Acting in Harper Joy Theatre's latest production, This From Cloudland, was an experience unlike any other for its student cast members. For one thing, the play is highly unconventional: fragmented, nonlinear, with no characters and hardly any stage directions.
For another, the playwright happens to be a Whitman professor.
"Staging the text at Whitman has been very meaningful for me," said Assistant Professor of Theatre Kristen Kosmas, who wrote and directed the show. "The piece has been presented a number of times in other venues, but this is the longest rehearsal process I've ever engaged in with it, and it's the first time I've ever fully produced it as a theatrical event."
This From Cloudland features kaleidoscopic imagery, including two young lovers holding themselves hostage, someone falling off a high wire and someone else with their head stuck in the mouth of a bear. It has been presented in Brooklyn at Barbés and Unnamable Books; in New York City at PRELUDE Festival; in Austin at FUSEBOX Festival; and in Seattle at the New City Theatre.
The Whitman production was a collaborative process, "very much co-authored by this extraordinary group of artists," according to Kosmas. While the entire cast and most of the crew were students, Kosmas' colleague Evan Mosher, a Seattle-based actor and musician, handled sound design, and Associate Professor of Art Michelle Acuff, who teaches sculpture, designed the show's distinctive set.
"I couldn't be more grateful for what she made and for her incredibly sensitive and intelligent reading of the text, and for her response in the form of the environment she constructed for the actors to inhabit and play in," Kosmas said.
After closing night on Oct. 23, three student performers reflected on acting in an original play by their professor, and how it differed from their other theatre experiences at Whitman.
Emma Chung '19
The director was much more emotionally involved and connected to the piece. She was able to explain any part that we didn't understand, and she also had a clearer concept of what she wanted because it was something that she wrote herself. It felt like the director cared much more because it was something that she was a part of since its conception. As an actor, I also felt more obligated to respect the piece the way it was written and present it the way the director desires. I had to do it justice because the director was also the writer, and sometimes when you are performing a piece by someone else you are free to interpret it differently. If the writer is present at all times, then the room for interpretation is not less, but different.
Drew Schoenborn '17
Having been a part of the theatre department since my first year here at Whitman, it is so refreshing getting to work with the playwright as the director. Getting to hear from Kristen the origins of each line and where they come from, whether it be from specific real moments in her life or moments of fiction, is truly wonderful. As an actor and director, it is a thing of beauty to see the entirety of the process: the stories behind the text, the interaction with the text as Kristen directs it, the true meaning of each line and how she wants it to be done. It is rare that a playwright gets to have their show performed the way they intended, and getting to be a part of that process has been simultaneously beautiful and inspirational.
Ludmila de Brito '17
Usually, when you are in a play, you interpret it with the cast and the director, but in this play we had privileged access to the writer, meaning that we could get exact answers to any questions we had about the text. But at the same time, we were working together to build something beautiful. Kristen Kosmas is an amazing playwright, director and creative mind who was extremely generous. She was generous in making the rehearsal room a collaborative space, allowing us to build the show together. The fact that Kristen is also a professor was very beneficial too since she knew most of us and knew exactly what we had to work on to improve. Not only it was a performance show, it was also a very educational experience for me, since I just decided to dive into theatre. Somehow, we all brought our own stories and pasts into the creation of a whole world, diving into the words beautifully composed by our very own director. It was such an amazing experience. It is hard to put it into words how much I enjoyed working with every single person involved in the show.