‘The Lifers' brings post-graduation relationships to the stage

by Gordon Reed | 10/7/12 10:00pm

"The Lifers," an original, sharply written comedy-drama play by Maia Matsushita '13, premiered this weekend as part of Dartmouth's "Your Space" series. Matsushita's play chronicles the breakdown of the relationships between three young adult friends who all aspire to follow their dreams while trying not to leave one another behind.

The play stars Max Hunter '13, who also directed the show, Jack Coster '13 and Emma Orme '15 and was performed on Friday night and Sunday afternoon, with both showings attracting large, enthusiastic crowds to the Bentley Theater.

"The Lifers" succeeds in portraying a relatable tale of the subtle mistakes and flaws that lead friends to drift apart over time. Scott (Hunter), a struggling poet who is miserably employed in a menial job at a coffee shop, struggles to understand his friends' lack of empathy for his situation. Meanwhile, his two best friends Mark (Coster) and Annie (Orme) are working toward the careers to which they have always aspired in spite of their lack of pay Mark is in medical school, and Annie has a photography internship. Mark and Annie, who are dating, are experiencing problems of their own, as their professional lives overshadow their personal relationship.

As the characters prepare for a fourth friend's 23rd birthday party, their quarreling natures creep up, ultimately unearthing revelations about the strength and weaknesses in their relationships. Trying to compensate for the apathy of her friends, Annie, who drives the action of the play, draws a frantic sense of pathos to the characters.

Matsushita said that the idea for her play grew out of a conversation she had while studying abroad. A fellow student asked whether she herself had any "lifers," meaning friends with whom she would keep in contact for the rest of her life. Picking up from that premise, the play seeks to capture the anxiety and uncertainty of diminished friendships and the struggle to keep relationships alive when outside pressures seem to make their survival impossible. The play speaks to the concerns of seniors like Matsushita in their final year at Dartmouth, as they consider whether friendships will last after graduation.

Suitably, Matsushita enlisted the help of her close friend, Hunter, in order to realize her play on stage.

"Max knows me so well," she said. "He understands my voice as a writer and what I'm going for better than anyone else."

Although this was Hunter's first time directing, he was a natural choice to direct the play. The collaboration between the playwright, director and actors was one built off a series of strong friendships: Matsushita is close friends with Hunter, Hunter is close family friends with Coster and Matsushita and Orme are both members of the all-female a cappella group the Rockapellas.

Hunter emphasized that his understanding of Maia's artistic voice and writing style facilitated their efforts to stage a successful play with only a two-week timeframe.

"I can see her characters through her eyes, and that brings the characters off the page and onto the stage," he said.

Hunter performed in a reading of Maia's play for their "Advanced Playwriting" class last year while the show was still in its early stages.

Cast members Orme and Coster were also friends of the writer-director team, leading to a tightly controlled rehearsal process. Similar to how his friendship with Matsushita helped inform his direction, Hunter said that his prior familiarity with Orme and Coster's talents and personalities aided in his direction. A far cry from the disharmony exhibited by the play's three characters, Hunter characterized the rehearsal period as being short and intense, but also enjoyable and fulfilling.

As a creative team, Hunter and Matsushita were primarily responsible for bringing the show together, overseeing the lighting, set design, acting, sound cues and additional concerns in order to see to it that the show would be successfully performed, according to Hunter.

Theater professor Joseph Sutton, in between praising the show and its positive reception, said that the nature of the "Your Space" program prepares students to deal head-on with the collaborative aspect of theater performances.

"The playwright has to be much more of an entrepreneur than she had to be 40 years ago," Sutton said.

By putting responsibility on artists to take care of the logistics of production, Dartmouth prepares aspiring writers to take necessary control over their artistic product, according to Sutton. This program allows Dartmouth students, professors and family members of Dartmouth undergraduates the unique opportunity of seeing theatrical productions run entirely by students.

Matsushita is no stranger to praise and attention for her playwriting. An experienced playwright, Matsushita was awarded the Dodd Prize in the Frost Dodd Competition, which is part of the Eleanor Frost and Ruth and Loring Dodd Play Festival, last year for her play "Higher Ground."

As part of her reward, she received a cash prize and her play was fully produced for the Dartmouth stage by theater professor Peter Hackett.

"It's great having someone who can unabashedly edit you," she said of both Hunter and Hackett.

In both instances, her plays were served well by the directors' vision and input. An anthropology major and a theater minor, Maia said she hopes to continue writing plays in the future.

"The Lifers" provided poignant, humorous insight into the nature of friendships and the question of their permanence they are. The play also served to further establish Matsushita as one of Dartmouth's foremost playwrights exhibiting a careful control of the craft of writing for stage and a unique voice.