A Neophyte’s Perspective on T-P Theater
By Maria Buteux Reade
Sunday May 16, 2010
I conquered a fear this spring. For decades, I have admired people who can get on stage and perform. I marvel at their ability to learn lines or don an outlandish costume. The artistry, creativity, and camaraderie of theater have always appealed to me, yet cowardice kept me in the audience rather than under the lights. That all changed about a month ago as I read a script written by one of my students.
Ben Ros ’10 has been at Trinity-Pawling for six years. I taught him in seventh grade French and then again in Honors English sophomore year. I respect his intellect and his talent as a writer. He has composed countless articles for the Phoenix school newspaper and serves as its editor in this, his senior year. Last summer, when I was coordinating T-P boys to volunteer at Cascade Farm in nearby Patterson, New York, Ben was the first person I contacted. He assented without hesitation, and he and his brother Alex ’12 were among the most dedicated volunteers throughout the summer. Thus, when I finished reading Ben’s original script in mid April, I knew that I would rise to the challenge and accept a role in his play just as he accepted my invitation to come to the farm.
Ben wrote his play, Thin Envelopes, after completing the daunting process of applying to college. The play takes place in the waiting room of “First Choice University” admission office where two prospective applicants await their interview with the Dean of Admission. The student tour guide chatters mindlessly with another student who works the front desk of the office. Enter the protagonist Mr. Everyman whose metaphorical name says it all. The jaded and mechanical Dean of Admissions (my role, of course) runs Everyman through a series of probing questions while barely paying attention to his responses. Everyman grows increasingly frustrated with the heartless approach and launches into a diatribe that exposes the obvious flaws of the college process, from the barrage of faux-personalized emails to the glossy superficiality of propagandistic materials and websites. He bemoans the lack of attention to academics and feels First Choice University is more interested in promoting itself as a “hedonistic nirvana” which focuses on the “ease of campus housing” and catering to the whims of “Frisbee throwing morons.” The prospects gathered in the adjacent waiting room grow visibly uncomfortable as Everyman’s heated soliloquy reaches fever pitch. As the defeated protagonist prepares to leave the office at the end of the disastrous interview, the Dean of Admissions gives him some words of advice which reveal that she acknowledges the inherent contradictions of the process. The play closes as “Mr. Bleeding Heart, Intended Theater Arts major” is ushered in while the Dean groans in despair.
Each spring, the Trinity-Pawling theater department offers a series of one-act plays. Some students write original plays and others step into the role of director. The one-acts provide a perfect opportunity for neophytes to try out for a part which may entail less time commitment than a full multi-act production. This spring, five boys (juniors Drew Hennessy, Garrett White, and Tony Wang, sophomore Jay Hooper, and freshman Peter Yip) took the challenge and entered this enticing realm. Adrian Appleman ’11, a five year veteran of T-P theater productions, assumed directorship of Thin Envelopes. He handled his responsibilities with aplomb, maintaining humor, energy, focus and leadership as he molded each of us into his vision of our characters. Adrian discovered the challenge of organizing rehearsal times convenient for three T-P boys, two Pawling High School girls, and one faculty member. He laid strict deadlines for when we needed to be “off book,” able to rehearse without scripts. He guided us on costumes and relished the opportunity to witness the fashion show of the young ladies as they selected their dresses and shoes. By Thursday evening’s dress rehearsal, we were ready to roll it out. An anxious Ben Ros sat in his seat in the theater, at a distance from the dozen or so people who had wandered in to get a preview.
The entire process was fascinating and deeply rewarding for me personally. It occurred to me that I have either taught or served as advisor to each boy in the play. John Oh ’10, Mr. Everyman, was the top student in my English 3 class last year and, as class valedictorian, is headed to Johns Hopkins in the fall. He had to grow comfortable with berating me as “Admissions” for rejecting him from First Choice University. Alex Ros ’12 is one of my best students in English 10 Honors and an advisee next year. Jay Hooper ’12, plucked straight from the Green Mountains of Vermont, is also an advisee. Ben, Adrian, and Alex all came through T-P’s Middle School.
Springtime is always insanely hectic at school. In my role as Dean of Faculty, I spend this final term immersed in the recruiting and hiring process for incoming faculty, in addition to teaching two sections of English. However, I eagerly anticipated evening rehearsals and was usually the first to arrive. I had kept my involvement a secret from the general school community because I love the element of surprise. The more time I spent in the Gardiner Theater, listening to and watching the kids cavort and mingle, the more I saw how happy they were. It dawned on me: the kids who choose to get involved in theater in any way, be it acting or tech or general “hanger-on,” tend to be the most cheerful kids around campus. While other peers grumble and complain about life at school, those connected to the theater simply have fun. Gardiner and its backstage spaces are filled with laughter, energy, movement, creativity, and just plain silliness. Girls from the area love the atmosphere as well which in turn attracts T-P boys. Getting a play ready demands teamwork, preparation, concentration. The air backstage the night of a performance is electric and the energy palpable. Members of the various casts exchange high fives and whisper the obligatory “Break a leg!” in lieu of “Good luck.” As each play ends, the cast of the next show takes the stage. We watch one another perform, either from the wings or behind the deep folds of the blue velvet curtain or else run around and find a seat in the house. Having this opportunity to experience the magic of theater has enhanced my appreciation of the dedicated young men and women who have graced the T-P stage over the years.
During my 24 years at Trinity-Pawling, I have always sought ways to keep myself fresh and energized. I constantly challenge the boys, and faculty, to push themselves out of their comfort zone and take new risks. As I looked up from the script that April afternoon, my own words echoed in my heart. I wandered down to the library and found Ben: “Do you mind if I try out for your play?”
Ben Ros will matriculate at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio in September. He intends to major in writing.