The 22nd annual One-Act Play Festival, to be held at Whitman College’s Harper Joy Theatre Feb. 19-20, has inspired a flurry of student energy across campus. Nearly 40 students devoted four weeks to preparing three student-written plays. The six performances were sold out within 48 hours.

Craig Gunsul, professor of physics emeritus, remembers when it was “pretty much a one-man show.” It was Gunsul who almost single-handedly launched the competition in 1989, asserting that “Whitman has always done a superior job in teaching analysis … but the One-Acts reward creativity.”

Gunsul gathers together the small group of faculty members and knowledgeable community adults who select the student plays from those that are submitted each November. He also provides the prize money — $150 for first place, $100 for second place and $50 for third place — for the audience-judged productions.

Of the 12 plays submitted for 2011, three were selected to be performed at this year’s festival: “Burying Mabel,” by Michaela Gianotti ’12, “Crow Girl,” by Olivia Johnson ’11, and “Midnight Chimes,” by David Otten ’12.

“One of my greatest pleasures in 42 years of teaching has been how the students have taken over this event,” Gunsul said.

Once the plays are selected, there “isn’t really any faculty involvement,” said Nina Trotto ’11, student production manager. “The One-Acts are a really unique and fantastic process because it is completely student-done. It’s really free and creative.”

But although no faculty members are involved, the plays involve a great deal of teaching: older students mentor newcomers throughout the production process.

The plays naturally lend themselves toward new student involvement, Trotto said, because they offer a larger cast and are “a little less intimidating” than a formal faculty-run production.

“The One-Acts are great because a lot of people do the Instant Play Festival at the beginning of the year, but they don’t know how to take the next step to get involved with Harper Joy,” said Trotto.  “A lot of people I know who designed or acted in the One-Acts in the past go on to do more things in the department.”   

Trotto, who is heavily involved in theater, has found a way to further facilitate first-year involvement in the festival. 

“I went around and started asking first years, who I knew had been interested in design or in trying something new, ‘Do you want to do this? It’s a great way of getting involved with the department.’ And a lot of them are now doing that.”

Trotto paired these budding designers with seniors and juniors who helped them through the process. One of these new designers is Russell Sperberg ’14, who is both set designer for and actor in Gianotti’s “Burying Mabel.”

“I’ve only really acted in the past, but I said I was interested in design ... and Nina remembered that,” Sperberg said. “The designers astound me with their resourcefulness and intelligence, and our stage manager, Hanna McNamara ’13, is so organized and helpful. And of course we have Michaela Gianotti, the playwright, and Sarah Wright, the director, who are so incredibly amazing and who have guided us through this whole experience. I’ve learned so much from being immersed in this production.”

Gianotti voices the same enthusiasm about this student collaboration.

“Every Friday our entire cast and crew get together for a family dinner after rehearsal. We cook and eat and really enjoy each other’s company. We all have an incredible amount of respect for each other and are so excited to be working on this project together,” Gianotti said.

“The theatre department at Whitman was one of the main reasons I decided to come here. I hope to stay involved throughout my whole college career,” Sperberg said.

—Eleanor Ellis ’13