A Bounty of Visiting Artists

Monday, July 7, 2014
A Bounty of Visiting Artists

The theater studies department invited a number of exciting guests to campus during the 2013-14 academic year, in an ongoing commitment to provide students with unique opportunities to work with or hear from professional artists and scholars.

September brought Sibyl Kempson, an experimental playwright who was a 2010 MacDowell Colony Fellow, a member of the New Dramatists class of ’17 and a 2013 McKnight National Resident and Commissionee.

Kempson came to campus for two weeks to develop Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag through Theater Previews New Works Lab. Kempson’s play, commissioned by the American Playwrights Division of New York City Players is, according to Kempson, an examination of the collision of aesthetics and ethics when difficult situations such as the abject conditions of poverty are articulated in a mode of high art.

For her exploration, Kempson used the work of American photographer Walker Evans as source material. Evans’s critically acclaimed work featured in Jame Agees’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, documented families in the Depression-era South. Susan Sontag wrote on Evans: “Walker Evans was the last great photographer to work seriously and assuredly in a mood deriving from [Walt] Whitman’s euphoric humanism.” But, she goes on to say, his work also anticipated much of the “cooler, ruder, bleaker photography that has been done since.

“The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed,” said Sontag in her work, On Photography, speaking to the potential clash of aesthetics and ethics that inspired Kempson to write her new play.

Student actors in the play also benefitted from other guest artists brought in by Kempson. Composer Ashley Turba and award-winning choreographer David Neumann collaborated on the new piece during her two-week residency on campus. Jody McAuliffe served as dramaturg.

The residency culminated in two evenings of a reading of Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag in Sheafer Theater.

Also in September, virtuoso physical theater artist Kali Quinn came to campus to work with students who had been cast for our fall mainstage play, Uncle Vanya. Director Jeff Storer said he was looking for somebody who could not only help actors develop character through movement, but also push them to understand humor through movement.

Quinn not only accomplished that for the Vanya cast, she gave a free physical theater (mask/clown) workshop open to all students and performed her own one-woman show,Overture to a Thursday Morning in Brody TheaterShe also came back in the sprng to work with the cast of the mainstage play, Machinal.

Read this article from Duke Today for more about Kali Quinn.

Also in conjunction with Uncle VanyaRaphael Martin, the Literary and Humanities Manager at Soho Repertory Theatre (NYC) visited with students and led a post-show discussion. Director Jeff Storer had chosen Annie Baker’s new translation of the play after seeing Soho Rep’s premiere.

Later in the fall, Broadway veteran Anita Gillette came to campus to work with students interested in musical theater in a masterclass in Page Auditorium. The department and the Durham Arts Council also joined together to present an evening with Gillette in her one-woman show, After All.

After All gave audiences a look backstage with Tony nominee Gillette as she recounted a career that has taken her from performing alongside Ethel Merman in Gypsy to starring on Broadway in CarnivalCabaretGuys and Dolls, and more. As Gillette reminisced through her life in song, she revisited her friendship with Irving Berlin, her work in films like Moonstruck, and her experiences on TV in roles including Tina Fey’s mom on 30 Rock

The Liveness: Digital Media and Performance FOCUS class was fortunate to have a couple of days with the New York-based Builders Association in early November. The artists instructed students in their signature blend of stage performance, text, video, sound, and architecture to tell stories about human experience.

Jonathan Cullen, English actor of stage, film, and television and favorite with Duke students, spent part of fall semester in residence where he worked with Sarah Beckwith’s Shakespeare On Love class as well as visiting voice and speech, screenwriting, and dramatic writing classes. He also worked with the student theater group, Antic Shakespeare.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a Brooklyn-based playwright and dramaturg, came to campus in January to work with students in the Senior Colloquium and Advanced Playwriting classes. With Jacobs-Jenkins at the table, the students did a reading of An Octoroon, Jacobs-Jenkins’s riff on Boucicault’s 1859 classic The Octoroon.

Known for pushing the boundaries of subject matter and form, Jacobs-Jenkins is a former New York Theatre Workshop Playwriting fellow, an alum of the Soho Rep Writers/Directors Lab, the Public Theater Emerging Writers Group, and Ars Nova Playgroup. His honors include a Princess Grace Award, the Dorothy Strelsin Playwriting Fellowship, the Paula Vogel Award, two residencies with the Sundance Theatre Lab, and a fellowship in playwriting from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Duke alums Jeff Jackson, Jim Findlay, and Talya Klein also visited Senior Colloquium in the spring. Jackson is the author of the recent novel Mira Corpora, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and it appeared on numerous Best of 2013 lists. His short fiction has appeared in GuernicaVice, and The Collagist and his plays have been performed in New York and Los Angeles by New River Dramatists. Five of his plays have been produced by the Obie Award-winning Collapsable Giraffe theater company in New York City.

Findlay works across boundaries as a director, designer, visual artist, and performer.  He was a founding member of Collapsable Giraffe and Accinosco/Cynthia Hopkins, and is a frequent collaborator with Bang on a Can, Ralph Lemon, and Ridge Theater. He worked with the Wooster Group as a company member and designer from 1994-2003.

Klein, award-winning director, actor, and writer whose work has been seen in New York, Los Angeles, London, and recently at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, also worked with distinction candidate Drew Klingner on his senior distinction project while she was on campus to speak to the seniors.

Duke alum Kevin Poole, Naropa University MFA graduate and co-founder of the Colorado-based company Band of Toughs, also spent time on campus, directing a distinction project for senior Phil Watson. Read more about Kevin and his work here.

OBIE Award-winning, Brooklyn-based Hoi Polloi
 came back for a second year withRepublic. Conceived and directed by Duke alum Alec Duffy, with text by Noah Mease,Republic, which was partly developed last year on campus, was co-presented by the department, Duke Performances, and Manbites Dog Theater.

Hoi Polloi created a dream-like theatrical experience that tackled the massive moral questions raised by Socrates against an ever-shifting backdrop of characters and settings. An intimate audience at Manbites Dog Theater joined the symposium, addressing a fundamental human question: Why be good?

Professor Claire Conceison brought in several artists and scholars to speak to her classes over the year. For her Asian American Theater class, New York-based Singaporean artistMei Ann Teo led a workshop and talked about her work as a theater director. ActorJames Saito, recently seen in Life of Pi and on the heels of filming an episode of Hawaii Five-0, visited the class and gave a public lecture as a guest of Duke Asian American Theatre (DAAT).

Adam Versenyi, Chair of UNC Dramatic Art, dramaturg for PlayMakers Repertory Company and theater scholar, critic, author, director, and translator came to Conceison’s Play Translation course. And Harlem Globetrotters player Jet Williams paid a visit to her Sport as Performance class to discuss basketball on the global stage.

Finally, another guest artist and Duke alum, Greg Anderson closed out the year as speaker at our graduating senior dinner. An artistic associate with Remy Bumppo 
in Chicago, he has worked at the Northlight Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Court Theatre, and American Theater Company, as well as at Next Theatre, Noble Fool Theatricals, and Actors Revolution Theater.

Anderson is also involved in the Duke in Chicago summer program‎ on Arts and Entrepreneurship, led by Jody McAuliffe and making its debut this summer.


Sibyl Kempson was our first guest artist of the year, arriving in September to work on her new play, Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag.


Broadway legend Anita Gillette visited campus to work with musical theater students.


Singaporean artist Mei Ann Teo shared her experience as a theater director with the Asian American Theater class.


Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (center) watches and listens as students read his play, An Octoroon.


Jim Findlay was among the artists who spoke to students in Senior Colloquium about their projects in theater. Here is a scene from his recent work, The Red Chamber.


A scene from Republic by Hoi Polloi, led by artistic director and Duke alum Alec Duffy. Republic played at Manbites Dog Theater.


Greg Anderson, (front right) spoke to the graduating seniors at a farewell dinner.