Kristin Dombek '94
The Gezon stage is set, but crudely; a board balanced on a wastebasket is a table, and two chairs represent a fireplace. Stave manager Susie Bruninck and assistant Mike Goudzwaard putter efficiently, arranging props and re-chalking lines. Cast members lie scattered among the makeshift furnishings, as director Jeanne Leep begins a half-hour warm-up that includes vocal exercises and some vigorous jigging all around. Finally, "places": Amy Ornee, Heather Fields, Herb Fynewever, Karen Hutcheson, Kevin Glass, Rachel Korf, and Sarah Klop pose for the opening tableau and wait for rehearsal to begin. This is the first "slog-through" of Dancing at Lughnasa, and the cast is tense. Leep has pushed for early line memorization, so they have been without scripts for a week, but tonight, for the first time, they will run the whole play.
Brian Poel enters and begins, "When I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936…" This play, the first production of the Calvin College Thespians under the new name of the "Calvin Theater Company," is about remembering. It is also about family, and though at present these actors are only concerned with the small task of remembering two hours of lines, blocking, and choreography, by performing on this stage they are a part of a family whose collective memory stretches back to before this stage, or even this campus, was built.
"I think that the play Jeanne is doing is important because it celebrates life." Ervina Boeve sits in the lounge of the communication arts and sciences department, recalling her years as director, costume designer, only the theater faculty, and mother of the Thespians.
"This is why I came to Calvin-we have been given so much, and often someone has to help us to remember it. I was helped, so I wanted to put this to work for others. Our talents are not sinful; they are gifts. I loved Calvin, and I had a wonderful education-what could I give back? I wanted to help students not to be afraid to celebrate their gifts."
When Ervina Boeve came to Calvin in 1954 (with husband Edgar joining the Calvin art department three years later), there was a Thespian Club which put on, as she calls them, "good high school level plays," directed by area high school directors. With a degree in theater from the University of Michigan, Boeve was something of a novelty. She began teaching a course called "Introduction to Theater." The first year the bookstore administration asked if they could put covers on the books, which were titled Theater Arts; they weren't sure if students should be seen carrying them around. "Theater," Mrs. Boeve told them, "is a perfectly good English word, and it does not necessarily mean something bad. Don't cover them."
Thus began Boeve's long struggle to win understanding and support for theater at Calvin. When the speech department asked her to be the director of Thespians in 1956, Boeve demanded that the club become a class, with regular meetings, so that students would learn to take theater seriously. To this day, the Thespians meet on Tuesdays from 4:00 to 5:00, just as they did in 1954. Boeve wanted her students to produce real literature, literature the school's constituents were often reluctant to accept. For the twenty-four years she was director of Thespians, her struggle against mores and close-mindedness was fueled by her belief that celebrating life through the art of theater is a natural and integral part of a Christian faith, and especially a Reformed faith.
Rehearsal progresses steadily; already present are the beginnings of believable and interesting characters. But actors are calling "line" often, stumbling over words and struggling with the Irish lilt the script requires. Jeanne Leep watches from a desk in the center section. At some points she shakes her head. She is taking notes, furiously.
"The plays I get the most excited about are plays in which I see something of myself in the characters," Leep says, reflecting on the play she is directing and the plays in which she performed at Calvin. She graduated just two years ago and it feels strange to be a professor, albeit a temporary one, in a place where she so recently studied. But it's good to be home.
Leep's first role at Calvin was a small one in The Diviners in the spring of 1988. She was later cast in a scene from a Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, sparking a love for that playwright which culminated in her most important role at Calvin-"Blanche" in A Streetcar Named Desire-and her thesis work.
Back at Calvin to direct the Calvin Theater Company's (CTC) production of Dancing at Lughnasa, Leep finds that her years at the University of Michigan have not only qualified her to direct at Calvin, but have given her a deeper appreciation for Calvin's theater program. The quality of Calvin theater is competitive, she has learned, but the Thespian group at Calvin is unique in that it is not primarily competitive or political. Instead, Calvin Thespians are bonded by making art together and by traditions that have characterized the group from the start.
Perhaps the most prominent Thespian tradition is fighting the limitations of tradition. Always Calvin Thespians have sought to pose the next questions to the college community, through their art and often through their lifestyle. This was especially true in the sixties. Some of the best Thespians at the time rented a barn, called it "The Edwin Booth Memorial Theater," and produced and directed plays that would not ordinarily be performed on campus. Now Sushi Theater carries on the tradition of student-produced work, but is sanctioned by the "establishment." Another long-standing tradition, the Thespian/Chimes rivalry, was in full force during those years also, though the two groups mingled more than they have in recent years, and were conscious of being on artistic missions with similar goals.
There were other traditions that had more to do with being a family than with challenging the college community. In those days the Boeves were "Mr. and Mrs. B;" they were also Mom and Dad. Having them for parents meant first read-through at their Reed's Lake home and swimming in their pool in the summer. Then there was Hattem's Restaurant on Wealthy and Division, for opening night festivities, and the closing part complete with a full parody of the play (still happening, but now called "Smorg.")
Dave Leugs is videotaping rehearsal so he can check Leep's blocking against his set design and light plot. They converse during the run, pointing to sections of the stage. Because this is a memory play, they want no solid interior/exterior distinction. Inside and outside will be established dreamily through lighting. Under the house lights, however, actors appear to be walking through walls and windows, and Leep and Leugs laugh at the effect.
"We have our heads on straight," says Leugs, sitting in the office he designed, along with the adjacent Lab Theater and scene shop, when he was hired as technical director six years ago. " We don't try to do fourteen shows a year-we're very process oriented here, which is, I think, the way liberal arts ought to work, especially in the theater." A Calvin alum, with an MFA from U of M, Leugs designs lights for all shows, converts the scenic designer's drawings into technical drawings for the builders, supervises set building, light hanging, and the running crew for each, and has also designed seven of the sets since he's been here. He supervises paid student employees as well as the Thespian volunteers, who are required to do twenty hours of crew work if they are not performing in a show.
As the Latest addition to technical theater faculty at Calvin, Leugs represents the high quality of Calvin's theater facilities, as well as a renewed vision for process-oriented theater in which all components are equally important to each production.
At the Franklin Street campus Thespians rehearsed in the Hekman building and toted their sets and equipment downtown to the pre-renovated St. Cecilia's for productions. Mr. B designed the sets, which were constructed and stored in a garage across the street from the campus. Mrs. B designed the costumes, which were rented; alterations were done in her home.
When the Fine Arts Center was built, theater at Calvin underwent a technical revolution. Actin in this big box of a theater was challenging, and learning about its capabilities took a while, but the FAC opened up a whole world of technical possibilities. The lab theater was in F126, a room that now houses faculty offices. It was a oddly shaped room, painted black, in which a little tower was built with lighting and stage manager's booths. What is now the "green room" was then the scene shop. In 1974 the Gezon was built, and later the scene shop was moved into the Service Building. Finally, in 1989, work on the Lab Theater and scene shop was complete.
James Korf was hired as scenic designer during the time of transition to the FAC, and remained as designer, director, and professor through all the changes of facilities. He was director of Thespians from the fall of 1980 to the spring of 1986. Remembering fondly shows like Godspell and The Diviners, Korf says, "A good play is one which asks the best questions. The ones that have to be asked-the ones that sometimes make people angry." Plays like these, Korf believes, demand that students grow together in response to these difficult questions while working on the play. "It's a very Christian thing that happens-people are loved and drawn into the group.
Korf was succeeded by Patricia VandenBerg, who directed Thespians until 1993. With Korf's technical expertise theater at Calvin blossomed; seven or so shows a year were produced. VandenBerg tightened up the program, decreasing the number of shows to concentrate on quality and style.
Now on sabbatical, VandenBerg has handed over the reins to Debra Freeberg, a playwright and seasoned theater professional. As she begins her third year in the department and her first year as director of the Calvin Theater Company, she is eager to promote community in the group, as symbolized by the new name, and an understanding of the importance of all aspects of theater. So the name Thespians, derived from Thespus, known as the first Greek actor, is no longer appropriate. The Calvin Theater Company is a production company, she believes, not a group of actors and actor wannabe's. Her vision of theater is on of the retelling of human memory, and so she seeks to direct plays that include "things that touch us, that speak about the human condition, that say something meaningful to this constituency." To communicate these things to an audience requires a unity of many elements combining to make an artistic experience. This means that within the group of students that make up the company, "we're trying to create a notion of ensemble-we work together.
Freeberg's "notion of ensemble" is shaping a new sort of Company. Part if the change is occurring in the actual Company. Part of the change is occurring in the actual Company class on Tuesdays. Together with the student CTC Board, Freeberg has built on VandenBerg's class syllabus. She tries to incorporate speakers and workshops covering every imaginable aspect of theater, so that students are educated broadly and develop respect for talents and work different than their own.
Students have warmed to Freeberg's fresh ideas and energy. Reflecting on his experience of acting under Freeberg, Dan Voetberg, '93, says, "Theater is extremely important to Freeberg-it's life and death. She's nuts. She takes on huge, impossible shows and pulls them together-and makes great shows out of them."
It is especially important to have directions like Freeberg because theater, even at Calvin, is necessarily competitive, especially among would-be actors. Auditions can be harsh. Company member Mike Goudzwaard, a sophomore from Rehobeth, New Mexico, says, "Besides the fact that you're competing against all your friends, which can be vicious, once you put yourself in front of everybody, you do have something to lose. You're making yourself vulnerable to public failure." But the same vulnerability that makes auditioning so hard bonds those who audition and act together. Another Company member, Kevin Lise, a senior from Cobourg, Ontario, reminisces on three years of acting at Calvin. "When you act with people," he says, "everybody counts. Everybody works together as a whole-they must. In the process of acting you find out what your limitations are, but you fin d it out together with the people you act with."
Bob Meyering, '68, calls his experience in Thespians an "experience of community," of the sort sought after in popular philosophy today. Despite the competition and rivalries, doing theater at Calvin has always meant participating in a group with a unique bond, a bond that is required to do the art with success.
Despite the difficulties, there are moments during the rehearsal that are magical, that are true. The next three weeks will not be easy. Most of the cast and the director will catch a flu bug. Fynewever will fall from a tree, breaking his wrist and inhibiting his ability to actually dance at Lughnasa. Most will grow to understand their characters but will have to struggle before they can find the means to communicate them. And all will be tired from balancing the three-hour nightly rehearsals with classes and other activities. But even now the small cast is becoming close, and all these difficulties will only bring them closer. Even now it is obvious that this production will be another worthy of remembering.
~From the Winter 1993 edition of Spark