By Erin Pihl, SMTD Publicity Intern
There are very few experiences that can match the fear and uncertainty of becoming a college freshman. It’s a time of potentially crippling vulnerability when you’ve exposed yourself to a whole new world, awaiting certain judgment. In other words, it’s a lot like acting.
This year’s Freshman Theatre Project is very much a reflection of that experience. Professor Walt Jones leads the students in a production of interview theatre, a concept inspired by Caryl Churchill and the Joint Stock theatre method. This technique involves sending a group of actors and designer out into a given community to interview people on a particular topic.
The project is an undertaking done by the two sections of Jones’ Freshman Seminar class. Students have conducted interviews at locations like Walmart, Taco Bell, the Wild Boar Café – and will soon visit a local senior center – in order to gain insight on the depths of the human psyche.
This method of experimental theatre can most famously be seen in the tragic production of “The Laramie Project,” a piece based on the aftermath of the murder of the University of Wyoming’s gay student Matthew Shepard in 1998.
While CSU’s theatre adaptation won’t be quite as provocative, the group has aimed to explore topics that invoke a similar kind of emotion in their subjects.
For Alana Corrigan, the experience has been invaluable. “It’s one of the best ways you can get the truest and most honest human experience on stage,” Corrigan says, continuing, “I think it’s really great that my final project this semester will be bringing that human experience to life in a different more theatrical way.”
Corrigan originally came to Colorado State University with her eyes set on a degree in English, but as part of a family of artists, it wasn’t long until her roots caught up to her. After taking several theatre courses as a supplement to her English studies, she decided to make the switch to theatre program as a sophomore. “I’ve always loved acting and performing since I was a little girl,” Corrigan says. “My parents made it very clear that the arts and theatre were very important to our family.”
Hannah Honegger faced a similar situation in grappling with her educational path. Honegger is an upperclassman transfer student in the theatre department. Much of her youth was spent participating in her local church’s theatre productions. Despite pressure to take a more “practical” route, she chose to pursue an associates of art degree from Front Range before coming to CSU for her bachelors. Speaking of theatre Honegger says, “It has really helped me to grow my confidence and with growing up and forming friendships.”
Though she is technically a senior, Honegger has traveled back in time becoming an honorary freshman in this semester’s seminar. “I was kind of apprehensive at first, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s been interesting to see the difference a matter of years can make,” Honegger reflects, continuing, “I appreciate the enthusiasm of my fellow students, but there are definitely times when I’m like ‘Ok guys, let’s stay focused.’”
Many of the students are experiencing there first few months out of the nest, desperately trying to learn to fly. College can be scary enough without the added pressure of the stage. Regardless of their focus, whether it might be directing, technical production, costume design or otherwise – all the students are required to perform. Something Jones refers to as a “rite of passage.”
“What’s really rewarding about this is that it’s a freshman seminar, these are young kids, people who are crossing this dangerous bridge from high school to college,” Jones says. “You just look out at a bunch of deer in the headlights, they’re scared to death.”
Although an ambitious undertaking, the students seem to have overcome any shyness or insecurity to gather the best possible material for their own adaptations, a feat that can largely attributed to Jones’ direction.
With such an accomplished career, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when Jones wasn’t a bonafide theatre buff. But like his students, Jones spent his early undergraduate years uncertain of his future. Like Corrigan, Jones started as an English major at the University of Southern Florida.
Eventually Jones would transition to the speech department, where he participated in performances of novel and poetry adaptations. Ultimately, it was a backstage interaction with a theatre professor that changed his fate. Following a rendition of Smiles of a Summer Night, Jones recalls a particularly memorable moment. “I was in the dressing room and I was looking at a reflection of the door behind me, and the door opened and a professor from theatre, who I didn’t know, leaned in and said in the reflection, ‘Yale School of Drama,’” Jones says.
On a whim, Jones applied and auditioned for the program, not expecting much in return. “A month later I got a call from a woman who said she was the registrar at the Yale School of Drama and she said I’d been admitted – I thought it was a joke,” Jones recalls, “I was flabbergasted.”
With very little practical acting experience under his belt, Jones headed off to drama school. “Talk about fear. Meryl Streep was in my class of 15. I was in worse shape than I had been if I had joined the theatre department at USF,” he says.
Clearly, Jones found his way with a natural aptitude for the theatre world. After graduating from Yale, he went on to become a successful freelance director in New York City and internationally. Eventually finding his way back to academics teaching workshops and classes at NYU, Yale, and the UCSD.
Jones transitioned to CSU with the intention of settling down after years of constant work and travelling. “I didn’t like going out of town all the time and living in a hotel, and I missed all the firsts with my kids,” Jones says, before recalling a particularly jarring memory. “I had been in New York directing and when I finally flew back to San Diego, I would not have recognized my little girl had she not been playing in my front yard.”
Jones has been a professor at CSU since 2006, enjoying the smaller classes that allow him to focus on at least one production each year. With the Freshman Theatre Project, Jones has a particular goal. “I’m trying to empower these young people, and make them feel important. Like they’ve brought somebody else’s message to a group of strangers,” Jones says, “If each actor only gets one moment of the satisfaction, I feel like I’ve done my job.”
For students, Corrigan and Honegger, that message has clearly been imprinted. “I think one of the best things you can learn as a performer is to learn by watching,” Corrigan says, “Someone just can’t tell you what to do, you have to get inside their mindset to become them. I think it’s fascinating meeting the person you’re portraying.”
Honegger echoes this sentiment, saying “There’s so much to be learned from how a person acts physically or how their voice and face is as well as what they’re actually saying.”
So far, the student interviews have been broad, focusing on the future and personal introspection. Corrigan puts all the questions under the general umbrella of, “what is your life and what makes your life yours.”
When asked about their impression of Jones, the girls show nothing but admiration for their leader. “I really respect the man and I feel so honored to work under him,” Corrigan says, continuing, “He never makes you feel less than him. He treats you like a professional because he anticipates that you will be someday.”
Corrigan is particularly inspired by his similar history as a writer, “One of the things that helped my transition from an English to a theatre major was that I was fascinated by writing,” she says, “I anticipate being a director or playwright someday.”
Still, there are times when Jones’ background is intimidating. “There will be times when we’re having a discussion and he’ll share an anecdote or something and it just seems like a whole other world with all the experiences he’s had and here is now with us students,” Honegger says.
As much as he may be admired, Jones says he has a much to gain from the students as they do from him. “I feel like I learn from them all the time. They’re such a black slate.”
The fifth annual Freshman Theatre Project takes place on Saturday, Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. in the Studio Theatre at the Universit Center for the Arts. The production is free and all are welcome!