In the Spotlight

Article Published: Sep. 23, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
In the Spotlight

ASU theatre students rehearse for 'Stop Kiss,' presented Sept. 29-Oct. 3 at Valborg Theatre.

Photo by Lauren K. Ohnesorge

The thud of shoes on the stage. The clang of metal on metal. Whether you're in the Valborg Theatre lobby or by the stage, you can't escape the sounds.

"We're busy," performance theatre adjunct professor and Romeo and Juliet director Derek Gagnier laughed.

It's the understatement of the semester. "With theatre it's either feast or famine," he said.

The 2010-11 season? A feast.

Five shows are being rehearsed at once, utilizing Valborg, the lobby, I.G. Greer and the Varsity Gym. It's a first for a department that's full of firsts and, starting this month, the 2010 casts get performances rolling. "We've got a lot of talent," Gagnier said.

This year's crop yields 18 performance theatre majors, an all-time high ("And at least that many freshmen coming in have expressed interest," Gagnier said), and a growing design and technology major.

It's not the numbers, however, that give Appalachian State University's theatre department its edge. It's the versatility in training, even within specific concentrations like performance and technical theatre. Students over the past few years have faced a new requirement, forcing them to spend extra time in other disciplines within theatre.

"It kind of allows students to find an area of interest that they might not have thought about," Gagnier said. "It's starting to work, and I'm looking forward to two years from now, the first class that graduates through this new system ... by their sophomore year, students know what they want to do, and they go for it."

And go for it they will, this year in particular, as students prepare to showcase their talent to the community through a unique repertoire of work.

Stop Kiss (Sept. 29-Oct. 3, Valborg Theatre)

Paired off, the actors spin across the stage. A female actor relaxes into her male counterpart's arms and stops as the director walks past.

"Now's where you make out," he said.

"Oh, fun," the actor laughs.

It's just another day at rehearsal, where six males and six females have to learn lines and get very, very comfortable with each other - all in the span of four short weeks.

Stop Kiss by Diana Son does more than showcase talent on the Valborg stage. It promotes discussion. That's part of professor and director Ray Miller's goal in bringing the controversial piece to the High Country.

While issues dealing with homosexuality are no stranger to the Valborg stage (Closets are for Clothes by Gordon Hensley premiered at ASU in 2006), this is the first time ASU actors have specifically targeted lesbianism at Valborg.

"It is essentially a coming out play," Miller said. "It's a play about two women who fall in love in New York."

Unlike most plays where time progresses in a linear fashion, Stop Kiss is not written chronologically, and Miller's counting on a unique set to help the audience keep track of what's happening when. Photos of New York are being projected directly on a series of screens onstage, courtesy of scenic designer Michael Helms.

"There's an awful lot of little tiny vignettes that take us to different places that I think people would be interested in in New York," Miller said.

And the 12 actors get a workout, playing several different parts.

At its heart is an important love story, Miller said, a story that, despite public opinion, must be told.

"It is a play that deals with a group of people that are often times marginalized, that many people don't know a lot about," he said. "We felt it was time to do this. We felt that we had the maturity of actors to do it."

First performed at the Public Theatre in New York in 1998, the play portrays a first kiss between friends-turned-lovers Sara and Callie. Following the kiss, the pair is attacked by a bystander, sending Sara into a coma and the audience, as well as Callie, into turmoil.

For Miller, it's particularly poignant. "My sister is a lesbian," he said, and he remembers what the coming out process was like.

It's these memories and experiences he hopes to transfer to his actors. "I think the idea here is that everybody, whatever their particular sexual orientation is, deserves an opportunity to learn how to love and to love over their lifespan," he said.

And, while there hasn't been any negative feedback on the play's subject matter, it's a possibility he's talked about with his actors.

"I think that when the students auditioned ... I think there was a self-selection process where they said to themselves, 'It is time for me to deal with subject matter like this,'" he said. "I think we have a cast here and crew here who can respond in a thoughtful way, no matter what the criticism will be."

The Freshmen Showcase (Oct. 13-16, I. G. Greer Studio Theatre)

If Trimella Chaney's name sounds familiar, it should.

You may recognize her as the former drama instructor at Watauga High School, responsible for starting the program in 1988 and producing controversial shows like John Lennon, Me on the WHS stage. Now an instructor at ASU, she's feeling the theatre high all over again as this year's director for the ASU Freshmen Showcase.

"It looks like a very talented class, and I can say from my theatre ensemble that they are very committed, especially for freshmen," Chaney said.

Joined by a cast of freshmen that includes WHS alumni she worked with at last year's Final Curtain at WHS (Gerald Goff and Emma Willard), Chaney's putting the show in showcase with a series of scenes from Pulitzer Prize winning plays, including Crimes of the Heart and Harvey.

"It's been real good for the students to have an award-winning play to study and delve into," she said.

But it's not just about the performance. The showcase is a chance for new students to break into a competitive theatre department.

"It's their way to get started," she said. "I enjoy getting to sort of initiate them into the theatre department here. I think it's a very good and strong department, and I'm happy to be able to do that. I think it's mutually beneficial. I think they are going to benefit from being in this department, and I think the department will benefit by having them as members here."

In addition to theatre, freshmen will show off their dance skills through unique pieces choreographed by senior dance students.

Romeo and Juliet (Nov. 3-7, Valborg Theatre)

The clang of metal might make it hard to concentrate for some, but not for the group of actors gathered in the Valborg lobby.

"Again," Teresa Lee, adjunct theatre professor and Romeo and Juliet fight choreographer instructs, showing the actors the correct way to parry.

That clang of metal is fueling their concentration.

Director and adjunction theatre professor Derek Gagnier watches on, scratching a few notes.
This show, the first Shakespearean production on the Valborg stage since 12th Night in 2006, has been a long time coming. "We now have enough freshmen guys coming in to do it," Gagnier said.

His third Shakespearean production at ASU, Romeo and Juliet isn't unfamiliar territory.

"My junior year in college I got cast as Romeo," he said. "It's how I got really interested in Shakespeare, so, since then, it's been paying the bills."

Some might call it an obsession. "The cast rolls their eyes and thinks it's very funny because I can actually give them lines off book," he said.

Others, more accurately, nail it as a passion. And now in adulthood, Gagnier has an even deeper understanding of the bard's words.

"I'm a parent with a teenage son," he said. "I'm totally looking through the lens of teenage eyes."

After all, at its heart, Romeo and Juliet is a play about teenagers.

"It cuts across a lot of different levels," he said. "These guys are definitely teenagers, so it celebrates life and it celebrates the recklessness of being a teenager ... this play is pretty much a comedy until someone gets killed for really stupid reasons."

And, as a parent, the recklessness present in the teen protagonists isn't just about love. It's about the absence of guidance, an aspect he might not have realized without having a son of his own.

"Get involved with your kids," he said. "Make sure you're talking with them and checking in with them."

And teenagers?

"Look before you take your sword out," he laughed, "on many levels."

And that's just one of the lessons the bard spits out during a tragedy made famous in high school classrooms, movies and even popular culture. When you break it down, the story, despite being written in 1595, isn't worlds away.

"This is the time where teenage kids, it was acceptable for them to walk down the street with thirty-six inches of razor sharp metal tied to their hips, but we have kids today with guns walking around," he said. "My job is to make all of the characters, but especially Romeo and Juliet irresistible and exciting enough that you watch them and root for them right up until they die. It's life affirming. They die, but then it says 'a gloomy peace this day with it brings.' That's poignant, because there is peace. Unfortunately, it had to happen with children dying."

To complete the pictures, Gagnier is setting the production within the canvas of a pre-Raphaelite painting, complete with early 1800s costumes.

"We didn't take the sensibility of the people in the 1800s ... we took from the paintings themselves," he said, using the paintings as inspiration for set, costume and lighting. "They're very stylized and romanticized, and [the pre-Raphaelites] painted Shakespeare, which is cool."

And the words, while also stylized in iambic poetry, will reign true, whether you're an English major or not.

"This is some of the prettiest poetry," he said. "We're going to the poetry, making it important and intense enough that when they talk that way ... it doesn't sound like poetry. It sounds like talking, but it's some of the prettiest talking ever written."

And, even though you know the ending, Gagnier promises you'll be rooting for the lovers until the very end.

The Pursuit of Mr. Rockefeller (Dec. 1-4, I. G. Greer Studio Theatre)

A play yanked from the headlines makes its debut on the Appalachian Stage.

Written by theatre major and recent ASU transfer Jon Fitts, The Pursuit of Mr. Rockefeller has already seen esteem, earning the coveted Kennedy Center Award, the David L. Shelton Award for a full-length student play. This semester, Fitts' production makes its debut, and no one is more excited than the author himself.

"It's about the story of a man named Clark Rockefeller who was arrested back in 2008," he said.

Fitts, like you, first heard about Rockefeller on the news. The difference? He was captivated.

"You read about what this man did, and then you find out it was a true story," he said. "It's just so compelling, the fact that this man was able to get away with a double homicide. He married a multimillion dollar woman ... all these things, just by pretending to be someone else. It's just an epic story, and I really wanted to explore that and the roots of that."

But it's not just a CNN replay.

"It questions the objectivity of human identity," he said.

The ensemble piece requires its eight actors to play more than 30 characters, an ambitious challenge, but not one that isn't well thought-out. Despite Fitts' age, this isn't his first play by a long shot. "I'm a professional playwright," he said.

The senior, who hails from Raleigh, said he has always been a writer.

"I discovered theatre, gosh, about going on 14, 15 years ago," he said. "As my passion for theatre grew, my passion for writing grew, and they just kind of became one."

Last year, a musical he penned about Jack the Ripper was performed at the University of Campbell, another tale ripped (pun intended) from a headline.

"I enjoy taking serious issues and bringing them into an arena where people can question them and open up dialogue about them," Fitts said.

It's a career path he hopes to continue through graduate studies after he gets his diploma.
The director of the piece, professor Joel Williams, can relate to his passion. Williams' play Promises was read at ASU's Front of Curtain Festival this past summer.

"I think I have an affinity and empathy for handling the work, so that there's a sense of wanting to make it work on stage, but at the same time wanting to honor what the playwright wants to do," Williams said. "When it's a new show and the father of the piece is right there ... you sort of feel a certain responsibility to make sure it's the best that it can be."

Williams is up to the challenge.

"So many times directing is about reinterpreting and sort of becoming familiar with what's been done with this play before," he said. "With a new piece, you don't have that ... It feels more creative. It feels more like it's fresh and new ... You feel a little more like you're on the frontier of something."

For more information on ASU's Department of Theatre and Dance, including show times and on-line ticket information, visit

2010-11 ASU Theatre and Dance Season

Stop Kiss by Diana Son: Sept. 29-Oct. 3, Valborg Theatre
Freshman Showcase: Oct. 13-16, I. G. Greer Studio Theatre
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare: Nov. 3-7, Valborg Theatre
North Carolina Dance Festival: Nov. 18-20, Valborg Theatre
The Pursuit of Mr. Rockefeller by Jon Fitts: Dec. 1-4, I. G. Greer Studio Theatre
Dance Showcase by Momentum: Jan. 21, 2010, Varsity Gym Dance Performance Studio 208
The Other Shore by Gao Xingjian: Feb. 23-27, Valborg Theatre
How to Build a Forest (with visiting artist Pearl Damour): March 2-3, Valborg Theatre
Appalachian Young People's Theatre: March 17-19, I. G. Greer Studio Theatre
Appalachian Dance Ensemble: March 23-26, Farthing Auditorium
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin: April 13-17, Valborg Theatre

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