2013-14 has been an exciting year for the Department of Theater Studies. We spent the spring semester developing new plays, screenplays, and a teleplay for the New Works Festival. We kicked off with a reading of guest playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ new play An Octoroon. Recently I learned that Branden just won the Obie for Best New American Play for Appropriate (Signature) and An Octoroon (SoHo Rep). I continue to be very proud of the fantastic guests we are able to bring to campus to work with the students.
The New Works Festival had been a hallmark of our department, but had not been produced for many years. What I saw on the final night, as the students all hugged each other and their friends, was a rich community of young people empowered and exhilarated about making their own work. This community was well in evidence in the distinction projects this year: Sam Kebede’s The Man Who—about the richness of life engendered by neurological disorders; Phil Watson’s An Iliad—an anti-war story, and Drew Klingner’sParade—a controversial musical about a lynching. For Duke Players Labs, senior Lindsay Samuel directed Caryl Churchill’s A Number, a disturbing play about the consequences of cloning, and junior Kelly McCrum directed Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, about to be revived by Steppenwolf on Broadway.
This season boasted some exciting work on the Mainstage: Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya—about the grief and comedy of missed opportunities, directed by Jeff Storer with some boldly experimental doubling of roles. Jules Odendahl-James directed Sophie Treadwell’sMachinal—a powerful piece about machines, murder, and the death penalty. Special guest Kali Quinn, expert in clown technique from Brown University, took the students in both of these shows on some very special journeys.
After last season’s developmental process in Theater Previews New Works, alum Alec Duffy brought his Obie-award winning company Hoi Polloi to perform their theater piece,Republic, as part of Duke Performances at Manbites Dog Theater. The fall Theater Previews New Works Lab hosted playwright Sibyl Kempson, her composer Ashley Fleming, and David Neumann, choreographer, for a staged reading of Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag. Her source materials were James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Menand Land and Life by Karl Sauer. Eight students participated and were thoroughly inspired by Sibyl’s intuitive writing and staging process. The ever-popular actor/director from London, Jonathan Cullen, returned last fall and worked with a number of different classes.
This was Bradley Rogers’ first year in the department as an assistant professor of theater studies. In his new seminar on Sondheim, Brad hosted Broadway legend Anita Gillette, and brought a happy group of students to New York City to see some exciting musical theater. The new Focus program I taught with William Nolan and Markos Hadjioannou hosted The Builders Association for a workshop in the fall. They were amazing, and so were the students.
On a different note, we are all sorry to see Jules Odendahl-James leave the department for a new post in academic advising, and to see Torry Bend leave for a post at University of Minnesota. We wish them both great success. Last but not least, we wish Michael Malone some well-earned R&R in his retirement from the university.
It has been an honor to serve as department chair this past year and I look forward to the coming year with great anticipation. Duke in Chicago stARTup Arts Entrepreneurship begins at the end of June. See you all soon!