Mississippi University for Women students rehearse a scene from “When Night Falls ... ” in Cromwell Theatre. Under the guidance of visiting artist Kali Quinn, the cast of 14 created a devised mask piece they’ll present March 1-3 at 7:30 p.m. in the Cromwell Communication Building. Using movement only, Kayla Monzolillo of Ethelsville, Ala., Paige Canida-Greene of Columbus (in the wheelchair), Brittany Trimble of Tupleo (standing), Dustin Gibson of Columbus (on the bench) and Lavosha Kern of Ethel convey the fantasy tale the cast created. Photo Photo by: Courtesy Photo
February 25, 2012 5:34:00 PM
BY JAN SWOOPE
The late French playwright Alfred Jarry once said, "The theater, bringing impersonal masks to life, is only for those who are virile enough to create new life ... "
Seldom in theater is such a process more intense than when, through movement alone, actors learn to express love versus hate, loyalty versus deceit, chivalry versus cowardice, or hope versus fear.
During five weeks of intense training with visiting guest artist and director Kali Quinn, 14 students in Mississippi University for Women's Department of Music and Theatre created a devised mask piece that calls for just such ability. With Quinn's guidance, the students are learning the art of storytelling without words.
Their creation, "When Night Falls ... ," will be presented to the public March 1-3 in Cromwell Theatre on the MUW campus at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5.
"There is no talking in the entire piece -- just music and movement," explained Quinn, who is based in Rhode Island, where she is on the faculty of Brown University/Trinity Repertory Co. Master of Fine Arts Program. Quinn is also stateside marketing and program director for Accademia dell'Arte in Arezzo, Italy.
"We tell this story with our bodies instead of with words," Quinn continued. "The audience doesn't learn the characters by what they say but rather what they do and how they react to one another"
Start from scratch
The MUW students were tasked with creating something from what, only five weeks ago, was nothing. The masks give a starting point, Quinn noted. The visiting artist brought about 20 with her, all made by Bruce Marrs of the dell'Arte School of Physical Theatre in California. She's taught with these masks all over the country.
"But this is the first time I've staged a full-length show with them," she revealed.
Because the story would be conveyed without dialogue, "When Night Falls ... " became more about larger themes and emotions that could be expressed through body movement.
Actor Paige Canida-Greene, a senior communications major from Columbus, found the project exciting. "I'd never done anything like this before; we're used to there being a script and characters you know," she said. But Canida-Greene put her trust in Quinn.
"You know she knows what she's doing. And there is no right or wrong in this project, so that took a lot of pressure off."
Not that there haven't been challenges. The work has been intense, with rehearsals sometimes running several hours each weeknight.
MUW Department Chair William "Peppy" Biddy said, "These students have embraced every aspect of the work and committed to it 100 percent. With Kali's work, the students are learning multiple skills including the physical demands of mask performance, as well as the unique process of creating a devised piece. ... It takes bravery to commit to an opening night with the understanding that there is no script, other than the one you must create."
Quinn emphasized, "At the end of the process there is a different sense of ownership because it was all of their ideas and work. Whatever they end up doing with their life, I want them to know that they have a voice and the power to create something."
In the MUW production, a court jester leads the audience through a fantasy of three generations -- their love, betrayal and reconciliation. The students came up with every idea, movement and costume the audience will see.
"This is a world premiere!" Quinn said of the tale, which comes complete with scary and humorous elements.
After an initial week of play with the different masks, each student chose the one she or he was most drawn to and created a character within that mask.
The students are an amazingly talented and supportive group of people, said Quinn.
"They learned how to play with each other like kids would and how to be surprised by one another again. They have also learned how to slow down, listen more, share with the audience, and react in their bodies."
Learning to relax mind and body enough to embrace the movement necessary to build and sustain a character, and tell a story, was a challenge students faced.
Employing a variety of interactive exercises, Quinn led them to that point.
After one break-through rehearsal, actor Leah Thompson of Tupelo posted online, "After rehearsal, I was so baffled and overwhelmed with the feeling of letting go that I nearly cried. I wasn't wanting to cry because I was upset or disappointed, but because I felt so free."
Dressing the part
Creativity carried over into costume selection.
Stage Manager Mary Wildsmith pulled a few items together for each character. As actors tried pieces on, each had the power to say "hate," and that item would be abandoned. But they could only use this veto power once. Amazingly, no one used it at all.
From there, costumes were rated 1 to 10, according to character, world, story support and movement in the mask. If all involved rated the selection 7 or higher, it was a keeper. If not, back to the shop.
"I think it's really interesting to work in an environment with people I know in a way I've never worked with them before," said actor Dustin Gibson of Columbus. "With this new process, we're all birthing and creating at the same time ... "
Quinn praised the students' kindness, respect and love for the theater, which has inspired her.
"I left rehearsal every night thinking, if the world could communicate like these students just did with one another tonight, anything would be possible!"
How to go
Tickets ($5) can be picked up in advance at the MUW Office of Communication in the Cromwell building at the corner of 10th Street and Sixth Avenue South in Columbus from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. Tickets may also be purchased at the door. No children under 5 are admitted to MUW theater productions, other than those specifically for young audiences. While this production is not inappropriate for children, neither is it geared toward them, Biddy noted.
Even in the final days before the performance opens, storyline and movements are being refined.
"As we speak, I still cannot tell you what the result will be," said Biddy, "other than that it will be exciting and imaginative."
For more information, contact the MUW Department of Music and Theatre at 662-329-7260.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.