All the world’s a stage on which student directors and actors find their parts during UNR’s annual one-act play fest
Inside the theater professor’s office are many sparkling things. Sunlight filters in through shining silver strands that hang over the windows. Multi-colored tinsel forms a fringe around the desk. A palm tree is trimmed with a strand of white lights. A clear plastic cloud hangs over the desk. The number “9” is printed in its center.
“Guess what production that’s from?” the professor asks. “Cloud Nine. … This office gets everything left over from every production that’s ever done.”
Bob Dillard, theater professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, is semi-retired these days. He teaches in the fall and spends the spring semester living, playing and traveling. Then, he says, when he comes back in the fall, he’s fired up to teach classes. Classes like the legendary lab theater, where student directors produce one-act plays, doing everything from selecting the material to be performed to auditioning actors and actresses to casting to music selection to getting performers on and off the stage cleanly. The class culminates in four nights of performances—Dramarama.
“The kids look forward to it every year,” Dillard says. “The spring classes are more classroom-oriented. This gives them a chance to do their thing.”
Dillard’s been teaching theater for more than 30 years at UNR. Studying the stage gives students a chance to delve into many of the fine arts.
“Theater is one of the most all-encompassing of the humanities,” he says. “There are so many aspects to it: art, music, directing.”
The lab theater classroom is nondescript, a blank slate with black non-slip floors and boxes, tables and stools all painted a dark, nebulous gray. A door frame with an open door sits off to one side. Dillard correctly predicts that the “classroom will be a madhouse” by the time class starts at 11 a.m. on the Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving. The students have only a week left before they perform their plays for four nights in the Church Fine Arts Complex.
Various props line the edges of the classroom: blankets, a phone, work boots, a motorcycle helmet. Theater students greet each other with hugs and exclamations.
“I love that! You look great!”
“You look wonderful!”
Theater student Simon Marx sings, “I have a paper for you!” as he passes out a rehearsal schedule on Dillard’s behalf. Then he attempts to call the class to order.
“Everybody has to be quiet now, please,” he suggests. Pause. Pause. “Shut up, everyone!”
One student announces that the Riverfront Theater is looking for male singers for an upcoming production. Then Dillard goes over the plan for the day. Students will break into the groups for their respective productions, scouring the building for a place to rehearse. Dillard watches two groups per class session. Today, he’ll be watching Chantelle Johnson’s group practice Actor’s Nightmare and Kris Wallek’s Homo Sapien.
Homo Sapien comprises bits and pieces of several other works. It’s intense to say the least. The work was stitched together by director Kris Wallek, a grad student. The drama begins with two actresses and two actors portraying New Yorkers on the way to work, then shifting to represent members of the media on top of a breaking story: the murder of a gay man in a public restroom. The group reenacts the drama, complete with actor and student Brad Ka’ai’ai kneeling in front of Doug Milliron, whose jeans are pulled down to his ankles. Alison Swallow and Irene Dipty take on the roles of two women who become victims of a hate crime after kissing in public.
Between scenes, the individual performers deliver original monologues. The cast members wrote these themselves after researching such topics as hate crimes, religious persecution of homosexuals and AIDS statistics.
Wallek says that she wanted to pick a challenging and varied production having to do with “something that will affect our society.”
She chose the topic of homosexuality after hearing that Fred Phelps, the notorious pastor of Westboro Baptist Church and Webmaster of Godhatesfags.com, was coming to Reno to hold a protest here. One of the play’s monologues quotes from the Bible, the Koran and the Declaration of Independence before bringing up Phelps’ name and quoting the words of Phelps’ own son: “If you draw a comparison between my father and the life of Jesus Christ, there’s not much to compare.”
It’s kind of like that bad dream where you find yourself walking down the hall of your old school, trying to make it to class for a big test. But you haven’t studied. You can’t find the classroom. You don’t even have a pencil. Oh, the relief when you wake up.
Actor’s Nightmare, a one-act play written by Christopher Durang, is like that nightmare—on a theater level. An actor (or accountant) named George (or Stanley) finds himself backstage before a performance. He’s to perform the lead, to fill in for another actor. But he doesn’t know the play, doesn’t know the lines. And when he’s urged on stage for what starts out as an aberrant version of something like Noël Coward’s Private Lives, he finds himself clueless. Fortunately, a friendly maid feeds him parts of lines until the play segues to a whacked Hamlet, then something on the order of Waiting for Godot (or Lefty). Finally, George (or Stanley), played by Marx, lurches into the role of Thomas Moore, just as the saint is about to take a stand for the faith.
In real life, the director doesn’t show up for the rehearsal.
“Chantelle’s fine, she’s OK,” Dillard explains to the cast. “She did get in a car accident, though, and she’s dealing with the police right now.”
Life imitates art. And the show must go on. Even without Johnson’s direction, the play flies—or more aptly, it rolls on the floor laughing.
During an après-rehearsal review, Dillard notes that the pace could be even faster.
“I thought that part in the beginning where you’re hesitating, struggling for lines, went on a little too long,” Dillard suggests. “Speed it up a bit. … Now, let’s see. What else did I hate?”
The students chuckle.
“That part at the end where you’re all lined up. Maybe you could break it up if one or two of you moves upstage or if you stand at an angle?"