‘Next to Normal’ Completes Season Focused on Mental Health

The Festival Playhouse will present the capstone to its 59th season with four performances of Next to Normal from Thursday, May 18–Sunday, May 21, at the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse, 129 Thompson St.

The rock musical centers on Diana, a suburban woman struggling with worsening bipolar disorder and its effects on her family. The show has themes of grief, depression, suicide, drug abuse and psychiatric ethics, making it ideal for concluding a season themed Mental Health Matters. After an off-Broadway debut in 2008, Next to Normal opened on Broadway in 2009, earning 11 Tony nominations and three awards along with the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Visiting Assistant Professor Anthony J. Hamilton will serve as the musical’s director. Hamilton made his New York directorial debut in a production titled Grandma’s Quilt with the Negro Ensemble Company in 2020. He has directing and choreography credits from the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre including Ain’t Misbehavin’ in 2011, Once on This Island in 2019, The 1940s Radio Hour in 2021, The Piano Lesson and Newsies in 2022, and A Raisin in the Sun in 2023.

“It isn’t a typical rock opera or musical, but I think those who come will get something out of it, which is that ‘mental health matters’ component,” Hamilton said. “I think young people especially are championing the idea that it matters, and because we’re presenting it at a college, it will be interesting to see how students react to this piece.”

Dramaturg Isaiah Calderon ’26 says the play doesn’t shy away from some horrible experiences while it tackles issues surrounding both mental health and the modern-day medical industry.

“This broad scope of focus might detract from the narrative efficiency of another play, but Next to Normal handles its eclectic storytelling in a way that leaves everything thoroughly explored,” Calderon said. “All the pieces are brought together by the acknowledgement of human imperfection and the fact that even though it may be tempting, the perfection we strive for is neither attainable nor ideal. Its presentation intends to affect its viewer in a way that feels a bit overwhelming, but upon examination, is refreshingly direct. Its intensity and refusal to compromise drive home its points perfectly.”

Sophia Merchant ’25 will play Diana, the matriarch of her nuclear family, in the musical’s lead.

“What’s great about working on a show at a place like K instead of a place like Western, where everyone is a theatre major, is that we have psychology majors and engineers, our state manager is pre-med, and we have all of these different backgrounds coming together to put on this show,” Hamilton said.

The play will be staged at 7:30 p.m. May 18–20 and at 2 p.m. May 21. Tickets are available online or by calling the Festival Playhouse at 269.337.7333.

Sophia Merchant sings during Founders Day at Stetson Chapel
Sophia Merchant ’25 will play Diana, a character who deals with mental health issues including worsening bipolar disorder, in the upcoming production of “Next to Normal.”
Image advertising play about mental health says, "Next to Normal" by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt
The Festival Playhouse will stage “Next to Normal” at 7:30 p.m. May 18–20 and at 2 p.m. May 21.

Playhouse’s 60th Season to Spotlight Alum’s Broadway Musical

The Festival Playhouse of Kalamazoo College is celebrating a milestone season in the 2023–24 academic year by staging a Broadway musical written by an alumnus among its three productions before hosting Farmers Alley Theatre for another musical.

The theme for its 60th season is “Systems as Old as Time,” which will focus on the harmful systems that hold back the oppressed and how people fight against them. The Playhouse will highlight the ways that joy, laughter and solidarity can still exist and thrive despite those systems.

“The ‘Systems as Old as Time’ theme is a both/and: it both harkens to our 60th anniversary and recognizes the frighteningly repetitive nature of oppressive systems,” Professor of Theatre Lanny Potts said. “Theatre uniquely has the opportunity to help us explore, as a community, oppressive systemic structures.”

The season will open in fall with Playhouse Creatures, written by April De Angelis and directed by Professor of Theatre Arts Ren Pruis. Set in 1669, the play focuses on five women who were some of the first English actresses to appear on stage after Puritan oppression. It explores the lives of the trailblazers and their fight for power and agency in a patriarchal society.

Musical writer Joe Tracz '04
Alumnus Joe Tracz ’04 wrote the musical “Be More Chill,” which will be one of three Festival Playhouse productions in its 60th season along with “Playhouse Creatures” and “Pipeline.” The Playhouse also will host the Farmers Alley Theatre for its production of “School of Rock,” which will give students a chance to work alongside local and Actors Equity professionals.

The second show, scheduled for the winter term, will be Pipeline, written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts Anthony Hamilton. It is the story of a mother’s fight to help give her son a future without turning her back on the community that made him who he is. It confronts the damages of a rigged school-to-prison pipeline and emphasizes the importance of bringing the conversations surrounding it to the forefront of our institutions.

In a college premier, the third show will be the Broadway musical Be More Chill, directed by Assistant Professor of Theatre Quincy Thomas. This rock sci-fi story about growing up, high school and what people do to get what they want is written by K alumnus Joe Tracz ’04. He is updating the play to license it to K, and another alumnus, Grinnell College Professor of Theatre and Design Justin Thomas ’01, will join the production as its scenic designer.

Then, after the academic season, Farmers Alley Theatre will produce School of Rock on the Playhouse stage. The opportunity will allow students to work alongside local and Actors Equity professionals, as they did in 1964 during the first Festival Playhouse season. Based on the film starring Jack Black, the School of Rock musical follows Dewey Finn, a failed rock star who decides to earn money by posing as a substitute teacher at a prestigious prep school. At the school, he turns a class of bright and well-accomplished students into a rock band.

“Our 60th season explores misogyny, patriarchy, racism, redlining and the schools to prison complex, bullying, social shaming and conformism,” Potts said. “And we look forward to connecting with our community partners and campus as we explore complex themes in ways that help us to better comprehend, and as accomplices, move forward to dismantle these oppressive systems.”

Festival Playhouse to Stage ‘The Mountaintop’

A fictional play coming to Kalamazoo College’s Festival Playhouse will invoke one of history’s greatest civil rights leaders and consider how he might have viewed his own legacy the night before he was killed.

Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts Dr. Quincy Thomas will direct The Mountaintop, a two-actor play about Martin Luther King Jr. and his mark on history, for the Festival Playhouse’s winter production this month.

“One of the interesting things about this play is that none of the lines from it are Dr. King’s,” Thomas said. “When we’re dealing with Black narratives, it’s important to remember that the most recognizable ones have been done a particular way many times. We don’t really need another true-to-life depiction of Dr. King. I think (playwright) Katori Hall knew that and thought to herself, here’s an opportunity to tell a human version of Dr. Martin Luther King that we’ve never seen. Like a great dramaturg would, she did a ton of research to create who Dr. King is, so it’s founded on truth. But the story is a creative reimagining of Dr. King.”

The play’s title refers to the 1968 speech King delivered to a Memphis church congregation during the city’s sanitation workers’ strike. Through it, King admitted he expected difficult days ahead in the civil rights movement, but he wasn’t worried. Instead, he was focused on the mountaintop, a symbol for a promised land of a desirable, equitable society created through God’s will.

In the play, King—played by K alumnus Jared Pittman ’20—retires to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel on April 3, 1968. A young hotel maid, Camae, played by Milan Levy ’23, visits him during the night and they flirt.

“Even after it was performed, (Katori Hall) still got backlash because all of a sudden there’s a Martin Luther King who smells his shoes and realizes that they stink; who one minute is trying to get a hold of his wife and the next is having flirtatious conversations with a stranger,” Thomas said. “He’s smoking, he’s drinking, and a lot of people don’t want the iconography of Martin Luther King tarnished. But this play asks us to consider our private life versus our public life. It asks us to consider Martin Luther King the icon versus Martin Luther King the man. I think the playwright didn’t give us a depiction of a King we are used to seeing, but one that is very resonant, attainable and recognizable.”

Camae later reveals a surprise to King that forces him to confront his own and society’s future.

“On the surface, it doesn’t seem like the two have a lot in common,” Thomas said. “We then find out Martin Luther King has to come to terms with his iconic status based on what Camae reveals. He has to see that despite everything he’s done, he is saddled with mortality and that’s painful. Anytime anyone does a remake of Romeo and Juliet, we watch it despite knowing how it’s going to end. We know how this show ends the moment we find out that it’s Martin Luther King. He is sent somebody who’s going to take him on to the next chapter of his journey, and when you’re so special that you get that kind of treatment, that’s humbling. At the same time, he’s not going to talk his way out of dying.”

Pittman and Levy will shape the main characters on stage, while Caleb Allen ’25 will ensure the audience understands the history involved, the scenes, their words and their historical points of reference through lobby displays as the play’s dramaturg.

“Caleb has been with us since the week of table work and he’s at every rehearsal,” Thomas said. “He’s doing a lot of historical work about the Lorraine Hotel, about Memphis, about the sanitation strike, and about who King is and who he was. There’s a lot of King’s work that is implied, and Caleb will help us make sure, for this particular audience, that nothing is lost in translation.”

The production will be staged at the Playhouse, 129 Thompson St., at 7:30 p.m. from Thursday, February 23–Saturday, February 25, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, February 26. Tickets are available online or by calling 269.337.7333. Please note that attendees must wear a mask and provide proof of their COVID-19 vaccination.

“At the end of the day, I think my job is to ensure that the audience walks away understanding that Martin Luther King was a man who had done great things that shaped his legacy, but he was a man,” Thomas said. “He wasn’t perfect. Our Black heroes don’t have to be perfect. One of the things we never talk about with Martin Luther King is the way the life he lived affected him physically. In the play, it’s thundering outside and there are multiple times where he thinks that the thunder is a gunshot. There’s a moment when he hyperventilates because he thought he had been shot. There are places in the script where he’s checking to see if his room is bugged. He’s double checking the lock. He’s double checking the chain. He was a great man. But he was also a man with flaws and fears. I think I would like our audience to understand that because Dr. Martin Luther King was a man who became an icon, every person can be an agent of change because agents of change don’t have to be perfect.”

Actors rehearse for "The Mountaintop" in a black-and-white photo
Jared Pittman ’20 portrays Martin Luther King Jr. and Milan Levy ’23 plays Camae the maid in the upcoming production of “The Mountaintop.”

Walking in Memphis

  • Members of the Festival Playhouse production team for The Mountaintop visited room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King Jr. spent his last night alive, which is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. They also toured the museum of soul music Stax, the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, and a Smithsonian exhibit highlighting the birthplace of Memphis blues and soul music. 
  • In the top photo, director Quincy Thomas, stage manager Isaiah Calderon, assistant director Brooklyn Moore, assistant scenic designer Julia Holt, publicity and marketing director Marquisha James, head usher Marilu Bueno, dramaturg Caleb Allen, projection designer James Hauke and sound board operator Davis Henderson meet with civil-rights legend Jacqueline Smith. Smith was evicted from the Lorraine Motel, along with her possessions, in 1968 and has protested there for 35 years.  
  • In the bottom photo, Marquisha James poses in front of the Lorraine Hotel at the National Civil Rights Museum. 

Theatre Professor Earns Fifth Wilde Award for Best Lighting

Wilde Awards Recognize Lanny Potts for Lighting in Bright Star
Theatre Arts Professor Lanny Potts was selected recently as the recipient of a 2022
Wilde Award for Best Lighting as a result of his work in the 2021 Farmers Alley Theatre
production of “Bright Star.” Photo by Kat Mumma.

A Kalamazoo College faculty member is receiving accolades from a Michigan theatre organization for the fifth time in his career. Theatre Arts Professor Lanny Potts was selected recently as the recipient of a 2022 Wilde Award for Best Lighting as a result of his work in the 2021 Farmers Alley Theatre production of Bright Star, a musical written and composed by actor, comedian and songwriter Steve Martin and songwriter Edie Brickell.

Wilde Awards are distributed through EncoreMichigan.com, a web-based publication focusing on the state’s professional theater industry, highlighting the top productions, actors, artists, designers, writers and technicians. Potts previously earned Wilde Best Lighting honors through his work at Farmers Alley Theatre in productions such as The Light in the Piazza in 2012 and Bridges of Madison County in 2018.

In Bright Star, a literary editor, Alice Murphy, meets a young soldier, Bill Cane, who is just home from World War II. Her flashbacks to the 1920s tell the audience about 16-year-old Alice meeting Jimmy Ray Dobbs and giving birth to a son. The love story, inspired by real events and set in the American South, provided Potts and the Farmers Alley Theatre team with some distinctive challenges of how to move the story forward with lighting and other effects. 

“Working closely with the brilliant Director Kathy Mulay, every scenic transition was created with lighting which then constantly moved until the downbeat of the next music, scenic or narrative moment,” Potts said. “Picture slowly moving tree leaves. In every transition moment, they would create an almost ripple effect, like wind through the leaves, that continued until the music resolved or carried us through to the next narrative moment. Having the lights breathe the music of each transition was an approach that allowed the team to seamlessly meld action, dialogue, music, blocking and projections in a way that helped the audience understand that our narrative was a constantly moving story.” 

Bright Star was produced at Farmers Alley Theatre from June 23-July 10, 2021, qualifying Potts— a professional designer and consultant—for this year’s honor. His work has also included international lighting and production design; national tour designs for opera and dance; and regional designs for opera, modern dance, ballet, drama and corporate events. 

Potts has presented portfolios of his work at regional conferences, worked at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and received many professional awards including a Michigan Governor’s Commendation, a design commendation from the John F. Kennedy Center (Fun Home) and Atlanta Critic’s Choice awards for his design work for the Atlanta premier of A Few Good Men. But each opportunity inspires Potts for what he will do with the next one. 

“When I think about having the privilege of doing what I love, I don’t think about a particular show, production or artistic team,” Potts said. “I do have warm fuzzies when I reflect upon some great work accomplished collaboratively with so many great artists. But I think I’m a looking-forward kind of person, where one scenic idea, one costume idea or one directing idea inspires a unique new direction for the artistic team. There is no greater gift than working with talented artists who care about the work as much as you do, who will challenge your own ideas, and inspire you to pursue new ones. I also think the very nature of light requires us to look forward and not dwell upon past work. Lighting is so ephemeral, so in the moment, that once a production is complete, I’m ready for the next artistic team I get to work with, the next production I get to work upon, the next set of problems we get to resolve, the next story to be told.” 

Festival Playhouse Presents ‘Othello’

Xavier Bolden rehearses his role as Othello
Kalamazoo College’s Festival Playhouse will stage
William Shakespeare’s “Othello” beginning Thursday, November 3.

Kalamazoo College’s Festival Playhouse will examine an old tragedy through a modern lens when it stages William Shakespeare’s Othello from Thursday, November 3–Sunday, November 6 at the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse, 129 Thompson St.

In the play, the character Iago has served as a soldier and trusted ensign, fighting alongside Othello, the Moor of Venice, for many years. However, he grows angry about being passed over for a promotion and plots to take revenge against his general, Othello. Iago tricks Othello into believing that his wife, Desdemona, is unfaithful. That stirs Othello’s jealousy, leading him to kill Desdemona and then himself. 

The production demonstrates the importance of communication, trust and respect, and how they relate to mental well-being while lifting the curtain on the Playhouse’s 59th season under the theme of Mental Health Matters. 

“Throughout the show, we explore how Iago’s influence and being surrounded by racism affects Othello’s mental health,” said Meaghan Kelly ’23, who is working as the play’s dramaturg. As the dramaturg, Kelly researched the historical topics and time periods addressed in the play to assist Director Ren Pruis, a K professor of theatre arts, in teaching the actors about the characters and the play’s settings. 

“Racism at the time this show was written is incredibly significant. Shakespeare bases his characterization of Othello on a book written by a European author who had just done a tour of Africa,” Kelly said. “This author implies that all African people are brave and noble, but very jealous, which almost exactly describes Othello. We’re always looking to take on challenging theatre like this and we think there’s a lot to learn from it.” 

Kelly also designed an informational display for the Playhouse’s lobby, something that she hopes will make Shakespeare’s ideas understandable. 

“I find that a lot of the struggle with Shakespeare comes with reading his plays when it’s naturally meant to be seen and heard,” Kelly said. “My lobby display will feature the actors and their roles along with a list of vocabulary that’s used in the play. That’s one of the benefits to having a dramaturg in college theater. It will help make the language more accessible.” 

Meaghan Kelly
“Othello” dramaturg Meaghan Kelly ’23

Guest Artist Xavier Bolden, a Western Michigan University alumnus, will play Othello. Bolden has been involved with community theatre since he was about 10 years old, performing at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, in addition to Kalamazoo Public Schools. He also was an extra on episodes of the TV shows Bones and No Ordinary Family.

“As far as acting is concerned, I’ve loved dramatic or theatrical plays that lend a deeper message,” Bolden said. “With how (the Playhouse) is dealing with mental health issues and the overwhelming emotional side of the tragedy in Othello and the loss with it, I hope to rise to the occasion with the role. From watching the rehearsals when I’m not on stage and seeing what we’ve accomplished with lighting and sound, all credit goes to the other actors and everyone who has brought in their talents. Everybody has grown in a tremendous way. The students have had midterms in the middle of rehearsing a 146-page play. That’s nothing short of incredible. It’s going to be an amazing production.”

Sean Gates ’23 and Sedona Coleman ‘23 will perform as Iago and Desdemona respectively. Other actors include Evan Barker ’26 as Cassio, Raven Montagna ’25 as Roderigo and Max Wright ’26 as Lodovico. 

The play will be staged at 7:30 p.m. from November 3–November 5, and at 2 p.m. November 6. Tickets are available online or by calling the Festival Playhouse at 269.337.7333. Friday’s show will also be livestreamed. Purchase a livestream pass online. Please note that masks and proof of COVID-19 vaccinations are required to attend. 

Fulbright Selects Four K Reps for U.S. Student Program

Rebecca Chan for Fulbright U.S. Student Program
Rebecca Chan ’22 will spend a year in Taiwan
through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program

Four recent alumni of Kalamazoo College are receiving one of the highest honors the federal government provides in regard to scholarship and international exchange, as selectees for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

Rebecca Chan ’22, Libby Burton ’22, Matthew Flotemersch ’20 and Kiernan Dean-Hall ’22 are among about 1,900 students, artists and young professionals who will represent the U.S. in about 140 countries for one academic year.

Chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential, students and recent alumni participate in the English Teaching Assistant (ETA) program, which places English-teaching assistants in primary and secondary schools or universities overseas.

Associate Professor of Biology Santiago Salinas will also represent K through Fulbright this year, as a U.S. Scholar Program selectee in Argentina.

Since its inception in 1946, Fulbright has provided more than 380,000 participants with opportunities to exchange ideas and contribute to solutions to shared international concerns. The program is funded by an annual appropriation from Congress to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and managed through the U.S. Department of State.

Libby Burton for Fulbright U.S. Student Program
Libby Burton ’22 will return to Germany
for one academic year through the
Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

K consistently has been identified in recent years as one of the country’s top-producing Fulbright small colleges. Here’s what K’s representatives plan to do abroad.

Rebecca Chan ’22

Chan, a theatre arts major at K, finished her degree requirements in winter 2022, allowing her to study abroad in Strabourg, France, this spring. As a Fulbright scholar, she will visit Taiwan.

“I was interested in Taiwan specifically because my paternal grandfather spent some years on the island as he left mainland China in the 1940s and later came to America,” Chan said. “Some of his siblings stayed in Taiwan and raised their families there, so at every family reunion, we discuss Taiwanese history, culture and politics. I’m interested in experiencing Taiwan for myself and connecting with my East Asian heritage.”

Chan will make her language skills her primary focus while she’s overseas.

“I took two years of Mandarin Chinese at K, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to use that language abroad,” she said. “I’d also like to better understand Taiwan’s complex history of colonization by various European and Asian nations. Because of my family’s history, I have received only a very one-sided account of the relationship between Taiwan and China and the debate over Taiwanese independence. Being there, talking to locals, and working in the schools will give me a much richer understanding of Taiwanese identity.”

Matthew Flotemersch ’20 has earned a Fulbright for a
second time. He will spend the upcoming academic year in Innsbruck, Austria.

Libby Burton ’22

Burton participated in study abroad as a senior in Erlangen, Germany, and will return to Germany as a Fulbright scholar, seeking an opportunity share her knowledge of philosophy and the humanities.

“The Fulbright will be a wonderful way for me to gain experience in the field and prepare me for graduate programs,” Burton said. “I also have a particular interest in German philosophy, so studying German has helped my understanding of the books I read. The program makes sense for me because I can practice German, deepen my understanding in my fields of interest, and gain experience as an educator.”

Matthew Flotemersch ’20

Flotemersch, a German major and philosophy minor at K, had a formative year of study abroad in Erlangen, Germany, in 2019 and was accepted into Fulbright’s English Teaching Assistant program in Hamburg, Germany, in 2020.

Kiernan Dean Hall
Kiernan Dean-Hall ’22 will spend a year
in Germany on a Fulbright in the English
Teaching Assistantship program.

The Hamburg program was pushed back a year because of COVID-19, yet still provided a positive experience he finished this spring, leading to yet another opportunity as he will represent the U.S. this year in Innsbruck, Austria.

Flotemersch said he hopes to adjust to regional dialects, explore the country by train, ski and settle on a graduate program he will begin in 2023 while he’s in Austria.

Kiernan Dean-Hall ’22

Dean-Hall—a chemistry and German major, and physics and philosophy minor with a concentration in film and media studies—was among the K seniors who studied abroad in Erlangen, Germany, for the fall 2021 and winter 2022 terms. He will return to Germany on a Fulbright in the English Teaching Assistantship program.

“I sought a Fulbright because it sounded interesting, and like a good opportunity to broaden my horizons,” Dean-Hall said. “I expect to benefit from the lived experience of cultural exchange.”

Super Bowl Halftime Show Was Planned Through K Alumna

Super Bowl Halftime Planner Alix Reynolds in the empty seating bowl at Sofi Stadium
Alix Reynolds ’11, an account manager for Lititz, Pennsylvania-based ATOMIC,
had a hand in transforming the field at Sofi Stadium in Los Angeles into a
sparkling nightscape for the Super Bowl halftime show.

A Kalamazoo College alumna was among the most important people behind the planning of one of the most acclaimed Super Bowl halftime shows to date when the Los Angeles Rams met the Cincinnati Bengals in February.

Alix Reynolds ’11, an account manager for entertainment company ATOMIC, had a hand in transforming the field at Sofi Stadium in Los Angeles into a sparkling nightscape, duplicating a scene from Compton, California, as it set the stage for musicians Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Mary J. Blige and 50 Cent at the National Football League’s championship game.

The performers entertained millions of people between those watching at the game and those spread out at sites around the world, making Reynolds’ responsibilities significant.

Alix Reynolds and colleagues before the Super Bowl halftime show
Alix Reynolds ’11 poses with some of the nine-person ATOMIC on-site
team ahead of the Super Bowl halftime show. Pictured are Reynolds
(from left), Project Manager James Rogers, Road Carpenter Jeremy
Yunkin and LED Technician Alex Thomas.

“Something like the Super Bowl halftime show is a high-risk project, especially when it involves so much technology,” Reynolds said. “There’s going to be 100 million people watching regardless of whether it succeeds. There’s always a lot of stress and anxiety, but ultimately, a really good team with the resources and know-how can make it safer with smart decisions and a lot of redundancy built into the system, which is what we had.”

Since majoring in theatre arts at K and completing her master’s degree in technical design and production at the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale, formerly the Yale School of Drama, Reynolds has become one of the first people who organizations and their planners speak to when they contact ATOMIC. The company’s work includes set construction and project planning for displays ranging from simple trade show booths to glitzy affairs such as World Wrestling Entertainment’s signature event, WrestleMania.

“The first thing that usually happens for me is a client will call, whether it’s the Super Bowl or any other job, and sometimes they know exactly what they want,” Reynolds said. “Sometimes they just have an idea of what they want to do. I’ll ask some follow-up questions and work with a project manager to figure out how much it might cost us to build and how much we should sell it for. It’s a lot of translation of taking artistic intention, taking the client’s budget and expectations, and then figuring out how we can make the client’s dreams come true.”

For Super Bowl LVI, Reynolds’ first contact was Bruce Rodgers, a production designer through the NFL and a long-standing ATOMIC client. Rodgers has been in charge of more than a dozen Super Bowl halftime shows with celebrated performers such as Prince, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and Bruno Mars.

Despite the massive team effort that the scenery’s development required, some might be surprised to know that Rodgers didn’t need to reach out to Reynolds and ATOMIC, which served as the show’s custom fabrication shop, until September 2021. At that point, the direction from Es Devlin, a stage designer and one of Dr. Dre’s representatives, came through Rodgers. That direction was to show an aerial image of the Compton night sky with a plethora of little lights, or “nodes,” that could all be individually controlled.

Based on that, Reynolds and her teammates got to work while asking questions such as “How much will it cost to cover the entire football field with fabric?”, “When will it be necessary to buy the raw materials and receive the reference images for the final product?” and “How will all the little lights work together?” Guided by the answers to those questions and others, and while maintaining contact with Rodgers and Devlin, ATOMIC completed the set-building process at Rock Lititz, a campus that several companies in the live-event industry share in Lititz. With services ranging from design to engineering and manufacturing, professionals there collaborate across companies to plan a variety of events and experiences.

“Some locals get confused as to whether Rock Lititz is a company or a place,” Reynolds said. “I say it’s both. You’ve got ATOMIC, obviously, you’ve got Clair Global which does audio for big rock tours; TAIT, which does automation for those same tours among other things; and there are smaller companies. There’s a pyrotechnics company, there’s a video company and a virtual reality company. It’s all in this tiny town.”

When fabrication was finished, a group of semitrucks drove the stage’s parts and sections to Los Angeles, first to a practice site, and then to Sofi Stadium, where dozens assembled the pieces.

“For every performer you saw on the halftime show there were probably over 100 people working behind the scenes,” Reynolds said. “Each section of the stage buildings, which were built to look like known Compton hot spots by our fellow fabrication shop All Access, split into two parts, and every half-section was pushed onto the field by 12 to 15 people. We also had people with carts that carried our big and heavy field cover to say nothing of the people back at the shop who programmed the lighting and the video.”

All of their jobs had delicate timings to observe, not only at halftime, but throughout the Super Bowl.

“Right at kickoff is when everyone started coming down into the tunnels that run the full perimeter around the field, where all the scenery was stored with all the lighting and the huge speakers,” Reynolds said. “At the end of the first quarter, we started lining up. At halftime, we knew we had eight minutes to get on the field during the commercial break and set it up.”

As the performance began, organizers had one of their few hiccups because the first half ended about 20 minutes sooner than they had planned. With the sun higher in the sky and Sofi Stadium having a glass roof, the on-stage lights were difficult to see at first. Regardless, Reynolds and her ATOMIC colleagues were happy with the end results.

“We did that balancing act of asking, ‘What are the things that could go wrong,’ and we set ourselves up for success,” she said. “In the end, it all worked perfectly on game day and it looked awesome. By the end of the show, you could really start seeing the lights. It was really easy to forget that I was standing on a football field.”

Reynolds has about seven or eight smaller projects in the works for the rest of 2022 at sites from New York to Los Angeles including an awards ceremony for an undisclosed nonprofit organization. Yet despite not being a football fan, Reynolds hopes to attend the Super Bowl again.

“I couldn’t see the first half of the game because we were in the tunnels, and we were pulling everything off the field in the second half while trying to get away before the game ended,” she said. “We then got stuck in traffic for about four hours, but the experience was pretty incredible. The first time I walked on the field and through one of those tunnels, my mouth fell open. I consider myself to be level-headed and pretty unflappable, but when I heard the roar of the crowd, I got butterflies and chills. And that was just from the people who were at the stadium, to say nothing of the millions watching online or on TV. It was an amazing experience.”

‘Marcus’ Auditions Offer Opportunity for Students of Color

Marcus auditions with Assistant Professor of Theatre Quincy Thomas
Assistant Professor Quincy Thomas talks about what it
means to take part in art that reflects and celebrates
your experiences, and how the theatre department is
working to create a safe space for all students.

Spring break is just around the corner and will be quickly followed by casting for the last show in the Festival Playhouse at Kalamazoo College’s 58th season, themed “Black is Beautiful: An Ode to Black Life, Love and Strength.”  

Auditions for Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, March 29 and 30. Ten students of Color are needed to tell this coming-of-age story of a young gay man in the Louisiana projects days before Hurricane Katrina strikes. 

Assistant Professor Quincy Thomas talks about Marcus, what it means to take part in art that reflects and celebrates your experiences, and how the theatre department is working to create a safe space for all students. 

Q: What can you tell me about the play Marcus and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney? 

This play is really powerful. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s about sexual identity and personal identity and tradition and family. McCraney’s voice is so multidimensional and new and fresh and he is very much about poetry, the beauty of the voice and music, lyricism. He does all of this to create a space for voices that have historically been silenced or pushed to the margins. This is the story of a young boy right before Hurricane Katrina, and his community and the way that shifts, and his own sexual identity and personal identity. It’s a story many Black men have dealt with, particularly figuring out your identity in our country. But it’s a story many people have not heard or do not know because it’s not a traditional Eurocentric story. For me as a Black man and as a father, the story of young men coming of age in our country is so important. 

Q: What do you know about director Anthony Hamilton? 

I know he has connections to the Kalamazoo arts community. He is another one of those young, bright voices. I believe he’s going to be able to capture the nuance and the poetic power of this piece. He will not only do this story justice, but also teach our community that is predominantly white about these kinds of stories.  

Q: What is important about this story? Why is this a story that needs to be told here? 

On a broader platform, Black stories need to be told. Art is the way we look at the world and the culture we’re in. If you want to know what’s important to a community, all you have to do is look at the art they create. When you do not see yourself in those things, that tells you that you are not important to that culture. Traditionally, theatre has been a white pastime, it’s been very Eurocentric. Despite the progress we’ve made, and how far we’ve come, theatre is still very, very white. Without the presence of Black people and people of Color in an artistic culture, not only are you saying something to the people who are absent, you’re saying something to the people who consume that art about who is important. 

Black people need to see themselves on stage. It’s also important to non-Black audiences being able to see the world and culture without stereotypes. There are still so many aspects of the Black experience that people don’t know, that people have never seen and that shapes the ways in which Black people are perceived and interacted with in the world. 

Specifically, this is an important story to tell on a college campus because it’s the coming-of-age story of a person trying to figure out who they are and what it means to be a man. The kind of people we need to be, who we want to be, the things we might be afraid to embrace because of cultural pressure. Those are things students are grappling with. Who am I now? I’m not the person I was. Who am I becoming?  

We don’t have a shortage of coming-of-age stories. There are a lot of these stories about white people. Where are those beautiful stories about Black joy and heritage and history and legacy?  Where are those stories that tell a Black person, this is who you are, this is your past; you may need to challenge that, you may need to muddy that, you may need to change that. Who do you need to be for your community and for yourself? 

Q: What is the value of telling Black stories in the context of theatre? 

One of the challenges to any theatre right now that wants to do diversity, equity and inclusion work is that we have to remember that it is not work people are used to seeing, particularly in a sustained fashion. We all need to create a new culture where people of every race, color and creed say, this is theatre for everyone. We are not at the place yet where Black actors trust that those shows are going to be handled in the right way, cast in the right way, not told from a Eurocentric lens. We have to establish trust in our community so that BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of Color] actors, BIPOC crew, BIPOC stage managers feel welcome. That has not happened yet. We need to continue telling those stories whether we have trouble casting them or not. That is anti-racism work and that doesn’t stop. As a Black artist, there have been plenty of times where I haven’t auditioned because I know that I’m going to read to a bunch of white directors, words written by a white person, for a role intended for a white person. If I’m being cast for diversity clout, I may not go. If I feel like they just want me because it’s February, I’m not interested in that. It’s not enough to just do a play. We have to create a culture.  

I wholeheartedly believe the K theatre arts department has the desire to make change happen. That means we’re going to have moments like this. This is the season of Black joy. We need more than a season, but the cool thing is, when we sit down and talk about the future, next year, we’re talking about shows about people of Color. We’re going to continue to do shows about people of Color. We’re going to tell those stories. We’re going to do it beyond a season of Black joy. And that is the work that needs to be done. We’re not just interested in putting non-white actors on stage. We also want to get more BIPOC designers, BIPOC crew, BIPOC costume designers. If you’re a Black woman in a play, who’s doing your hair? Who knows how to light you? Skin tones are different, being lit on stage is different. These are things a lot of people don’t consider, what it means to put a Black body on stage. This department is looking to understand all those things. 

We are committed to creating change and theatre that is proactive and for everybody. 

Q: What do you see as the value of the experience for students? 

It is more than getting up on stage and saying lines. Experiential learning is very important at K and the things you learn when you’re involved in a production translate to all kinds of different jobs. Public speaking, textual analysis, team building, communication, time management are all valuable lessons learned in a production process. If you are a student of Color, you more than likely have not had that many opportunities to create art that looks like you, to partake in art that speaks to who you are. Anytime you get to create art, it’s a privilege. So rarely do students of Color get an opportunity to create art for them, art that talks about their world, their trauma, their pain, to go through the process that enables you to give the world a view into the culture and community that is a part of your life and is your identity. When you’re in college, you may or may not have that opportunity. After college, the opportunity to do that kind of work dwindles dramatically. An opportunity to have a voice, to be heard, to have that voice guided by a fantastic director who understands Black art. The opportunity as a person of Color to be able to tell your story, showcase your identity, while being directed by a person who has walked a version of that walk, that is an opportunity you may never have again in your entire life. That is an opportunity you jump at, particularly if you care about creating art that makes a difference. 

Q: In your experience, why don’t many Black students get involved in theatre at K? 

I believe it is wholly, singularly about trust. People of Color in theatre, unless they’re coming from a historically Black institution, all have horror stories about the way they’ve been treated in costume shops, in makeup chairs, while their hair is getting done. A lot of university theatre departments will talk a big game and not follow up. For Black students in my experience, reluctance to audition generally comes down to, “I would love to do that play but I don’t want to be mistreated.” 

I personally will do everything in my power to ensure they are supported and feel safe. I can’t speak to how it was before, but I personally am committed to doing the work to ensure that Black artists are safe in our spaces. And if something happens that they are not, it will be handled. If students speak up, report, they will be supported. We can’t get the work done if students are being mistreated. 

Q: What would you say to Black students about this opportunity? 

I know this has happened to you, I understand the fear that you have in doing the thing, but I promise you that we’ll keep you safe. You will have a voice. This is a collaborative process.  

We can have all the great intentions in the world, but if we are not creating the space, then students can’t fill the space. I’m committed to creating spaces for these students that are better than they’ve been for me. There’s not a reality where I’m going to allow any student to be mistreated in our department. It’s personal for me. They have my word, and if something goes down, I would involve myself. You have to protect these students, and traditionally, education has not done a very good job of it. It’s not students’ responsibility to create safe spaces. It’s our responsibility. 

Q: Why should Black students audition for this show? 

There’s a risk. There’s a gamble in auditioning. It’s not easy work, but when you are an artist of Color and you actually get to do the thing … when you have a story about people of Color and you have artists of Color and directors of Color, that personally affects you, changes you. You come out the other end of that process a person who understands their own world and the larger world in a better way. Theatre is the world through a particular lens. When that lens looks like you, there is something remarkably empowering about that. When there are people dedicated to telling important stories about people like you, that is healing, affirming, life changing, even if you only do one show. There are shared languages, shared moments, moments of trauma only the cast and director you are with are going to understand. You will come out the other end of it feeling empowered, feeling you have been heard, your voice matters. 

Feeling you’re not just screaming into the void is very important. It is a wholly valuable experience. It’s never going to be a perfect experience, because there isn’t any such thing, but it is going to be invaluable.  

Auditions for Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet

  • Written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney 
  • Directed by Anthony Hamilton 
  • Festival Playhouse at Kalamazoo College (at the back of the Light Fine Arts building, near Dow) 
  • Casting 10 students of Color 
  • Tuesday and Wednesday, March 29 and 30, at 7 p.m. Please arrive by 6:45 to fill out an audition form. 
  • Callbacks will be Thursday, March 31, and the show will run May 12-15. 
  • No experience or preparation necessary. 
  • Visit theatre.kzoo.edu/opportunities/auditions to learn more.

Comedy “BLACKS+PHATS” Addresses Stereotypes, Beauty Ideals

BLACKS + PHATS Playwright Kevin Renn
Kevin Renn is the playwright behind “BLACKS+PHATS,” running Thursday
through Sunday at the Festival Playhouse of Kalamazoo College.

Characters such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Michael Jackson and members of the Black Panther Party will help the Festival Playhouse at Kalamazoo College address themes such as racial stereotypes, beauty ideals and relationships in a staged reading of a comedy coming this week.

Kevin Renn, a playwright from New York City, will be among those observing his latest work, BLACKS+PHATS, a show that he has designed to give Black people and full-bodied people the last laugh at the end of the day as it premieres Thursday and runs through Sunday.

“I was always horrifyingly fascinated with stereotypes, how people see others in certain ways, and how that affects society,” Renn said. “I wanted to take these stereotypes along with people’s biases, and flip them on their head or stretch them to the ridiculous to point out to people how insane they are.”

Assistant Professor of Theatre Quincy Thomas
Assistant Professor of Theatre Quincy Thomas
will be one of the actors featured in
“BLACKS+PHATS” at the Festival Playhouse
of Kalamazoo College.

Renn has written essays for the New York Times and is known for productions such as Showcase: A Rehearsal Musical, which details a challenging final practice session for a group of theatre students the night before a college showcase performance; Mulatto Boy, about the only student of color at a private school where he runs for student body president; and Jungle Juice, addressing six friends who celebrate their college graduation and end up confronting their uncertain futures and a troubling secret. BLACKS+PHATS, however, focuses on the similar ostracism and isolation both Black people and full-bodied people face and how they can help each other.

“When I think about the heart of this play, it is a stripping down of everything to a common core,” Renn said. “It’s children. It’s this idea that the fat kids get picked on and bullied a lot. I saw that growing up. I also understand what it means to be a Black kid in a white space and be picked on, bullied and ostracized in that way. When you strip it down to that, that is the simplest element in which they can connect. It’s how they feel left out and pushed aside, and in the manner that they’re pushed aside, they find each other. They can then find strength in each other to lift and build up each other.”

Assistant Professor of Theatre Quincy Thomas takes on multiple roles within the BLACKS+PHATS vignettes.

“Theatre is a space where we see the world through different lenses,” Thomas said. “I would hope that the audience walks away from this understanding the insidious ways in which popular culture, the media and even movies have marginalized and pushed blackness to the outskirts of society, the outskirts of our culture, particularly in the areas of honest representation. I hope the audience walks away understanding the ways in which the representation of blackness has been wrongfully shaped, formed and monetized.”

Tickets for BLACKS+PHATS, which is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday–Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, are available online. The Thursday production includes an audience talkback after the show with Renn. Tickets for adults are $15, seniors $10 and students $5. Kalamazoo College students, faculty and staff are admitted free. Please note that proof of vaccination and masks are required for admittance to the theatre.

“The coolest thing about this production is that it’s a new work,” Thomas said. “The playwright has a young, vibrant, wise voice, and it’s an honor to deliver his message. It’s really exciting to spend time with him and talk with him about his motivations and his process.”

Playwright Kevin Renn Offers Public Discussion at K

Kevin Renn will conduct an open-to-the public discussion regarding his
experiences as a Black playwright at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 22, at the
Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, 205 Monroe St.

A playwright from New York City will conduct a free and open-to-the-public community discussion at Kalamazoo College days before his latest show, Blacks+Phats, is presented at K’s Festival Playhouse.

Kevin Renn will discuss his experiences as a Black playwright at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 22, at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, 205 Monroe St. Renn is known for productions such as Showcase: A Musical Rehearsal, which details a challenging final practice session for a group of theatre students the night before a performance; Mulatto Boy, about the only student of color at a private school where he runs for student body president; and Jungle Juice, addressing six friends who celebrate their college graduation and end up confronting their uncertain futures and a troubling secret.

Blacks+Phats uses characters such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Black Panther Party and Michael Jackson to take a satirical look at Black cultural issues, body image, fetishism and their representation in modern society. The play will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, February 24–Saturday, February 26; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, February 27, at the Festival Playhouse, 129 Thompson St.

Tickets for Blacks+Phats are available through the Festival Playhouse online box office. Adults are $15, seniors $10 and students $5. K students, faculty and staff are admitted for free. The Thursday production includes a talkback session with Renn and Director Janai Lashon. Please note the play includes potentially triggering references to sexual assault and eating disorders, and masks and proof of COVID-19 vaccinations are required for admittance to the theatre.

For more information on the play and the Festival Playhouse, visit its website at festivalplayhouse.kzoo.edu.