When director Walter Schoen’s first play took the University of Richmond stage in November 1991, it would’ve been impossible to predict the many shows to come, from “King Lear” to Molière’s “Scapino.”
Over three decades later, Schoen, professor of theatre, is planning to retire and his last production is in the works at the Modlin Center for the Arts, he said. He is one of many faculty members and students who have been working on this spring’s play, “The Rivals.”
In his office piled high with books, Schoen spoke enthusiastically about the collaborative process of creating a piece of theater. To Schoen, these productions are more than just actors in elaborate costumes speaking words written centuries ago, he said.
“Each time you start a play, it's like a new adventure. It's like meeting and making a new, close personal friendship,” Schoen said. “It's not only a friendship with the play, but the opportunity to collaborate with actors and designers and colleagues.”
Despite Schoen’s plan to retire at the end of this academic year, he is taking on “The Rivals” with the same zeal that characterizes each of the wide variety of plays he has directed, he said.
“You take a play that's been around for 400 years, and you sort of say, ‘why would a contemporary audience be interested in this?’ And equally important, ‘how do contemporary designers and actors embrace this in such a way that they can make the story compelling to an audience?’” Schoen asked.
These are the questions that he and his collaborators must answer before the curtain goes up on “The Rivals” April 13-16.
“The Rivals” is an 18th century comedy of manners by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, centered around the romantic pursuits of characters Lydia Languish and Jack Absolute. UR scenic designer Reed West described “The Rivals” as a period piece that makes fun of the aristocracy. Sheridan is one of the few authors of English comedy other than William Shakespeare still being produced today, he added.
The process of creating the play originates from the text, West said. Costume, lighting and scenic designers are all working with Schoen to determine the play’s direction as a whole.
In every production, there are a vast number of choices to make, from determining the time period in which to stage the play, to making stylistic choices between realism and abstraction, to creating and executing the vision for the corresponding sets and costumes. For “The Rivals,” this process is a collaborative one, requiring the designers and directors to work alongside each other every step of the way.
“We bring what we find in the text to that meeting with our ideas, and we bounce the ideas off each other,” West said. “And then from that, the idea of what we're going to do for this production forms.”
To nearly everyone involved, the team effort of theater is the most exciting part, he said. West works directly with students to determine and create the final product of the set. This is how educational theater differs from professional theater, he said.
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“In the professional theater, I would do my work here in my studio and send it to a scene shop who would then realize it,” West said.
In educational theater, West takes his work to the students, whom he works alongside to create the final product that ends up on the stage, he said.
“It's a continual teaching process as we go from the design to the actual realized stage,” West said. “It's one of the unique things about theater. It's probably the only art form that absolutely relies on collaboration.”
This collaboration extends from the faculty to their students, and eventually to the audience. Schoen’s focus is on finding ways in which each person involved can contribute their own artistry to a final product, he said.
“You're doing it with a bunch of people, many of whom are smarter than you, or have different talents than you,” Schoen said. “And you say, ‘Wow, what if I take a little bit of that talent, some of that intelligence, and what if we mix it all together and see what happens?’”
Schoen plans to cast nearly 20 actors, he said, placing “The Rivals” on the larger side for the UR stage. As a comedy of manners, “The Rivals” relies on language for the characters to develop a witty repartee with each other, Schoen said.
“The biggest thing that it demands of actors is that they be able to listen carefully,” Schoen said. “Sometimes we all, myself included, don't always listen as carefully as we should. And when you're not listening, the person you're being witty with doesn't get it because they're not listening.”
“The Rivals” cast is a mix of students and professionals, Schoen said, as well as several first-time student actors.
Sophomore Maddi Lewis is one of the first-time actors in the cast, set to take on the role of Julia, the sensible cousin of the romantic Lydia. She is most excited to finally get to work with the theater department at UR, Lewis said.
“It's just a tight-knit community, the theater community here,” she said. “Everyone is just so accepting and so nice.”
Lewis became part of this community when she was in “New Faces,” an annual production led by students that is usually scheduled for the beginning of every fall semester but was canceled in 2022 due to COVID-19.
“New Faces” was one of several university productions that was interrupted by COVID-19. The first play produced at the height of the pandemic was Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” performed in the Jenkins Greek Theater in November 2020. Though “Richard III” was forced outdoors due to the pandemic, Schoen chose to use the same space nearly a year later to stage his next play. That production was “Scapino,” Schoen’s most recent directorial endeavor, a commedia dell'arte written by Molière and produced by UR in the fall of 2021, he said.
“At the same time that all these challenges appeared, it actually got us thinking in new ways, and about new possibilities,” Schoen said.
Schoen has worked extensively as an actor throughout his career in theater. He has been featured in productions coast-to-coast, from the Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania to the San Diego Repertory Theatre. His acting background has made him more sensitive to what directors ask of actors, he said.
“That's not to say I can't be demanding in terms of the challenges I present,” Schoen said. “But I hope I don't present them in such a way that an actor fears the challenge, but rather embraces it.”
Lewis has embraced this challenge head-on. She is particularly looking forward to working with Schoen, whom she auditioned for earlier this semester, she said.
“It was low stress, which was nice,” she said of the audition process.
Auditioners were given pages of dialogue from a script — called ‘sides’ — to read over and practice with fellow actors. They then read the scenes for the director, who gave them suggestions for their performance, Lewis said.
“I love when people do that in auditions because you get to show them different skills that you can do,” Lewis said. “It's not just once and done. And you can also sort of appeal to what they're looking for.”
Lewis transferred to UR after a year at Penn State Harrisburg. She loves older plays, and her work on the high school stage included “Macbeth” and “As You Like It,” she said.
For a contemporary audience who may not share Lewis’ passion for older theater, finding ways into these stories is where the hard work emerges, Schoen said.
“You work hard at ways of making the story clear,” he said.
After weeks of collaboration among the student and faculty creators, the final step is to invite the audience, to see if the production can move them to laughter or to tears, Schoen said.
“Can we fire their imagination, as Shakespeare says?” Schoen asked.
There’s only one way to find out.
“The Rivals” takes the stage at 7:30 p.m. April 15 and at 2:00 p.m. April 16 in the Alice Jepson Theatre. Tickets can be reserved online here.
Contact writer Mary Margaret Clouse at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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