College theater provides opportunities for personalization

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CAROL PENG /THE FLAT HAT

Musicals are a big cultural story in the United States. They fit music, choreography, acting and societal trends neatly into one volume. Complicated and often inflammatory, Broadway musicals were born in New York City, the most fractious city in the world, and have been brought to every corner of this country and the world via a vast narrative of communications and the media.

The Broadway musical is certainly a predominant art form, but it is not the only one. Each production of a musical is an art form itself, and if it can evoke a strong emotion out of its audience, any production can be called a Broadway-level show.  Here at the College of William and Mary, the official theater program as well as the student-run theatre community Sinfonicron Light Opera Company bring these sing-able moments to the College and perform them to local audiences. Musicals here have something unique.

Not only do we still have a very youthful perspective of the world, which can help us understand the plight of characters especially if they are younger, but also, by removing shows from their initial context, we shape the production, its design and its concept in our own way, building a stronger attachment to the College’s community. That is how the production process is meant to be.

The set design of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” for example, which could have been the typical yellow and black type of tone, was made very specifically patriotic and fun.  “We went a very direction with our costume design because we had these audience spellers that were turned into characters. But also, this was a production initially made in 2006. At that time, climate was different. So, as modern listeners to this, our show needs to keep abreast of the times,” Cassandra Wiltse ’22, who played Abigail Grossman audience speller, said. “For example, Schwartzy’s character is very much embodied the LGBT youths. She had a very fashion forward design in our version.”

One thing Wiltse and many other audiences noticed in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was that when actors switched characters, there was not an efficient way of distinguishing them from their original character. For example, when Leaf Coneybear became one of Schwartzy’s fathers, many could not quickly realize the actor was already playing someone else. In some other productions, dual roles like Leaf Coneybear are given a distinctive prop that is just for performing that specific character. Tricks such as having a useful prop could have helped the setting.

One of the greatest things about the College’s musical productions is that they have a diversity in the types of shows they produces and involve different students who are from different walks of life. Sumie Yotsukura ’22, who is planning to declare a theater major and is an actress at Sinfonicron Light Opera Company, disclosed the name of an upcoming production “Yellow Face,” which will be performed during 2020-21 season. The play was originally written by David Henry Huang, the most prominent Asian American playwright, and it was written shortly after the casting controversy of “Madama Butterfly” due to the casting of a white actor in an Asian role.

“I really want to do this because it’s really important to have more stories on stage of Asian Americans,” Yotsukura said. “The progression of Asian American representation on stage has been a lot slower going. There haven’t been just as many in the mainstream, and we should see more these repertoires performed in theaters across the country, not just the occasional ones that happen in big cities like New York or [Washington] D.C. But I’m happy to see that changes starting to come.”

Since last year, the Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall has been unavailable for use in productions due to its construction. As a result, productions are now taking place at the Kimball Theater located in Colonial Williamsburg. Working with the Kimball Theater gives actors more opportunities to see fellow Williamsburg people, and it requires a lot of ingenuity to work with the smaller space that they are given. However, actors and students like Cassandra Wiltse still anticipate PBK’s comeback.

“When PBK is ready, we are going to be ushering a new age,” Wiltse said. “It’s out with the olden, in with the new but still keeping that traditional life. The College of William and Mary is all about tradition.”

Email Harper Tang at

ytang06@email.wm.edu.