Making a Show from Scratch

Making a Show from Scratch

Felix Beaudry 18 TX plays Noble the King Lion in Fred Sullivan's original play.

After the first full rehearsal of Reynard the Fox, an original play written and directed by Literary Arts + Studies lecturer Fred Sullivan, students in his Theater Production Workshop sit at the foot of the auditorium stage awaiting notes. As the longtime Trinity Repertory Company actor offers candid feedback, the assembled cast and crew members respond with an assuredness that belies the fact that, for some, this is their first experience producing live theater.

Sullivan, who is also a resident director at Providence’s Gamm Theatre, encourages students to “share,” “pop” and “attack” the comic dialogue of the play he adapted from a cycle of 11th-century French fables. He then turns to one of the performers, Claudia Joy Shao 19 GD, to tell her she needs an eye patch in time for the full dress rehearsal.

“Can you get one?” Sullivan asks. “I can make one,” Shao responds with a DIY confidence most directors only dream of. It’s just one of many things that make teaching at RISD so satisfying. “I’m always impressed by the drive, creativity, energy and appetite of students here,” the director says. “They always surprise me.”

The 20 students in this year’s workshop are both acting in the production and contributing to at least one behind-the-scenes aspect of live theater: costumes, makeup, set design, music and more. “Students put in endless hours outside of class” to build the production from the ground up, Sullivan says—starting on day one. It’s a “demanding, draining, challenging [and] ‘learn by doing’” undertaking that he has spearheaded every winter since 2008.

This year Sullivan chose to adapt the tales of Reynard since he has always been attracted to the striking imagery they inspire, but has never found an adaptation that really “captures the spirit” of the well-known trickster fox. He also felt that the material is a good fit for RISD students.

Rewarding collaboration
“In live action theater, language is the most important thing,” Sullivan tells the cast, but “visuals are [also] important and you guys do visuals better than anybody.” Among the most striking scenes in this production of Reynard is when an over-the-top illustration of a cat’s head against a garish pink background appears with an eye exploding from her head while, offstage, Tybalt the Cat succumbs to one of Reynard’s tricks.

The dedication of the cast and crew in bringing Reynard’s sendup of medieval literature—and many a theatrical convention—to life adds to both the charm and rewards of the production, says Indy Dang 19 FAV, who plays the titular fox. An experienced high school actor who also painted backdrop projections and wrote music for Reynard, Dang likes the “handmade” feel that comes with a show made from scratch.

To cast the play, Sullivan asks each student to tell a funny story the very first day the group gathers. This year he was happy to discover that students such as Felix Beaudry 18 TX seem to be naturals for animated comic roles. Though performing live is new to many students, “everyone is helping everyone out,” says David Sullivan 18 JM, who runs rehearsal outside of class and hopes to direct more plays while he’s at RISD.

Likewise, Brianna DeLuca 18 FAV, a dancer who has performed with professional ballet companies but has her first speaking role in Reynard, is happy to cultivate strong creative relationships with the cast while doing live theater, something that has been important to her since childhood. And like Dang, DeLuca looks forward to translating what she has learned from the workshop to her filmmaking practice.

Producing Reynard has been “an ambitious, immersive and challenging project,” Sullivan says, “but I hope [students] are learning a lot about presence, presentation, collaboration, live performance and language skills.” He is thankful for finding artists in this year’s cast who are “creating collaborative excellence.” After notes, everyone takes a well-earned break before refining the final scenes of the play – this time with students running the show.

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