Santa Clara professor heads creation of play about campus issues
November 3, 2016
The Santa Clara bubble: a place of sunshine, ease and silver platters. On a campus where abundant resources meet palm trees and fountains, perfection seems just nearly out of reach.
Outside the bubble, however, exists a harsher world—one where misfortune, disappointment and injustice easily pervade daily life. So what happens when the bubble pops? It seems that “Welcome to Claradise” might have the answers.
Set to hit the Louis B. Mayer Theatre in May, this documentary-style play, currently being written by adjunct professor Brian Thorstenson along with seven student writers and researchers, addresses what happens when trouble hits our seemingly polished campus.
“We’re looking at the processes of disruption and the processes of grace within the (Santa Clara) community,” Thorstenson said. “We’re attempting to look at those processes with a level of complexity.”
Additionally, the play is being overseen and created in conjunction with Anna Deavere Smith’s residency at Santa Clara in the Winter and Spring quarters.
Best known for her roles as Nancy McNally on “The West Wing” and Gloria Akalitus on “Nurse Jackie,” Smith comes to Santa Clara as the university’s 2016-2017 Frank Sinatra Artist-Scholar in Residence.
With a number of prestigious honorary degrees and titles, including the MacArthur Award, Smith has produced work that has been described as “a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie.” Her influence shows in the play’s interview like-style.
“Most of the material comes from interviews, hence the ‘documentary play,’” Thorstenson said. “We’re also including some researched material and some moments of original writing triggered by either the interviews, our research, or the needs of the play.”
Last month, the Santa Clara Theatre Department presented the campus community with a series of open-ended questions in hopes of representing the student body experience. The questions asked students to reflect on times in which their idea of Santa Clara had either been disrupted or lived out.
Thorstenson had originally drafted a first set of questions, but found that they needed to be revised with the recent acts of discrimination on campus. He felt that after Week 5, he had arrived at questions that would hopefully address some of these issues.
One question, for instance, asked, “Can you tell me about a time you were outraged by something someone said/or posted online and how you responded?”
Other questions looked at students’ public and private discourse: “What would you/have you said in confidence or privately that you wouldn’t say publicly?”
According to Thorstenson, the play derives from a long tradition of documentary-style theatre, going back to the Federal Theater Project, a program of the WPA, with a play form called a “Living Newspaper.” The Laramie Project is just one of many recent examples.
In terms of the creative process, the project represents a collaboration between Thorstenson, the director, Aldo Billingslea and the choreographer, David Popalisky, along with 18 students.
In addition to the seven writers, the play includes ten student cast members and one musician—senior Riley McShane.
McShane, who has been writing his own music for a little over a year now, knew the production would be a great opportunity to test his talent from the moment he heard about it. As to the challenge—he is more excited than nervous.
“As soon as I heard about the idea for ‘Claradise,’ I knew I wanted to contribute in some way,” McShane said. “ I decided this would be an uncommon challenge: to write songs that fit in this story. To stretch my own abilities and explore musical possibilities I’ve never even considered before.”
McShane further emphasized the importance of music, stressing its role in presenting the different perspectives and voices on campus.
“I think music will be essential to the production: you can say so much in a song,” McShane said. “Music is a very special way to discuss and search for truth. As a songwriter, I enjoy taking the events, people and places around me and trying to interpret them. It’s an exciting time to be at (Santa Clara), for both great and unfortunate reasons, but I think that makes it more important than ever that we do this play—that we look inward and try to figure something out.”
When asked about the process of working with the students, Thorstenson did not comment. The theater professor stated that he was “too much in the middle of it to answer in any cogent manner.”
In terms of the play’s progress, however, the students seem to be right on schedule for an opening in May.
“We’re reading a rough sketch of the play this week,” Thorstenson said. “Week 8 we’ll read a second draft, another draft Week 9. They’ll be a big rewrite/revision over the Thanksgiving break. Then we’ll read this draft Week 10. The play goes into rehearsal in January.”
Contact Devin Collins at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.