I recently wrote about two musical performances, now it’s the turn of drama.
I saw two student plays within a week of each other. They were not only performed and produced by students, but written by students. Both were extraordinary, and profoundly life affirming.
The Space Between was at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, the first student show on the main stage in over fifteen years (we are told—I haven’t been keeping track). For some, its title will evoke a Dave Matthews Band number, but Samuel Beckett is more pertinent. The very talented Calla Videt wrote and directed it under the supervision of Robert Scanlan, Harvard’s inspirational professor of the practice of theater. The show is Videt’s Harvard senior thesis. It was staged under the aegis of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club with a cast of thirteen—including one of my students.
The Space Between is high energy theater about high energy physics. It’s a dramatic collage, in part drawn from a variety of theatrical sources, Beckett prominent among them. The play explores the life of one of the scientists on the Manhattan Project (the creation of the atom bomb during World War II), Richard Feynman. Mythology—his dying wife’s name is Eurydice—and subatomic particles collide in breathlessly confusing pyrotechnics, exhilarating even if sometimes scarcely comprehensible. The cast brought great verve and discipline to the performance, each member playing a host of characters, two of whom represented the Caltech physicist, at times both on stage together.
Circus must be in the air, for where The Space Between incorporated a pair of trapeze artists commenting like a contortionists’ chorus on the action, the second student play included a tight-rope walker. She moved slowly and unsurely while clutching an umbrella in striped concentration camp fabric from one attic room to another. She was one of two personifications of famed Holocaust victim, Anne Frank in With the Needle that Sings in her Heart. Just as two Feynmans appeared on stage together in The Space Between, so did two Annes.
With the Needle that Sings in her Heart is also a student written play, but an ensemble piece conceived through months of discussion and improvisation by a cast of Lexington High School students directed by the brilliant, devil-may-care drama teacher, Steven Bogart. Like The Space Between, its title evokes music, being a slightly amended line from “Two-Headed Boy” on the cult indie concept album, In the Aeroplane over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. Jeff Mangum, who wrote the songs, addressed the story of Anne Frank, however unusually. The allusion in the title of the play is substantive, for the album was the source of inspiration for the student ensemble.
With the Needle that Sings in her Heart deals with some pretty grim stuff, including incarceration in Nazi concentration camps—Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen (where Frank and her sister died in 1945), but treats it with grim ironic humor—lots of circus and glamorous ‘30s movie imagery. The amazing Amanda Palmer (of Dresden Dolls fame) played Death as the Ringmaster, and directed the band from her keyboard.
How on earth did the foremost punk cabaret artiste of our day get involved in a high school musical play, albeit a very unusual one? Palmer is an alumna of Lexington High School, and was deeply influenced by Steven Bogart with whom she has long wished to collaborate once again. With the Needle that Sings in her Heart is the result. She participated fully with Bogart and the cast in the creation process. This has been recorded pretty much in its entirety by Leo Gaskell (my “video genius” son—Palmer’s description) who is making a documentary movie on the project from its inception to the striking of the set.
Like the undergraduate cast of The Space Between, the Lexington High School actors performed with immense verve, discipline, and total focus. Palmer contributed dramatically with fine judgment, tactfully declining to overshadow the rest of a very strong cast. As the Ringmaster, she intervened silently to lead characters about the stage from time to time, and didn't open her mouth until the very last song.
After the wonderful The Space Between, I invited Bob Scanlan to the opening night of With the Needle that Sings in her Heart. I was delighted that we could see it together. Every aspect of both productions was extremely impressive. I came away from both plays energized by having seen what young people can do creatively when they are enthusiastic, work collaboratively with dedication, and are well directed. This is one of the vital things our schools and colleges should be doing. Bravo! (And I met Amanda Fucking Palmer!)
Now we have Leo’s documentary to look forward to—a month of editing, he reckons. I’ll keep you posted. In the mean time, do check out Beth Hommel’s production photos of With the Needle that Sings in her Heart on Amanda Palmer’s Flickr page.