Probably more so than any other department, theater relies on people coming together in person. But, the continued New York State restrictions on events and gatherings did not hold the department back this spring. It just had to get even more creative than usual.
“Sometimes limitations are a gift,” says Professor Adrian Giurgea. “They frame your work. They give a purpose.”
Exploring the ways technology can be used, the Department of Theater presented new methods of storytelling and engagement.
The 2021 Take on Hamlet
Technicians set up the camera and leave. In front of a green screen, the student actor prepares to perform one of Hamlet’s seven soliloquies. And from a laptop, Giurgea directs. After delivering the soliloquy, the actor changes the camera angle and performs again. “We did this 20 or 30 times until we had enough shots to choose from,” Giurgea says.
For the production Hamlet the Sponger, cast and crew members couldn’t be in the same space for extended periods of time, so they filmed separately for four hours every evening throughout February and March. “We needed to be very well organized in order to make this happen,” Giurgea says.
He spent the next five weeks doing postproduction, to prepare the play for its online release. “The process was intricate and difficult, but it paid off,” Giurgea says.
Hamlet the Sponger was a take on Hamlet that was presented through just his seven soliloquies — which, in Shakespeare’s original writing, are interspersed throughout the play, but here became the focus. The clown, the warrior, the prince: Various facets of Hamlet, as portrayed in each soliloquy, were performed by students of different ethnicities and genders.
“A character of so many dimensions that he is rather like a prism, that when held up to the light, produces numerous colors,” Susan Cerasano says in the prologue. Cerasano, who is the Edgar W.B. Fairchild Professor of literature, served as the dramaturge.
Giurgea envisioned this modern spin on Hamlet — from the technology used, to the postproduction effects, to the characters themselves. The title was inspired by a Bertolt Brecht poem in which he calls the prince of Denmark an “introspective sponger.” Giurgea interprets this to be “a lazy person, indifferent to the signs of the time and looking inwards instead
“Hamlet is very contemporary to us,” Giurgea continues. “Hamlet is diseased by a form of lethargy that many young people suffer, particularly in these days of uncertainty. Hamlet is an overgrown adolescent playing computer games and watching television on the couch in the basement of his parents’ house.”
Nathan Conlon ’22, for example, “played the socialite Hamlet — almost like a Paris Hilton Hamlet — who is completely self-centered, feeling pity for himself,” Giurgea says. “He’s the selfie Hamlet.”
Adds Conlon: “[I played] this character who, even though he’s superficial on the outside, he’s still a real person, he still has real struggles. So [it was about] finding the life within that really vain type.”
Even the presentation of the production was representative of the times. There were two ways to watch Hamlet the Sponger, which was available online for one weekend only. As the homepage explained, the first version showed the seven soliloquies in the order of which they were originally written. In the second version, called “The Play’s the Thing” (a quotation from act 2), “the order of the soliloquies is scrambled to fit the meaning of a larger and quite different story.” In addition, Giurgea sprinkled in other prerecorded elements — including TikTok videos; a deepfake of Konstantin Stanislavski singing; a soliloquy by Jenny Wu ’23 in Shanghai, delivered in her local dialect; and two of Giurgea’s Moscow Art Theatre students performing in Russian.
The boxes were numbered in both versions, but viewers could click around. “It really feeds into making this a modern thing, because this becomes something specifically for a younger generation that’s used to clicking and has a short attention span,” says Conlon, who is majoring in math and German. “It’s not just watching a play; it becomes something totally different.”
Although the play began as a solo undertaking, it ended up being a shared experience. Giurgea stayed mum about the final presentation, keeping even the actors in suspense until the online release date. For the first time, Conlon says, he was able to watch a performance at the same time as the audience. “Usually, I get to hear what my friends think afterward, but I watched this with a couple of my friends, and I got to actually see their reactions in real time,” he says. “It was the joy of discovering the show together.”
‘Connecting the Past to Our Now’
James Baldwin, before he became known as one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, left the United States at age 24, fed up with the prejudice in America. He bought a one-way ticket to Paris, with no plans to ever return, and prepared to board a plane at LaGuardia — not far from Harlem, where he was born and raised. Picking up the story here, Professor Kyle Bass wrote a one-man play titled Citizen James, or The Young Man Without a Country.
“He’s just about to leave the United States because he knows he can’t survive in this systemically racist nation,” Bass explains. “As he says in the play, ‘How do I write the fire from within the flames? I can’t do that.’”
Although Citizen James takes place in 1948, it’s as relevant today as ever. Bass, whom Syracuse Stage commissioned to write the play for an educational series made available via streaming, tells more:
Q: What motivated you to write this play?
A: Baldwin’s work is so prophetic; we are living through everything he said would happen, and we are grappling with and reckoning with all the things he said we would be.
Q: The description states, “Citizen James is a bridge that connects the past to our now.” How so?
A: It holds the brutality of his time, which reflects the brutality of our time. In situating a young James Baldwin on the stage, it’s a fresh look at him. It contemporizes him because the things he talks about are the very things we continue to struggle with and reckon with now in this country, in terms of race and white supremacy, democracy, justice, and identity. Essentially, he could be speaking from last night, not from 1948.
For every generation, things feel new. It has been brutal from the beginning, but we just get to see it in our time. I don’t have to bring it forward. I just have to shine a light on it and say: It’s here with us now; the then is now.
Q: What about Baldwin inspires you?
A: He’s one of my three writerly saints. He was an extraordinarily gifted person. He was born seemingly fully formed, somehow, intellectually. It was immediately recognized that he was an extraordinary child. His language skills were highly developed.
Lucky for him, teachers saw this in him, and he was really supported. But it was also a time when the fact that he was Black was a hindrance. There weren’t as many escape hatches. In fact, he took an extreme one: He left the country.
Q: How was Citizen James produced?
A: It was this interesting blend of theater and cinema. There were projections — they’re period, all black and white — to support the storytelling. It’s located in the theater, but then it becomes more cinematic. You don’t do edits in live theater; you end the scene. You don’t do a close-up in the theater; you do a monologue. We captured a number of performances, and then it was edited to create the cinematic presentation. There are fades. All the things you see in cinema are present in the video rendering of the captured filmic version of the piece. And yet there was what we call direct address, which is when an actor speaks directly to the audience, breaks the fourth wall. That’s very theatrical. So it’s a hybrid.
Q: What Colgate classes did you teach this semester?
A: Screenwriting and playwriting. I encouraged my students to watch Citizen James. Colgate purchased the first access to it, and it streamed April 8–13.
Working From Home
In an empty London house, the two women who make up the experimental theater troupe Split Britches settled in to make what would become Last Gasp (WFH) (“work from home”) in March 2020. It “is not just one of the 40-year-old company’s best pieces,” according to the New York Times, “but among the most evocative art to emerge from the COVID era.”
The New York–based duo, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, found themselves stuck in England at the start of the pandemic after the premiere of their show in New York and London had been canceled. In spite of this, they decided to hunker down in a house (that was in the middle of renovations) and continue producing the show they’d planned to tour. Their virtual collaboration led them to create a filmed version of the piece in place of the live performance. The result is what Shaw calls a “Zoomie” (Zoom movie), combining theater, movement, and video. In it, the feminist twosome tackles gender and sexuality, aging, race, and climate change.
Colgate provided access to Last Gasp (WFH) and held an online panel discussion about pandemic performance with Split Britches in April. The event was organized and moderated by 2020–21 Visiting Lecturer in Theater Benjamin Gillespie, who wrote his dissertation on the group and is currently working on a full-length book project on the duo’s later works.
“Split Britches will never go out of style,” Gillespie says. “Even now, in their 70s, Shaw and Weaver’s performances resonate with the contemporary moment more than ever. Last Gasp is a testament to their remarkable ability to connect generations through their off-kilter experimental performance style.”
Needing to Pivot in Dance
The origin of the word “cakewalk” is from a dance performed by enslaved Black people in the mid-19th century. American plantation owners judged the dances — characterized by fluid movements accomplished with great ease (hence the meaning of the word) — and the winning slave would “take the cake” as a prize.
This is one example of the sociohistorical and cultural roots of dance that students have been learning about in Assistant Professor Amy Swanson’s Introduction to Dance Studies. Swanson and her courses are under the theater department’s umbrella.
“The class looks at different phenomena through the lens of dance,” she explains. “It’s not a chronological dance history class, but organized around themes like national identity, queerness, and resistance, which we look at through various dance practices.” Introduction to Dance Studies examines dance in wide-ranging contexts, engaging students in conversations about race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, and dis/ability.
Swanson developed the idea for the course, which she began teaching in fall 2020, when it became clear that her in-person movement-based classes would be on hold until restrictions were lifted.
“I really am more of a dance scholar than a dance practitioner,” she says. “I took the opportunity to create a new course.”
Thor Adamec ’22 signed up for the fall class after taking Swanson’s Intro to Contemporary Dance the previous semester. A lacrosse player, Adamec loves dancing and saw that spring 2020 class as a way to add more movement to his day. He was then able to study the different movements he’d learned in an academic setting the following semester.
That autumn followed a turbulent time in the United States, with the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests heating up. So he decided to do his final project on dance meditation as a method of alleviating stress and anxiety. “Dance can be very relaxing,” says Adamec, who performed moves he’d learned in contemporary dance for his final video.
Tamara Chapro ’21 was one of the students who took the class this past spring, and she found that the content dovetailed with her peace and conflict studies major. “I applied a lot of the theories I was learning about, including critical race theory,” she says. “It all intersected.”
Chapro’s research project centered on the emergence of dance on plantations: the ways dances were used as a vehicle for social change and how many dance languages are present in choreography today. “Because slaves were taken from different countries within Africa, they didn’t all speak the same language, so they created different dance languages that were uniquely African American,” she explains.
“[Professor Swanson] opened up a whole new way of seeing the world, because I had previously thought of dance as just something people performed,” Chapro says. “But so many aspects of life could be analyzed through a dance theory lens.”
Swanson’s scholarly background and current book manuscript are based on representations of gender and sexuality in contemporary dance in Senegal.