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Ranking my college theater experiences: How do you measure seven semesters of a life?

When approached by our Arts editor Naomi Stephenson ’26 earlier this semester about potentially writing a ranking of all the plays I’ve ever done at Brandeis (both as an actor and as a member of production staff), I thought it was brilliant. What could possibly be a better article to put out in my last ever issue of The Hoot on staff? As a Theater Arts major, I have spent much of my time in various modes of production and performance. Even if I ended up not majoring in theater, I probably would have done just as much theater anyways. Here, with the caveat that a lower ranking does not inherently express disdain or hatred for a piece, as all of these shows hold extremely special places in my heart, I will elaborate on the 12 plays and musicals I have been involved in over my seven semesters here at Brandeis (if this is how you find out I was a midyear, congratulations to you, and shame on me for not talking about the awesomeness of the midyear experience more).

1. “Twelfth Night” (Department of Theater Arts)—Fall 2023

This show was a dream come true in so many ways. A department show directed by the beloved professor Bob Walsh, that happened to be Shakespeare, with so many old friends and new people I was excited to work with and in a role that was a blast. I’d always wanted to be involved in a production of “Twelfth Night,” and I had the fortune of being cast as Maria in this production. This was many firsts on top of being many lasts: first custom sewn costume and custom made jewelry, courtesy of the wonderful Brooke Stanton and her costume show crew; first stage kiss and intimacy (enormous thanks to my scene partners for their work and trust), first department production in-person (see #6); and first comedy after a semester of tragedy and hard content (in my acting roles). I can of course think of some hiccups, no run is perfect, but I of course look back on this show with so much pride, fondness, and affection that I can’t help but smile every time it crosses my mind. My character playlist for this show is still in my Spotify rotation.

2. “Hamlet” (Hold Thy Peace)—Spring 2023

This show was also a dream come true, but it was a dream I never knew I had. I initially hadn’t planned on being in any shows that semester, but when I heard “Hamlet” was happening (my favorite Shakespearean tragedy), I had to try. I, like any great Shakespeare nerd, had once upon a time identified with the title character and dreamed of playing him, but when I heard of the pitch of this particular production (a female Claudius and Polonius), I suddenly shifted my idea for a dream role. I read for Claudius at common auds; it was the only role I could see myself playing, and lo and behold, I made it through callbacks and into the dream role of that time in my life. I could not have had a better time with this show and these people, in a role I may have otherwise never gotten to play in my life. I’m particularly proud of this one; the bonds I still feel with my castmates and prod staff are so meaningful. This was one of the most genuinely fun times I’ve ever had in a role, and as a great Shakespearean villain, no less!

3. “F.U.B.A.R.” (Senior Studio Productions, Department of Theater Arts)—Spring 2024

This placement may come as a shock to some of you (or not at all, since it’s the last show I’ll have ever done at Brandeis and just closed a week ago and I am still having very many big feelings about it). Also my first ever production as a stage manager, “F.U.B.A.R.” was a huge leap of faith in myself and in everyone involved, but it could not have paid off better. I am so proud of the work done by all the student cast, crew and production staff (as well as all the department staff who do so much to make the senior theses happen!), both on and offstage. It holds an extra special place in my heart as a play written by my roommate of the past three years and one of my best friends ever, and put together by an absolute dream team of actors and prod staff. It was an honor to helm such a meaningful show and try my hand at exercising my creative muscles while being firmly entrenched in the logistics of the production. It’s an experience I’m grateful I had and wouldn’t trade for anything. The post-show depression is still quite fresh, so I could go on, but I’ll save it for the cast party and social media.

4. “Hurricane Diane” (Hold Thy Peace)—Fall 2022

My first ever show with HTP, this placement may also come as a shock to some. However, the good of this show more than outweighed any bad. The inside jokes have still been going on long after the show has closed, and I’m still so close to almost all the people involved in this show—our bonds have meant the world to me. This role was also so much fun for me, from the costumes to the shoes (IYKYK) to the lines to the New Jersey accent. Many post-rehearsal C-Store runs and many breaks in upper Sherm in our windowless rehearsal room were personal favorite memories. It was so exciting to have this show in my life, despite its ups and downs. I was so enormously proud of this work, not to mention it was hugely comedic and I loved getting all the laughs. We’re gonna get to Delfini’s someday soon, I swear it!

5. “Demasqed” (Fireside Theater Company)—Fall 2022

“Demasqed” was a show that I wanted desperately to be a part of from its inception (having attended its first ever reading hybrid/on Zoom in Polaris!), but did not get to join until much later. The common auds for this were the same semester as “Hurricane Diane,” and I didn’t want to over-commit myself to more than one play, so when attending common auds, I marked down that I was NOT open to being cast in multiple shows. However, once “Hurricane Diane” closed, for reasons I will not get into, an actor from “Demasqed” had to drop the show, and I was asked to step in two weeks before “Demasqed” opened. I figured, why not? I supplied my own costume, was in four scenes and had an enormous blast. I’m so grateful to the cast and crew of that show for supporting me and making me feel so welcome so quickly to do some incredible crunch time work, if I do say so myself. It was a show that I needed to find me for more reasons than one, and I’m lucky it did. It gave me an extra sense of purpose in a personal crisis.

6. “The Lathe of Heaven” (Department of Theater Arts)—Spring 2021

My first ever Brandeis play, my first ever department show, and my first ever Zoom play all rolled up into one convenient package. Based on a 1971 science fiction novel by the indomitable Ursula K. LeGuin and directed by the often-missed (at least by me) theater department professor Dr. Isaiah Wooden, “Lathe” was an experience I’ll never forget and owe much to. “Lathe” was the smallest cast I had been a part of at the time—only six of us student actors plus our director and stage manager on Zoom a couple nights a week, learning lines, doing scene work and trying to bond. It was a wonderful new angle to theater I was surprised to enjoy as much as I did, and it introduced me to so many department staff and professors that I still know to this day. It was also so special once we got to tech for the production to get to pre-record the show and finally meet my castmates in person despite recording in separate rooms in Spingold: our dressing rooms were outfitted as their own little recording studios. Watching myself on opening night was also a very trippy experience, but one that was cool to have. “Lathe” was a gift: to make theater during the pandemic was hard, but I’m so lucky to have done it. 

7. “Beauty and the Beast” (24 Hour Musical, UTC)—Fall 2022

My favorite Disney princess musical? And I got to make the gray stuff? A huge win! My first time in a long time not acting (I served as co-props manager with the incredible Kaija Grisham ’24), “Beauty and the Beast” was an amazing 24 Hour Musical experience. I loved our meetings prior to the day of, scanning the script for any and all props, and getting to make so many pop culturally recognizable items: from the magical rose that wilts over the course of the show, to the painting of Gaston, to Maurice’s contraption, to the fake sausages for the meat vendor in Belle’s little village for the opening number, this was a blast and not nearly as exhausting because I had a hilarious and competent partner to divvy up the work with. Watching the production and singing from the audience was so fun. Going from acting to prod staff on 24 Hour was one of the best shifts I ever made.

8. “The Little Mermaid” (24 Hour Musical, UTC)—Fall 2023

My second favorite Disney princess musical? And a chance to reunite with Kaija on props? Another huge win! Technically interchangeable in ranking with “Beauty and the Beast,” Kaija and I were far more prepared (or at least I feel so) for our second run at props for 24 Hour. Spreadsheets and spray paint in hand, we went as all out as possible, hand making as many props as possible (Ursula’s shell and contract, the bust of Prince Eric, the various sea creatures, the enormous meat tenderizer, and a bathtub, among others) and ordering or borrowing what we couldn’t. I’m so proud of the prop table I organized for this one. I also had the distinct joy of doing all the set changes for this show. A power trip if I’ve ever had one in performance (if you consider crew part of the body of performers), with all my friends in the audience somehow recognizing me in almost total blackout and cheering my name every time.

9. “Another Cinderella Story” (Senior Studio Productions, Department of Theater Arts)—Spring 2023

I lament that this is so low on the list, but it had to be somewhere. My first and last time acting in a senior thesis, I was asked to play a very difficult role with Charlotte, a more humanized and modern (yet still incredibly abusive) version of the evil stepmother. I had the most supportive director, stage manager/thesis maker and cast I could have ever asked for, though. This role was challenging for so many reasons I’ll not get into here, and I can only wish for having had more time with this small cast and crew. I learned so much about myself and my acting through this production specifically that I’ll always be grateful for. 

10. “Cabaret” (Freeplay Theater Company/UTC)—Spring 2022

The only musical I ever performed in that wasn’t done in 24 hours, Cabaret was a show that I had never listened to before auditioning (which was quite bold of me to audition for, in retrospect and especially at Brandeis, given that I now know all too well what Cabaret is about). It was a show that taught me a lot about what I was capable of learning, and that I could always return to musical theater (I hadn’t done any since my senior year of high school production of Seussical was canceled due to COVID-19). I met so many very cool people through this show too, and got to have so much fun with costumes, hair and makeup. I had forgotten how much fun it was to storytell through song and dance. It meant a lot to be entrusted with this show at the time that we did it.

11. “In the Empty” (Department of Theater Arts)—Fall 2021

I did costume crew for “In The Empty” primarily for my theater practicum requirement, which is a 2-credit course required for all theater majors which puts you working backstage on a department show. It’s a requirement I think is so important, as many people will otherwise graduate as theater majors without any firsthand experience for what crews of shows do, and it’s so important to understand and respect the behind-the-scenes work. I was assigned to the costume crew, which meant making sure actors were as comfortable in their clothes as possible, being ready to help with any wardrobe malfunctions and doing laundry after shows to ensure costumes stayed clean and in good condition for every tech rehearsal and performance. The piece was so cool conceptually; I loved watching from the edges of the tent every night (oh yeah, this one wasn’t performed in Spingold … they set up a tent and stage on the side lawn of the building). The cast was also so kind, and made my job ten times easier.

12. “Camp Rock” (24 Hour Musical, UTC)—Fall 2021

Oh, Camp Rock. What a show. I loved this one for being my first exposure to in-person theater at Brandeis. The choreography was so fun (I still remember some to this day!), and the bonding over those 24 hours was how I got to know a lot of the Brandeis community I have known my entire theater, academic, and extracurricular career. However, the 24 Hour Musical can be a challenge, and even more so when COVID-19 protocol was still hugely active. We all needed green passports (another IYKYK) to participate, and wore masks for pretty much the entirety of rehearsal and the performance. I got three hours of sleep during the whole show, drank almost a full gallon of coffee and swore I’d never do it again. Well, I can say I kept my promise … to a degree … I never acted in 24 Hour again. Camp Rockers for life!

Closing Thoughts

Regardless of placing on the list, as I said earlier, all of these shows have meant so much to me. The fact that I have gotten to make so much theater with so many people over the last three and a half years has been a blessing and I will carry it all with me for the rest of my life. Whether I’ve worked with you on one or multiple shows, you’ve only ever been an audience member to me or you’ve never heard of me before reading this article, your support and spirit mean everything. This campus and all of its people have so much art and light and love to offer and I can’t wait to see how it continues to do so.

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