Students and alumni workshop VoxFest theater projects

by Sophia Siu | 7/7/16 5:00pm

During the annual theater festival VoxFest, Dartmouth students escape the classroom to experiment and workshop with alumni bringing theater projects to campus.

Vox Theater, an alumni theater company, is in residence at Dartmouth from July 1 to 8 to workshop four theater works-in-progress with Dartmouth students and faculty. The weeklong festival, titled VoxFest, will culminate with the showcase of these projects in the Bentley Theater at the Hopkins Center.

Three Dartmouth alumni Matthew Cohn ’08, Kate Mulley ’05 and Thom Pasculli ’05 formed VoxFest with the goal of fostering partnerships among alumni working in the arts.

VoxFest, which is in its fourth year, allows alumni to not only bring art back to campus, but also to integrate current Dartmouth students in the creative process.

VoxFest began on July 3 with the performance of “Vox Barter,” a collage of new works by VoxFest artists curated by Olivia Gilliatt ’08. Interactions between old theater troupes and residents of the towns in which they performed inspired the improvisational nature of “Vox Barter” works.

The four productions are “Grab the Land,” directed by Cliff Campbell ’04, “Grey Lady,” directed by Lillian King ’07, “Macbeth in Rhythm,” directed by Hannah Chodos ’06 and “Tear a Root from the Earth,” directed by Marina McClure ’04.

“[Alumni] from Dartmouth come and bring a project that they’re working on, and they’re using the Dartmouth facilities in order to workshop it, be that create a new ending or workshop a new story or change characters,” Haley Gordon ’18 said. “Whatever part of the process they’re on, that’s what they work on.”

Gordon is currently enrolled in Theater 65 and involved in “Tear a Root from the Earth.”

Students in professor Jamie Horton’s Theater 65 course, “New Plays in Development,” are assigned to one of the four productions where they can learn from and collaborate with Dartmouth alumni. The students work in different capacities depending on their interests and skills, Gordon said.

McClure noted that artistic retreats and professional theater programs, including the New York Theater Company and the Sun Dance Theater Lab, influenced VoxFest. The workshops expose students to collaboration among professional theater artists.

“A lot of the learning is observational because they’re watching us, professional artists, make a new work sort of from the ground up,” McClure remarked. “This is great because it’s a chance for them to see how things get made in the real world, outside of a college or educational situation.”

McClure’s production, “Tear a Root from the Earth,” is a folk musical following a rural Afghan family over the course of several generations. The piece is adapted from a concept album written by Americana and folk artist Johnny Walsh and his band Gramophonic.

Last year, McClure worked on the first act of “Tear a Root from the Earth” at VoxFest. The first act is set in Afghanistan in 2006-2007, at the height of the insurgency. The second act, which she is currently workshopping, is set in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

The musical explores a young woman’s relationship to political ideology, family and the external forces pressuring family during the occupation, McClure said.

“The music starts off very traditional, and then it begins to have foreign Western influences, and eventually it turns very folky. It kind of sounds like American music, and that’s supposed to speak to the influence of foreign powers in the country even though there are no foreign characters,” Gordon said. “There are no characters who are not part of the Afghani family.”

Walsh and Afghan musician Qais Essar co-composed Act Two, fusing Essar’s traditional and classical Afghan sounds with Gramophonic’s Americana folk, blues and rock music.

Gordon and Sid Mehra ’18 are working with McClure on the piece in very different capacities. Mehra plays one of the characters in the musical and performs in the band. Gordon, on the other hand, works as McClure’s assistant director and stage manager while completing dramaturgical research.

“The teaching is very hands-on, in the sense that there are practical things that they’re accomplishing and contributing to the work,” McClure said.

Chodos’ concept piece, “Macbeth in Rhythm,” is based on the director’s graduate school actor training. The production is an abridged version of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” retaining the text while also incorporating Serbian and Georgian folk songs and experimenting with rhythm and touch.

Virginia Ogden ’18 is acting in the production along with several professional actors from Los Angeles.

“I think it’s a really, really cool way for someone like me to see what people who have taken my courses are doing in the field of theater right now,” Ogden said. “The variety is incredible — the fact that it’s being offered here in Hanover is incredible because this is world-class theater.”

“Macbeth in Rhythm” and “Tear a Root from the Earth” will play at the Bentley Theater tonight, July 8, at 5:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., respectively.

Haley Gordon ’17 is a member of The Dartmouth senior staff.