shakespeare's so-called "Shipwreck Plays" - when they were in London.

The upshot: the youths are using those two works as a base and adding stories and elements they'd cull from research on storm Sandy and the Hurricane of '38. (When the NTI folks talked about Sandy, they found themselves often relating what happened now to what happened during the Hurricane of '38, hence the inclusion of that as well.)

The 31 students have spent the last two weeks developing the piece about loss, tragedy and community unity. They pulled from first-person accounts and weather forecasts. They read New York Times articles about storm Sandy and watched documentaries about the Hurricane of '38. They wove what they discovered in their research into their play and into music. Student Jessica Morrison, for instance, wrote a song inspired by the story of a mother whose children were swept away from her arms during Sandy.

Each NTI class does a final project as the culmination of a semester's work. The student produce, cast, score and design the production over the course of two weeks. The project makes significant use of what they've learned over the past 14 weeks about acting, directing, playwriting, design, movement and voice.

Jett says, "We never know how it's going to go because we ask that they be the creative drive, and we are simply the outside eyes trying to help them see what works and what doesn't and what can be developed."

Student Aaron Heaps says that, at the beginning, it seemed like they had a lot of ideas that didn't necessarily coalesce. On Tuesday, more than midway through the development process, he saw how things had changed. Now, he says, "Everything's starting to come together. ... We're getting more of a structure of how the show's going to go."

During rehearsal, the students discussed various aspects of the production. Could they leave things a little open-ended, since the ramifications of storm Sandy continue on? Would it be okay to include something that might seem unrealistic, since out-of-the-ordinary things do happen in these situations?

Then they worked, under Jett's guidance, on creating a physical approximation of a ship tossed at sea using only their bodies. Actors sat on other's backs, linking arms and creating a boat's prow. As the ship went down, Jett asked the actors to make quick, jagged movements and then melt in slow motion as they sunk to the ground.

They proceeded to turn their attention to manufacturing a storm, with several performers gathering under an undulating, diaphanous parachute and holding flickering flashlights, giving the sense of lightning. Others rattled a tarp, producing the sound of pelting rain.

The production, titled "They Were Under," was still going to change and morph and grow after that Tuesday session. That's all part of the process.

"We have experience and total faith in the process. It's one of our largest learning tools here at NTI - they know they can make the work," Jett says. "Especially if something speaks to them the way the storm spoke to them or the way that Shakespeare speaks to them, they should take those inspirations and should create theater that says what they would like to say or looks at something they would like to look at."

IF YOU GO

What: The National Theater Institute's "They Were Under"

When: 7:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday

Where: Dina Merrill Theater, Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford

Cost: Free

Contact: Call (860) 443-5378, email theaterlives@theoneill.org, or visit www.theoneill.org/nti

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