The Dramaturg’s Desk: THE EXONERATED

THE EXONERATED production dramaturg Kathryn de la Rosa is a sophomore journalism and theater double major from Kentucky. She is an Ernie Pyle Scholar and a member of Hutton Honors College.

It’s unusual for an undergraduate to take on the role of dramaturg for an IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance main stage production. We welcome Kathryn’s first contribution here at 7th & Jordan and we’re grateful that she is willing to share her passion with us.

I started research for “The Exonerated” in July. At that point, 30 of the 50 states had the death penalty. In many of those states, America’s shortage of lethal injection drugs had temporarily halted executions. “The Exonerated”’s Kerry Max Cook finally had his fourth trial where the state of Texas dropped its murder charges against him after almost 40 years.

July was also the month of wall-to-wall national convention coverage.

A play’s significance can change in the years since its first production. Blank and Jensen did much of the research for “The Exonerated” in 2000. These were the months leading up to George W. Bush’s election. Under his governorship, Texas executed 131 inmates, many of whom were convicted in highly flawed trials similar to Kerry Max Cook’s.

We happened to do “The Exonerated” in an election year, four presidential races later. In the hours of Nov. 8, its significance shifted in the course of hours.

Rehearsal started in October. Director Liam Castellan and I finalized the actor’s packet the night of the second presidential debate at Washington University. That packet had an optimistic bent and carries the very wrong assumption that come November, the Democrats would retain the White House and possibly regain some control of Congress. More urgently for capital punishment, I wrote the packet assuming that Merrick Garland would push the Supreme Court further left. I summarized to the cast that the death penalty was on its way out.

One election later, we know what our country will look like for the next two to four years. President-elect Donald Trump has supported the death penalty for longer than he’s been a Republican. Three of the 11 people on Indiana’s death row were sentenced in the first year of vice president-elect Mike Pence’s governorship. Trump and the ever-Republican Senate will be responsible for filling the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s vacancy.

Unnoticed by national media amidst Trump’s victory were the results of state ballot initiatives in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma which variously expedited, reinstated or strengthened the death penalty.

The nation is firmly in Republican hands, a party whose platform says the death penalty is a constitutional right, and which condemns the Supreme Court’s “erosion of the right of the people to enact capital punishment in their states.” The court just heard a capital murder appeal from Texas today concerning mental disability. More death penalty cases will come to Washington in the coming years, before a court sure to be filled by Republican hands.

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Ansley Valentine (Delbert)

In the last minutes of “The Exonerated”, Delbert Tibbs, played by Associate Professor Ansley Valentine, says “I think some things about our country are fucked up — but I also think it’s a great country, you know, I really do.”

The note I wrote for the program is a relic more optimistic than I am now, but still based on reported fact. Anti-death penalty activism is an ongoing fight, with small victories undercut by many losses. The Pew Research Center found that public support for the death penalty was at an all-time low just as Ohio resumed executions. Dozens of inmates on Florida’s death row became eligible for resentencing before the election affirmed capital punishment’s place in our justice system.

We would do well to remember that a victim of our one country’s biggest failures saw no need to make it great again. Delbert’s example is vital.

Kathryn produces the podcast and radio program American Student Radio and has reported for the Indiana Daily Student. She wrote one of the plays produced for University Players and WIUX Presents: An Evening at the Radio in 2015.

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The Player’s Journal: Richkard Saint-Victor, Day 1

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Richkard Saint-Victor (Robert)

My name is Richkard Saint-Victor.

I am a senior theatre major and I am portraying Robert E. Hayes in the upcoming IU Theatre production of The Exonerated.

This play tells the story of six people convicted of crimes, which they did not commit, who were wrongfully incarcerated and put on death row. On my first reading of the play, I thought, “What did you do to get here?” However, after reading the research provided by our dramaturg, it became apparent to me that these events are not unique, and occur more often than one would imagine. In this play, we witness just how dysfunctional the American criminal justice system is.

“If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone”- Kerry Max Cook.

These were the words that echoed in my head after the first table reading. I could not help but wonder how much these characters’ stories could be my own. We all understand the experience of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. This can be seen in the many  cases in which others were wrongfully convicted of crimes. Robert Hayes is a man who spends 7.5 years in prison, yet finds humor in his situation. This humor is an extension of an awareness of his place in society. To me, Robert is a comedian, in his own right. Whether he is laughing in pleasure, or laughing to hide his pain, Robert’s one-liners gives an insight into the character.

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Saint-Victor and Lee Martin (Georgia)

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Time Management (Or Lack Thereof)

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It’s November?! Wait, what? What happened to all the other months? It was August, like, four minutes ago! So this means I have one more full month of classes before my first semester in grad school winds down. And considering the stack of books that I still need to read… that’s terrifying.

I’ve become very aware over the last few months that going back to school after a number of years away is really hard. It’s a totally different type of time management than “the real world”, and it’s also a different kind of stress.

In San Francisco, I was very busy: I worked a full-time office job, put in another 20 hours a week at a bar, and crammed theatre work into every spare minute of my schedule. But everything had a ‘reset’: a clean ending point where the stress dissolved. For my office job and bar job, that reset was usually at the end of every shift: no matter how much I had to do at work or how hard it was, I was done when I left the building. When I was directing a production, regardless of how difficult the process was, I was finished on opening night, and the stress dissipated.

A university semester has that reset as well, of course, at the end of the semester. But that’s a four-month period, which is quite a long duration to have ongoing stress, and nearly all my responsibilities here are running concurrently along the same schedule. So now, in this final month of the semester, I’m swimming in unfinished projects, unread books, and unwritten essays, and time is running out.

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Okay, one of these has just GOT to be more important than the other, but I can’t for the life of me figure out which one…

Clearly, I made a few time management errors this semester. But at least I still have a chance to turn this into a learning opportunity for myself. Here you go, Future James, I made you a list:

THINGS JAMES NEEDS TO REMEMBER NEXT SEMESTER FOR BETTER TIME MANAGEMENT:

  • Don’t save all your ‘end of semester projects’ for the end of the semester. If I had broken up my reading list evenly over all four months, I wouldn’t be cramming so much right now. If I had started researching for my 15-page Caryl Churchill paper or chipped away at my term project for directing class, I wouldn’t be rushing to the finish line on them. I’ve had all of these on my plate since August, so why didn’t I try to knock out more of the work earlier?
  • Use your short pockets of time. Every day, I have small windows of time – 15 minutes here, half an hour there… if I add up all that extra time in between classes, rehearsals, and meetings, it’s a substantial amount of potential productivity. I need to snap out of the mentality of “Ah, it’s only a few minutes, what could I really get done anyway?” 
  • Plan tasks accordingly for time of day: I’m most alert, creative, and productive between 10AM and 1PM, so to be most efficient, I should plan my most mentally taxing activities during that window. It feels good to work when your brain is working too.
  • Don’t read in bed. All right, let’s settle down, turn on this dim light, and read fifty pages of zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
  • Don’t let yourself get distracted on the internet. When you’re already on your computer working, it’s so easy to click over to Facebook (or in this particular semester, FiveThirtyEight to check the status of the election) after every paragraph of writing an assignment for class. This eats up SO MUCH TIME. Not just the time spent looking at something else, but the time that it takes me to get my head back into the work I was doing. If I fail all my classes this semester, it’s Donald Trump’s fault.
  • Give yourself a to-do list for each day. But not just the most urgent, immediate things: chip away at some long-term projects too. If I assign specific tasks for myself to get done at some point during the day, I’ll either get them done or at least I’ll be aware that I didn’t, and hopefully try to catch up the next day. 
  • Take breaks, but keep them short. I’ve started setting a timer for myself when I play video games or watch TV. Relaxing for a bit is really great, but it’s too easy to let it stretch on way too long. I mean, as good as Uncharted 4 is, beating the game doesn’t have a due date. 
  • Always carry work with you. I frequently find myself with a spare few minutes – maybe a class got out early, or parking was easier than usual. If I’ve got something to do at the ready, I’ll be more likely to use the time productively and less likely to bury my face in my phone. 
  • If you’re writing on your blog, make sure you limit your articles to 800 words. Otherwise you’ll neglect your other
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‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ last stop for IU’s George Pinney

By Joel Pierson H-T Theater columnist

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Ryan Sandy, left, works with director George Pinney in last season’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

I usually look forward to writing my column. Through it, I get to share exciting theater news with the people of this community. But today that exciting news is tinged with a little melancholy, because George Pinney is directing his farewell performance for the Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance. After an amazing 30 years in the department, George is hanging it up in favor of retirement, so I’m happy for him and sad for us.

In the interest of going out in style, Pinney has chosen to direct the 1971 musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The duo’s second effort at pillaging the Bible for hits resulted in a hippie-friendly retelling of the gospels that has had a strong following for the past 45 years.

If you know your Bible, then a synopsis is a bit superfluous here. Let me instead say that the musical presents song after memorable song about Christ and his followers in his final days on Earth. Mary Magdalene features prominently, with such songs as “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” as does Judas Iscariot, whose role in the crucifixion is presented as an inevitable, unalterable occurrence, one he wants no part of.

Of the show, Pinney says, “Having wanted to direct ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ since I saw the first national concert tour back in 1971, I have always been intrigued by the lyric, ‘If you strip away the myth from the man, you will see where we all soon will be.’ This ambiguous statement about faith is fully explored and debated through the actors’ intentions, the soaring music, and the spectacle created by costumes, sets, lights, and sound, wedded with a passionate creative team and enormously talented acting company.”

I asked Pinney how it felt to be on the cusp of his final IU production, and he replied, “Elated and terrified all at the same time. But truly, the students are making every minute of this final shot an absolute dream.” I then asked if he’d be doing anything especially extravagant and surprising for this show, and he gave me only a hint by saying, “Oh, yes! This production is full of surprises created by a dynamite team that gives excitement a whole new meaning.” Well played, Professor. Well played.

Bloomington won’t feel quite like Bloomington without George in it, but his plans may just take him a bit out of reach. He told me, “Scott and I plan to transition to a house on a lake with a kayak on the dock in the midst of a vibrant art scene. With family and friends close by, we are seriously considering the Berkshires (in Massachussetts).”

He offered a personal message to local audiences: “Thank you for your support, enthusiasm, love and joy. I always have said, ‘The final character to a production is the audience.’ Bloomington theatergoers are first-class leading players!”

Contact Joel by sending an email to features@heraldt.com with “Pierson” in the subject line.

If you go

WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance

WHAT: “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4-5, 8-12; 2 p.m. Nov. 12

WHERE: Ruth N. Halls Theater, 275 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington

TICKETS: $15-$25. Call 812-855-1103 or visit theatre.indiana.edu.

Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times.

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IU professor, director, choreographer George Pinney ready to graduate

By Marci Creps, The Herald Times

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George Pinney (right) works with Robert Toms and Miles TIllman in rehearsal for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in Spring, 2016

After 30 years of teaching at Indiana University, George Pinney is ready for something new.

His first job at IU was doing choreography for a production of “The Boyfriend.” In 2001, he was nominated for a Tony Award and a National Broadway Theatre Award in choreography. And he’s won an Emmy for outstanding choreography for the PBS broadcast of “Blast.” And with such an impressive resume, he admits he loves to teach.

“It’s my first passion,” he said.

But since the age of 5, Pinney has been on one side of the desk or the other — first as a student and then as a teacher. “And it’s time for me to graduate,” he said.

Graduation is something Pinney is familiar with as he’s had to say goodbye to many students as they’ve moved from student to professional.

Over his years of teaching, Pinney has seen a lot of changes, too.

“The bar keeps rising every year,” he said, adding that students come to IU with much more experience and training. They’re also looking at theater as a profession.

“The talent level, too, has also been going up every year,” he said.

Pinney has also been thrilled to see the students succeed.

For the theater faculty, it is important that everyone continue to stay active in their profession. Pinney said that was something that was emphasized that the faculty would be working and staying current in their field.

The advent of social media has most definitely changed how students can be judged in a very different light. In recent years, students have learned that having a high presence on social media can make a difference to a theater production looking to reach younger audiences. In other words, those who have lots of followers and use social media often may be chosen over an equally talented actor with less of a social media presence.

Staying active in their careers means the faculty can more easily help students as they know what they will experience through their own professional career.

“Things change. Attitudes change. Expectations change,” Pinney said. “A faculty member needs to be a part of that.”

Pinney may be leaving but he’s quite confident that the remaining staff will continue to provide a high-quality education for the students. Ken Roberson, Ray Fellman, Liz Gennaro and Terry LaBolt are just a few of the incredible staff members that Pinney pointed out as actively working in their field and creating great opportunities for their students.

“They’re incredible,” he said.

As for what’s next, Pinney will move after he finishes in May. He and his husband Scott Jones are making plans to move. Then, Pinney will be ready to try something new.

“I truly want to reinvent myself,” he said.

He’s had some ideas of what he might do including writing a book about his method of teaching.

And while he looks forward to the future, Pinney knows he’ll miss a lot about teaching.

“The big thing I will miss will be walking into the classroom with highly motivated, talented students,” he said.

Arts editor Marci Creps can be reached at 812-331-4375 or mcreps@heraldt.com.

Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times.

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Plenty of laughs in IU’s production of Tony-winning play

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Abby Lee as Masha

Watching the first few minutes of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” one would not expect that Vanya and Sonia are the siblings of a movie star. They are the epitome of frumpiness.

While Vanya sips his coffee, Sonia wonders about the whereabouts of the blue heron she often spots through the window of the family’s Pennsylvania farmhouse. She also reminds Vanya that she has always been attracted to him. She was adopted, Sonia stresses, so it’s not weird.

Vanya and Sonia may not exude glamor and prestige, but their sister Masha does. She’s a high-profile actor — not as in demand as she used to be, but a star nonetheless. She’s the one who pays for the house where Vanya and Sonia live. She visits occasionally, often accompanied by a brand new man.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is Christopher Durang’s latest hit. The renowned playwright already had a litany of successes behind him when “Vanya” arrived on Broadway in 2013, but after winning a Tony for Best Play, this could be his most popular show yet.

It’s a comedy in the bizarre yet broadly appealing style that Durang has come to be known for. Durang’s work frequently makes references to famous dramas, and this play is something of an homage to Anton Chekhov. Themes, motifs and character names from Chekhov plays crop up throughout the script.

The Indiana University department of theatre, drama and contemporary dance is presenting “Vanya” this week in the Wells-Metz Theatre. Department chairman Jonathan Michaelsen has directed a lively production.

The events of “Vanya” take place during one of Masha’s brief visits to the family home. This time around, she’s with a rambunctious stud by the name of Spike. He’s too young for her, but more importantly, too stupid.

Masha, who has been dumped more than a few times, has a crippling (and legitimate) fear that Spike will abandon her. When she spies him chatting with a petite neighbor out by the pond, she frantically beckons him indoors. To Masha’s dismay, Spike brings little Nina in with him.

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Talia Santia as the sweet and sincere Nina.

Nina, a diehard fan of Masha, gleefully joins the four title characters for a costume party that evening. As if those five characters together aren’t strange enough, Durang also throws in a cleaning woman who constantly shouts ominous warnings and prophecies. Her name is Cassandra, and she usually knows what she’s talking about.

Durang’s writing strikes a delicate balance between realism and exaggerated humor, and Michaelsen’s production reflects that balance well. The six actors (three MFA students and three undergraduates) are all sharp and energetic.

Tara Chiusano gives an amusing but tender performance as Sonia. When a man from the costume party calls and asks her out to dinner, her nervous joy is adorable.

Abby Lee and Robert Toms pair excellently as Masha and Spike. Toms gives perhaps the most outlandish performance, in keeping with his character’s immature and bawdy persona.

The play is consistently funny, but the storyline is not compelling. Tony Award notwithstanding, I see a lack of focus and coherence in Durang’s writing.

For example, the opening bit about Sonia being attracted to Vanya is never followed up on. It’s simply abandoned. In the second act, Vanya has an impassioned monologue about nostalgia for the 1950s and the perils of modern technology. It’s a good speech, but I could not see how it was connected to the plot or themes of the play.

Some viewers will be bothered by little kinks like those. Others will be content to sit back and lap up the jokes, of which there is no shortage.

The quality of the production owes a lot to the stunning interior set designed by Alana Yurczyk. Courtney Foxworthy’s costume design is highly sensitive to the peculiarities of each character.

IU Theatre’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” at the very least, offers up some hearty laughs.

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James Nelson takes a dance class

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Hahaha! I’ve had some pretty clever blog post titles, but that one just takes the cake! Me? In a dance class? Hahaha!

Look, I’m a bad dancer. I don’t say this in a shy, self-conscious way. No, no. What I mean is that I’m horrendously unskilled at moving my body elegantly, or coordinating what my hands and feet are doing in relation to one another. Especially when music is involved. Also, I find it about as much fun as juggling rabid starving badgers tied to sticks of dynamite (which now that I’ve typed it, sounds much more fun). I’ve had this scene play out many times in my life:

FRIEND: Hi, James. You should dance right now for some reason!

ME: Uh, no, you don’t want that to happen.

FRIEND: Whaaaaat!? C’mon, dance! Dance!

ME: No, please no. I’m a really bad dancer, and I don’t like dancing.

FRIEND: You can’t be that bad. C’mon, dance!

ME: I’m so unhappy. (dances for a second)

FORMER FRIEND: Oh god. Please, stop. That’s…. I have to go now. (leaves forever)

ME: (starts juggling rabid starving badgers tied to sticks of dynamite) Yup, this is indeed more fun than dancing.

Which is why when it was recommended that I take Styles Acting this semester because the course would heavily focus on period dance, I had to take a real hard look at my life and decide how much I was willing to put myself through for the sake of my education.

IU had the fortune of bringing in the wonderful Nira Pullin, who specializes in period movement and dance, to choreograph Dancing at Lughnasa and teach the first eight weeks of the Styles Acting course. All nine MFA actors were enrolled in the course… and so was I.

On the first day of the semester, Nira asked us all what he hoped to get out of the class. “I just don’t want to hold anybody else up,” I said sheepishly.

“Do you know which foot is your left? Your right?” she asked lightly. “Then you’ll be fine.”

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Nira Pullin in rehearsal for Dancing at Lughnasa 

Well, Nira was lying through her teeth. She knew the Charleston would haunt my dreams and destroy my life, but I’ve forgiven her for it.

The course was a whirlwind, and in the eight weeks Nira began with medieval circle dances and worked her way all the way up to the 1920s. She would periodically lecture for a bit about important context for the relevant period, including history, rulers, manners, and social customs, talking a mile a minute while we furiously scribbled notes in our journals. Then, we would learn versions of the appropriate dances, practice them briefly, and sometimes take exams over the choreography.

The course was a series of surprises for me. The first was, dancing isn’t always hard. A lot of the footwork for the early dances was manageable even for me, and the steps and moves build on each other in a logical way. When we reached later dances, it seemed like we had adequately built up the skills to piece them together, and we started moving much more quickly later in the semester.

The second surprise was that learning period dances is helpful for a lot of theatrical reasons – the posture and footwork required for these dances was informative for any stage movement in a period play, and the bows, manners, and physical contact in the dances is all very informative. After several centuries of dances with only hand contact, the first time we worked on a dance that required a hold at the waist felt almost scandalous. Also, Nira was very helpful in showing us how we could directly plug her choreography into a show from the respective period, so it should be a rich well of material to draw from in the future.

The third surprise was that it was… fun. A little. Bouncing around to music straight from a renaissance festival while trying to keep a straight face kept me looking forward to class each day, and the chance to break the ice with the nine MFA actors by sharing this class with them was a real joy.

At the end of the eight weeks, we had a showcase of what we had learned, and it was actually quite impressive to see the ground we had covered: a dozen dances spanning from the dark ages to the jazz age, along with some commedia work and a couple demonstrations of period movement with text. We also had dense journals packed with choreography, research, and resources to revisit the work.

If every class in grad school can challenge me, excite me, and make me work as much as Nira’s class did, I’ll be a much different director leaving here than I am starting out.

But don’t hold out any hopes for my dancing career. My preference still leans toward the badgers.

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