THE PLAY'S THE THING


Whether it's baseball or theatre, for Theatre Department Director Ed Menta...
...the play's the thing / wherein we catch ...

If Ed Menta had been able to hit a curve ball, someone else would be teaching in the Kalamazoo College Theatre Arts effort today.

And even though he still dreams of knocking one out of Yankee Stadium, Menta wouldn't have it any other way. Especially when he looks at the All-Star lineup the Festival Playhouse team taking the field for the 2008-2009 season ("From International to Interplanetary: Memories, Places, and Learning").
-Death and the King's Horseman, written by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka who (if all goes as planned) will be in the audience this November;
-"Learning: The Third Student Playwriting Festival," featuring staged readings and performances of original plays by "K" students;
-Return to the Forbidden Planet, "Shakespeare's Forgotten Rock 'n' Roll Masterpiece" and winner of an Olivier Award for Best Musical; and
-"The Senior Performance Series in the Dungeon Theatre," featuring the work of the department's "best and brightest" in the following student-directed plays: in the fall, The Gloaming, Oh My Darling (written by Megan Terry and directed by Mouse Courtois); in the winter, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You (written by Christopher Durang and directed by Sarah Ludwinski) and The Duck Variations (written by David Mamet and directed by Terry Cangelosi); and in the spring, Aria da Capo (Edna St. Vincent Millay and directed by Cait Sherman).

"Theatre art is an essential part of the liberal arts experience," said Menta, Professor and Director of Theatre Arts, "and the theatre art tradition at Kalamazoo College is alive and well."

BeLight caught up with Menta recently and put him through a Q&A session, ala "Inside the Actor's Studio."

Q: What is the "Theatre Arts tradition" at Kalamazoo?
A: Theatre that's provocative, thoughtful, and integrates the various components of the liberal arts, so that students in the play and students watching the play find out more about history, politics, economics, other disciplines-and themselves-through the experience of the play.

I'm sure we succeed in this with some productions more than others. Nevertheless, it's a guiding principle in the program. And it all springs from [Professor Emerita] Nelda Balch. That spirit of doing a new play, or an established play in a new way, or a classical play that people need to see even if it's not light entertainment. Nelda had the theatre figured out at the liberal arts and at Kalamazoo. That's what we try to do.

Many people have carried on that tradition, that mission: Brant Pope, Lowry Marshall, Larry Jaquith, Mike McPherson, Claire Myers and others. I certainly would say that of my current colleagues Karen Berthel, Lanny Potts and Jon Reeves.

Q: The tradition endures, but what's changed over the years?
A: In the 1950s and 60s, Nelda and her actors performed in a makeshift third-floor theatre in Bowen Hall, which was long ago torn down. [Retired Professor of English] Conrad Hilberry wrote about a play in that space in the early 1960s. He said "The chairs and floorboards creaked, but not the play."

Now we have the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse, the first thrust stage in the state and modeled after the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. We also have the Dungeon Theatre, our black-box experimental arena. Both have good lighting and sound systems.

I can confidently say that nothing is creaky about our operation except perhaps me.

Q: Why is theatre important to the liberal arts experience?
A: Just as with English, history, other disciplines, even the sciences, there is a lot of cross-pollination that goes on. Students pull in and transfer learning from one discipline to another. They certainly take what they learn from the theatre into those classes.

The next question people usually ask is "Sure, but will it help anyone get a job?" I believe we can teach students as well or better than other academic disciplines about how to work together, collaborate, and get along in a pressure cooker environment; how to get the project ready by a certain date; how to be disciplined and punctual; how to sacrifice your time and energy for the job at hand. In short, how to be a "team player" in the best sense of the term. These are skills you need in any field.

We are not a conservatory school where we train people to a professional level. But I'd love to show people the long list of alumni who are earning good livings in theatre, film, television and allied fields. That doesn't even count the number of alumni who are active in theatre arts simply because they love it.

Q: How many students participate in the College's Theatre Arts program each year?
A: We average six to eight majors and up to eight minors each year. Many others take our classes and seminars. I teach a first-year seminar called "Visions of America on Stage," in which we study issues of race, gender and social class by reading plays. A lot of non-majors take it and I believe it helps them not only make a good transition to college life. It opens their eyes to the possibilities of theatre as an academic and extracurricular option.

We also have scores of students who volunteer for our productions each year as actors, stage managers, lighting and wardrobe crews, scene shop workers and more.

Q: Is it a big time commitment for students?
A: They put in substantial amounts of hours. Whether or not I'm directing a play, I always go to the first rehearsal to tell them about their responsibility to keep up their grades, to put in the hours on the play and the hours on their classroom work. Neither can be allowed to suffer.

I also deliver a pep talk telling them that theatre people are among the smartest, most organized and capable people I know. They are creative, disciplined and insightful. It's a message my colleagues and I deliver consistently throughout the year. We're proud of it. It helps that we also believe it.

Q: Do they listen to you?
A: The respect our students have for the art form and for their academics never fails to impress me. But just to be sure, we track their grades.

Over the past five years, we've found that students who participate in the theatre program have higher GPAs than the student body overall. It's true for freshman, sophomores, juniors, seniors. In 2006-07, 33 students who participated in plays had GPAs of 4.0. We are really proud of that.

As long as I'm on my soapbox, I'll also say that students who participate in theatre excel in many other ways. A student who runs a light board also has an incredible study abroad experience. A costume shop worker also has in an amazing SIP. An actor who plays a leading role also writes a fantastic research paper.

Every great experience that students have informs every other great experience they have.

Q: Can you sum up the academic program?
A: Our academic program encourages students to understand the breadth of dramatic literature from the classical to the most contemporary. We closely link experiential components with classroom studies and offer involvement with the Festival Playhouse Company, which is the production arm of our program. We also encourage drama study in England, student projects in the experimental Dungeon Theatre, placement with regional and professional theatres, and the opportunity to participate in the New York Arts Program.

Q: What makes a good play-going experience?
A: Whether it's a play, film or television, you have to want to know what's going to happen next. As soon as you don't care about that, you're lost. You have to be entertained in a way that is fun, that stirs up your emotions and intellect, maybe even makes you uncomfortable.

Q: When you see a play off campus, can you enjoy it without fixating on the lights, sound, set, direction?
A: We talk about this in classes. I don't believe that knowing more about something somehow spoils the experience for you. If those things are a distraction to you, then perhaps they weren't used well. Again, you must be engaged in the characters and the story. Hopefully you get caught up in those, and then later say "Wow, they really used the staging or lighting or whatever, to make that moment work."

Q: When you are not writing about theatre, you often write about baseball. Why?
A: When you grow up not being very good at playing the game you love, you fill your head with its stories and characters to make up for it. I grew up in New Haven, Conn., midway between New York City and Boston. When I wasn't playing baseball, I followed it through the Yankees vs. the Red Sox.

I lived in Boston for a while in the 70s and would go to Fenway Park wearing my Yankees hat. The kidding was not good-natured. Even today, when I travel to New York during the baseball season, I make it a point to see a Yankees game before a Broadway play.

I recently finished writing what I call "my family play." Labor Day is part of a trilogy and a five-year labor of love. Now that it's behind me, I want to research and write about early ballplayers being on the stage. Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and others used to travel the vaudeville circuit along with playing baseball. It was their equivalent of being on the media scene. It's a scholarly pursuit that might have some artistic value.

Q: What is K-TAN?
A: Kalamazoo Theatre Alumni Network. We have a tight network of alumni who help out students and each other. Lisa Kron helped out a senior this year on her SIP, for example. Others provide internships and all kinds of assistance to students and each other. We're not the only department doing this, of course. It's definitely one advantage of a small school, and it's what we're supposed to do!

Be sure to mention that we send out a K-TAN newsletter
"Theatre art is an essential part of the liberal arts experience"
each summer. People send me tidbits about their careers all throughout the year. I compile them into a newsletter. Anybody can get on my mail list.

Q: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
A: The Yankees host the Red Sox in a doubleheader at noon. Your play starts at 8:00.

The Ed Menta File
Ed Menta earned his B.A. degree in theatre from Southern Connecticut State University, his M.F.A. in directing from the University of Connecticut, and Ph.D. in Theatre from Michigan State University.

He has directed over 50 productions in educational, professional, and community theatre. His world premiere production of Bryan Zocher's Joe Hill, about the famed labor leader and song writer, was one of only six productions from the Midwest to be invited to the 1997 American College Theatre Festival.

His professional work has included serving as dramaturge/director in the New Playfest Series at the BoarsHead Theatre in Lansing, Mich.

Menta's articles and reviews have been published in Theatre Journal, Theatre Studies and The Baseball Research Journal (see his 2005 piece, "World Series What Might've Beens."). His book, "The Magic World Behind the Curtain: Andrei Serban in the American Theatre," was selected as an Outstanding Academic Book by Choice magazine.

His Kalamazoo career began in 1986. In 2007, after 10 years as Chair of Theatre Arts Department, Ed became Director of Theatre. Professor Karen Berthel assumed the Chair and now handles academic duties such as class schedules, registration and admissions issues. As Director, Menta oversees production budgets and guest artist. And, of course, he teaches numerous courses.

Ed Menta loves baseball and plays a decent blues guitar.

Getting Well, Seeking Death, Expecting Angels
Ever wonder how a play is chosen to be performed as part of the College's annual Festival Playhouse season? According to Theatre Arts Director Ed Menta, a play selection committee composed of students-with him as chair-meets throughout the academic year to research, discuss and ultimately recommend a shortlist of plays for the following year. The combined theatre Department faculty selects the final playbill.

The system works to perfection.

Last year's 44th Festival Playhouse season- "Just as Well: Seeking Wellness through the Ties That Bind Us," included some of the greatest plays ever written, all combining themes of wellness and social justice.

Fall 2007 produced an all female version of Shakespeare's Hamlet; Eric Bogosian's contemporary American drama, Suburbia; the 50-year anniversary staging of Waiting for Godot, complete with a reading by three of the original 1958 cast members; and New Orleans performance artist José Torres Tama's staging his one-man story of abandonment and survival, Cone of Uncertainty: New Orleans after Katrina.

The centerpiece of the winter 2008 playbill was Well, the Tony-nominated play by Broadway playwright, actress, and Kalamazoo College alumna, Lisa Kron '83 Staged in collaboration with the Whole Art Theatre of Kalamazoo, Well featured guest artist, professional actress Sharon Williams. Kalamazoo is the first college or university campus to stage Well. Lisa Kron came to Kalamazoo for the performance and to speak to students at Kalamazoo and Western Michigan University. It was also the first production from an American university invited to perform at the Muestra Internacional de Teatro Universitario 2008 (International University Theatre Festival) in Cáceres, Spain.

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, playwright Tony Kushner's landmark drama of the AIDS crisis, played during the spring 2008 term and received standing ovations every single night. The Pulitzer prize and Tony Award winning play WAS directed by guest artist Rebecca Patterson, co-founder (along with Karen Berthel) and artistic director of The Queen's Company in New York City. A benefit performance raised more than $900 for kalamazoo pride 2008.

The 45th Festival Playhouse season will kick off in fall 2008 with Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka's Death and King's Horseman. Menta has been working with Soyinka, actor Von Washington, Nigerian director Femi Euba, and Nigerian choreographer Omofolabo Ajayi-Dokina for nearly two years to prepare for the November performances. Soyinka was on campus in 2006 and it's hoped he'll return for this play.

Reach Ed Menta at menta@kzoo.edu. Learn more about Theatre Arts at Kalamazoo College-and buy a ticket to a College production-at www.kzoo.edu/theatre.

Caption:
Ed Menta counsels a student in the "Directing" class. The College's Theatre Arts program averages six to eight majors and about the same number of minor each year.

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