The First-Year Project connects the Class of 2025 with the Dartmouth community through theater

First-year students perform songs, skits and monologues at the Bentley Theater.

by Alexandra Surprenant | 10/19/21 2:05am

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First Year Project in Hanover, NH on Thursday, October 14, 2021. Copyright 2021 Rob Strong
Source: Courtesy of Rob Strong

On October 15 and 16, first-year students participated in the First-Year Project, a two-part performance at the Bentley Theater put on by members of the Class of 2025. The production, directed by theater professor Peter Hackett,  aimed to offer first-year students an opportunity to introduce themselves to the Dartmouth theater department and to the larger community. 

The show assembled a diverse range of creative material, including personal statements from the performers’ college applications and sections from two plays, Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information” and Suzan-Lori Parks’s “365 Days/365 Plays.” Cast members performed songs, skits and monologues.

The show was distinct in its auditions process — or rather, its lack thereof. Instead of being evaluated based on auditions, performers were selected by their demonstrated interest and commitment. 

In an interview with The Dartmouth, Hackett stressed accessibility as a crucial goal of the production.

“This is the first year we’ve done it,” Hackett said. “During COVID, we [the faculty, the theatre department and students] actually had a lot of time to talk about what we'd like to see when things got back running — we were very focused on taking down as many perceived barriers to students getting access to the department as possible.”

Hackett added that while he tried to act as a helping hand for students, he did not impose any idea of what the performances should be. Instead, students brought forward ideas and materials, then worked with Hackett to bring  plans to fruition. Dagny Scannell ’25, who participated in several skits and sang “I’m Not Afraid of Anything,” appreciated that the rehearsal process gave students room to participate in the design of the show. 

“It’s been a really organic process of choosing the actual material that we’re performing,” Scannell said. “The scenes that we’re performing mean something different to all of us. We’re trying to bring some of our own personal lives into the show to introduce ourselves.”

Some members of the First-Year Project said that performing in person again after more than a year-long hiatus filled them with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. For cast member Jack Sinatra ’25, who was not able to perform in person during his last two years of high school,  working on the First-Year Project reminded him of his love for theater.

“It's been a little bit more transformative than a normal rehearsal process,” Sinatra said. “I'm falling in love with theater again and what I’m doing.”

Sinatra added that the performance process also came with challenges. He expressed the difficulty of relearning some aspects of theater participation, like memorizing lines and balancing school work with a rigorous rehearsal schedule. But Sinatra said that the sense of community among the performers made the obstacles worthwhile and the nerves more bearable.

“We're all in this together and it's not a single thing anymore,” Sinatra reflected. “It’s an ensemble now.”

Hackett applauded cast members for their bravery in embracing the First-Year Project, especially as first-year students navigating both the theater department and campus for the first time.

“What they’re doing is pretty courageous,” Professor Hackett said, “They’re doing this with really no technical support and under just work lights — no theatrical lights, no costuming and with masks.”

Hackett added that the show itself required students to be particularly vulnerable, not only because performers shared personal writing or chose their own songs, but because of how the production made use of the intimacy of the venue, Bentley Theater. During the show, audience members sat around a center stage close to the performers, and cast members walked among the audience while performing skits from “Love and Information.” After the performance, audience member Jamie Liu ’25 reflected on how the audience felt included in the show.

“A highlight was when all of them were participating in a single scene,” Liu said. “Everybody was on the stage and they were interacting with us, the audience. It felt like we were also part of the show.”

Liu also admired the students’ performance abilities in spite of having to wear masks. As an audience member, she said, it is important to understand what the performers are trying to communicate and masks could make this difficult.

“I have never seen a show with masks,” Liu said. “But they were actually really energetic. I heard all of their voices and I felt their emotion. I feel like they were conquering that obstacle.”

Hackett, along with other cast members, explained that while the pandemic had previously disrupted the collaborative nature of theater, the First-Year Project felt like a return to theater’s normality. In allowing first-years to share in the creation of art, the project had the effect of unifying cast members from diverse backgrounds, according to Sinatra and Scannell.

“We all come from very different places, and we have vastly different backgrounds, not only in theatre, but we also have generally different perspectives,” Scannell said. “It doesn't make us divided. It actually creates a more cohesive ensemble and a more cohesive class. It's really brought us together.”

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