Professor of Theatre Cynthia Gendrich loves comedy, so she is in her element directing “Smash,” the Wake Forest University Theatre 2010-2011 season opener. Gendrich shares her thoughts on the value of the theatre for those who are on stage, back stage or in the audience and describes the challenges of working on the current production. She recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study why people laugh and to develop a related first-year seminar.
Q. Why should people go to a play?
Plays help give us a broader view of the world by asking interesting questions. So, we get prodded as thinking human beings, but it doesn’t feel like work. For this play, “Smash,” it has a lot to do with pleasure — the pleasure of laughing with each other, the pleasure of shared experience that bonds you with others and helps forge a sense of community. At Wake Forest, I think those are good reasons to go, but I also think students and faculty should come to appreciate the talents of those involved in much the same way we go to support sports teams. You know, “Go Deacs!” applies to the arts, too!
Q. Why did you select the play, “Smash”?
“Smash” is a witty comedy by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on George Bernard Shaw’s “An Unsocial Socialist.” It is set at a girls’ school around the turn of the 20th century, and is about politics, economics and love. Because it is set at a college, its spirit is very young. It has good roles for women and men, and is a wonderful challenge for actors — especially in terms of the language, which is often complicated and quick. It’s also really funny, which means that audiences are likely to enjoy it. So even though there are some serious themes and questions embedded in it, it feels like a light little romp. It has roller skates and unicycles and love triangles.
The challenge is, I think, in making it feel effortless and buoyant. I love directing comedy, but the trickiest part in this is to make sure we actually follow all the twists and turns without feeling weighed down by them. “Smash” is more complicated than it seems, but the audience should never feel that.
Q. What do you hope students will gain from their experience acting in or working behind the scenes on this play?
Greater facility with language and period style, greater understanding of what goes into making a piece like this work, greater appreciation for comedy, and a sense of enjoyment and accomplishment.
In many ways, the theatre is just one big, intense laboratory/classroom. Six days a week, four hours a day for five or six weeks, we focus intently on whatever it is we’re learning. Discussion, analysis, experimentation, debate, laughter, problem-solving — these are all part of both classrooms and rehearsals. Working on a play also teaches students focus and helps them reconnect with their immediate personal and physical environment. I feel good stealing them from their technology for hours each day, helping them sustain concentration, pushing them creatively, emotionally and analytically, and encouraging them to really connect with other people. No matter how much I love my iPhone and my laptop, sometimes I worry that we’re forgetting how to deal with what’s right in front of us. Theatre, it seems to me, is one antidote to that frame of mind — and can be a great vacation for all of us who get tired of our human connections happening only electronically.
Q. What made you want to teach theatre?
I’ve been in plays since I was in grade school. I have a BFA in theatre, with an acting/directing focus, as well as an MA and PhD in theatre, with all the attendant focus on history, theory and criticism. Like most people in theatre, I started out as an actor, but along the way I began to think of myself as mainly a director. My career is peppered with lots of different kinds of acting, directing and design gigs. I helped found a theatre company in Chicago and have worked with a lot of wonderful theatre people, but ultimately I wanted to be at a university — a place like Wake Forest with smart, talented students who really want to make a difference in the world.
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