Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Alma Mater matters: On Stolen Chair and Swarthmore

Stolen Chair HQ received 3 big emails from Swarthmore College this week. For those of you who don't know the lore (if you already do, you can click ahead to the announcements below), Stolen Chair was founded in 2002 by 10 Swarthmore College students and recent alumni to create a piece for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Though today's Stolen Chair is by no means comprised solely (or even mostly) of Swarthmore alumni (aka "Swatties"), we have maintained a close relationship with the college ever since.

After Kiran and I moved the company to New York in fall of 2002, we continued to collaborate in New York with founding members Kathy Walley and Keetje Kuipers, as well as a handful of other New York Swatties. Kathy is now on our board of directors and training to be an ASL interpreter, and Keetje continues to provide frequent moral support as she pursues a career in poetry.

While part of "growing-up" has obviously meant casting a wider net and beginning to play nicely with children from other schools, some uncanny connections to the college have persisted. David Bengali, our resident designer and director of production, was introduced to us through our former costume designer and current board member, Caroline Barnard, when we were looking for a lighting designer for 2005's Commedia dell'Artemisia. Caroline knew him from Princeton and knew he dug Commedia...turns out he had also collaborated quite a bit with another company founded by Swarthmore alums: Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre Company, a major inspiration to us while we were undergrads. And Emily Otto, our composer and dramaturg, spotted our Craigslist ad after seeing Pig Iron's Hell Meets Henry Halfway at A.R.T. (where she was working on her MFA) and meeting with the show's dramaturg, Allen Kuharski, the Swarthmore theatre professor (and continuing mentor) who inspired us to create a theatre company in the first place. And I met Alexia and Cameron while we were training with the SITI Company at....(can you guess where?)...SKIDmore--wait, that's not Swarthmore; ah well, close enough!

And somehow, strangely, the line-up of collaborators for this weekend's retreat represents the most Swattie-dominated residency we've had since that very first summer creating Portrait of Dora as a Young Man, and, I, frankly, never could have predicted that we'd be working with these three very talented Swarthmoreans. Aviva Meyer, who had never worked with a theatre company previously (but had, since Stolen Chair's inception, been the company's fairy godmother, providing house management, set-up/strike help, and endless origami out of the goodness of her own heart), was finishing up her masters in public health at Columbia in 2004 when we begged her to come head up Stolen Chair's "offices." And though Sam Dingman (who co-founded the company when he was just a wee college sophomore) performed a curtain-raiser for Commedia dell'Artemisia, Kiran and I hadn't collaborated with him in over 4 years when we began work on Kill Me...! Elisa Matula, another co-founder of the company (who, as you might be able to glean from the inset picture, co-starred with Sam in my directing thesis production of The Dybbuk, adapted by Kiran), has returned to play with Stolen Chair after an even longer hiatus: nearly 5 years living in Paris! Elisa trained for two years at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq and spent a few years after that touring work to international festivals throughout Europe and training at the Roy Hart Theatre (and about a dozen other places I'm still slowly learning about), and though Kiran and I treasured our annual dates in cute little Parisian cafes and wine bars (Kiran has family she visits regularly in Paris and I accompany her to hang out in her Parisian digs and get some work done in what is certainly our most "fancy-pants" retreat destination), we never imagined we'd ever see Elisa in New York, let alone have the opportunity to create work with her again.

And speaking of opportunity, with the support of the Swarthmore Project in Theatre, a program that grants creative residencies in the college's Frear Ensemble Theatre (often with cozy lodgings in a nearby bed and breakfast), Stolen Chair has kicked-off the development processes of 5 of our 9 original productions. Retreats, both at Swarthmore at our Greenwich, CT location, have since become a vital part of each project's conceptualization.

Lastly, whenever we're producing a show, we reach out as much as possible to the Swarthmore alumni network in New York; they're smart, politically engaged, ready to laugh their asses off, and equally willing to be moved--could there be a better audience?!

Now onto the emails:
  1. A tear-sheet from the Kill Me Like You Mean It review and Stolen Chair profile which Jeff Lott wrote for the forthcoming March issue of the Swarthmore Alumni Bulletin. I'll post a scan of the review when we get it in the mail in a few weeks.
  2. Allen Kuharski, head of Swarthmore's Theatre Department, invited Stolen Chair to present a work as part of the featured entertainment for the 2007 Alumni Weekend. This will be a really nice way to commemorate Stolen Chair's 5th anniversary and Kiran and my (and Elisa and Kathy's) 5th college reunion. We just received confirmation that funding has come through for the project so now we're trying to decide which piece we should resuscitate from our repertory. I'll post details as soon as I have them.
  3. Okay, to be fair, this item isn't exactly Stolen Chair news, but yours truly is currently trying to sort through logistics so that I can be the guest director for a Swarthmore acting student's solo performance thesis. This is exciting for at least half a dozen reasons, but one that I just realized while typing is that I was the first directing student to devise an original work with professional actors hired by the theatre department for my thesis (a movement-theatre adaptation of The Dybbuk...yes, I did double-Dybbuks for my thesis, I'm that guy!). Coming back to the program as the "hired help" has will be a nice dramaturgical book-end :)
Long enough post?

1 comment:

Katherine said...

Goodness me, there are a lot of Swarthmore connections!

Jon, you must, must, must figure out the logistics to become a guest director for the Senior thesis project. What a great opportunity. And, considering the wonderful ongoing relationship Stolenchair has with Swat, perhaps you should call this project not a bookend, but a bookmark. ;)

Kathy