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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Making the outdoors center stage

An audience forms a loose circle under Nash Hall, enclosing a performing duo. The two command the space and the audiences’ attention.

The act draws to a close. The audience moves as a whole to follow the unraveling of the plot behind the Performing Arts Center.

Performers during "Corktown's" evening performance behind the Performing Arts Center. // Photo courtesy of Rachel Bayne
Performers during “Corktown’s” evening performance behind the Performing Arts Center. // Photo courtesy of Rachel Bayne

Last spring, Western commissioned and produced Jeff Augustin’s original work “Corktown”  as  an environmental theater piece. The acts were held outdoors rather than in a traditional theater space.

The theater department will be recognized in Washington, D.C., for the upcoming 47th annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival on Saturday, April 18.

At this time last year, Western’s campus became a part of theatrical history by producing the world premiere of “Corktown.” Written by Jeff Augustin, a full-time playwright for the Roundabout Theatre in New York City, the play is currently being performed all around the U.S.

“Corktown” features a story about a neighborhood called Corktown in Detroit during hard economic times. Each act in the play focuses on Detroit’s past, present and future to demonstrate the evolution of the city.

Performing the play outdoors, rather than in a conventional theater space, allowed the audience to move around with the actors, senior and theater major Christopher Quilici said.

Yusuffer Asphy rehearses his scene for "Corktown." // Photo by Chanel Retasket
Yusuffer Asphy rehearses his scene for “Corktown.” // Photo by Chanel Retasket

Quilici said watching the performance of “Corktown” around campus was an educational journey for theater students and audience members.

“With the first act of ‘Corktown,’ the action is happening in the space but the audience was free to walk anywhere,” Quilici said. “By allowing the audience to move around, it challenged the traditional notion of making the audience stay in assigned seats.”

Quilici attended the play twice, once in the early evening and once in late evening, to spot the differences, and both times he saw a new aspect to the complexity of the play. The difference in the natural daylight and the ability to move around outside was enough to change the vibe of the production each time it was performed, Quilici said.

Not only did Western experience the unique occurrence of commissioning and producing a play, Western’s theater students also walked away with the experience of working one-on-one with Augustin, a nationally acclaimed playwright, Quilici said.

Augustin visited Western during the play to be a part of “Corktown” rehearsals and development, said Rich Brown, theater professor and director of “Corktown.”

His visit with Western theater students was interactive and unique, as it helped him hear his work through rehearsals as it was brought to life, Brown said. Augustin would have moments of re-writing the play on the spot, allowing it to evolve with students’ participation.

Augustin met the students with the first draft, giving them all a chance to review it and give feedback. Augustin went back to his hotel to rewrite the play with the comments.

The final part of "Corktown" was performed inside the Douglas Underground Theater inside the Performing Arts Center. // Photo courtesy of Rachel Bayne
The final part of “Corktown” was performed inside the Douglas Underground Theater inside the Performing Arts Center. // Photo courtesy of Rachel Bayne

“This kind of process where a new play is written, and a cast, director and crew come together and build the show from zero with the playwright, is happening all around the country,” Quilici said. “We are immersing ourselves more in this, but it gives students the chance to experience the field in the professional world.”

The three awards bestowed on Augustin will include first place in both the Lorraine Hansberry Award and the Harold and Mimi Steinberg National Student Playwriting Award. Augustin will receive second place for the David Mark Cohen Playwriting Award as well, Brown said.

The last time Western was honored at nationals was in 2012 for the theater department’s production of “US.” Brown was awarded the National Outstanding Lead Deviser/Director of a Devised Work, and the “US” production received three additional awards.

The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival is a nationally recognized festival sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts from Monday, April 13, to Sunday, April 19, said Gregg Henry, artistic director for the Kennedy Center.

Western theater students and staff will not be in attendance this year because no individual Western students or staff received awards, only the department.

The Kennedy Center’s festival is a celebration of what theater programs on campuses like Western are accomplishing around the country, Henry said.

“We pay particular attention to those universities that are doing out of the box, new work while experimenting and helping their students grow,” Henry said.

Western participates in The Kennedy Center’s regional festival every year, Brown said.

The series of festivals created by the Kennedy Center serve as an opportunity to recognize the achievements of undergraduate universities and their theater departments.

“We are the only organization that recognizes the production component of theater in higher education,” Henry said. “We are student-centric in that way.”


Editor’s note: In an early edition of this story, Yusuffer Asphy’s name was misspelled. It has been corrected in the current edition.


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