Story and photos by Robby Griswold
Some of us envision exquisite French pastries when we see a bag of flour. Others, a flower vase when we handle a lump of clay. Students Sammi Doll and Riley Russell daydreamed of a primordial, expansive pool of water when they read Mary Zimmerman’s 1996 stage adaptation of Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses. Sammi, a psychology and sociology double major with a minor in RC Text-to-Performance, and Riley, a biomolecular sciences and RC Drama double major, were hunting for the play that would be their theatrical studies capstone, and they couldn’t resist the challenge of bringing a body of water to the stage of the East Quad Keene Theater.
Zimmerman’s play is a series of vignettes about characters from Ovid’s epic poem including Narcissus, Orpheus, Eurydice, Phaeton, and Apollo. The scenes explore how their lives inevitably change or transform, á la the title, and water is used to represent the fluid aspect of life, reminding us that stasis is fallacious. Due to limitations of the Keene’s equipment, however, an actual pool of water wasn’t going to be a possibility for their production. “The main theme of the show is morals and many of these morals involve water’s power, so [it] offers an interesting challenge for a director when they’re told that they won’t have a pool”, Sammi and Riley reflect. The puzzle has been an intoxicating learning curve for the two budding directors whose background in theater has led them to the ensemble of the Educational Theater Company (ETC), in Sammi’s case, and for Riley, to co-found the new polycultural theater group called People Representing our Unifying Diversity (PROUD). “You have to use your actors to create the physical flow of water and create shapes using their bodies to represent water features. So as a director you’ve got to coach your actors through multiple characters as well as have them become the physical embodiment of water.” This is no small feat for any seasoned players, and Riley and Sammi have gathered together a very dedicated troupe of ten undergrad students with majors ranging from mathematics to pre-med to architecture who were up to the challenge.
The directors enrolled in an independent study in fall 2019 under the guidance of RC Drama head Kate Mendeloff, covering all of the many facets of what goes in to directing and producing such a play: holding auditions, receiving training and mentorship on technical equipment and principles with Keene Theater Manager Rudy Thomas, providing a detailed analysis of the play and keeping a director’s journal, advertising to the public, all in addition to conducting regular weekly rehearsals with their actors to realize the demanding script. From the start of their independent study in September, the two knew that this process would be ensemble-oriented and more picturesque, less cerebral, saying,“[Zimmerman] urges directors of her works to work collaboratively with the actors to create stunning visuals that are unique and represent each member of the ensemble. In order to reach a deeper level of understanding, we need time to simply find the “voice” of our ensemble before we can start diving into the script.”
And find it they did. The actors move in tight synch with each other through often emotional, sometimes giddy, other times philosophical scenes that demand every muscle in their bodies to be on full alert. The ensemble pushes not only their physical limits in the show, with dancing and crouching and facial contortion; they also push the limits of the Keene Theater - an aspect of the project that appealed to the directors. “I thought this show would be the perfect way to showcase what RC actors could bring as well as how the Keene is just as good of a performance space as the Arthur Miller”, Riley points out, referring to the theater on U-M’s North Campus that is regularly used by the School of Music, Theatre & Dance as well as local professional and amateur groups like Arbor Opera Theater and the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.
The troupe is excited to present their work in late January and to see how modern audiences react to this ancient bouquet of stories. “We hope that audiences are reminded of the timeless lessons of these myths as well as they see the beautiful images that drew me to this show the first time I saw it,” Sammi reminisces. Riley chimes in, saying, “I hope audiences see that, even though you might not have everything you need in a project, that doesn’t mean you should get discouraged or give up!... I think our production speaks to the idea that you should never give up on what you are passionate about.”
Bravo to Sammi and Riley and your cast on putting in the blood, sweat and tears it takes to make anything worth making, and on presenting your work for the campus and broader community!
Mary Zimmerman’s stage adaptation of The Metamorphoses
Directed and produced by Sammi Doll and Riley Russell
Under guidance from Kate Mendeloff and Rudy Thomas
Friday, January 17 at 7pm
Saturday, January 18 at 7pm
Sunday, January 19 at 7pm
All performances at the Keene Theater, 701 East University. Doors open at 6:45pm.
Cast: Bryce Foley, Maria Garcia Reyna, Alec Korotney, Tegan Oppelt, Jack Randel, Jake Riegel, Cami Robinson, Steven Son, Sophie Thurschwell, Darby Williams