A group of Michigan State University Department of Theatre students created a series of new audio plays, each connected to themes of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). All five “Audio Anthology” plays, along with a student-produced documentary short, are now available online at theatre.msu.edu/dei_audio.
When the health and safety response to the COVID-19 pandemic caused the Department of Theatre’s entire 2020-2021 production season to be canceled, students were invited to audition for a series of experimental, devised, and novel theatre projects all rooted in topics around DEI.
“Necessity is the mother of invention and having all of these limitations created opportunities,” said Deric McNish, Assistant Professor of Acting and faculty coordinator on the project. “This is not something that is done in the traditional theatrical model. It’s something that is genuinely the creation of the people in this ensemble that everyone has equal ownership over.”
The Audio Anthology project was unlike anything the students had worked on before.
“We were all cast in this project without knowing what it was. Usually, you get cast, and you get handed a script and you rehearse,” said Sam Carter, senior BFA Acting and the anthology’s assistant director. “With the Audio Anthology, we all got the chance to be actors and directors and playwrights, devising a piece about something we were passionate about.”
As a starting point, the group read and discussed dozens of poems from diverse artists, which evoked frank and honest conversations about race, gender, and sexuality as well as personal experiences about how these issues impact the way the students move through the world today. From this experience, they created scenarios and improvised scenes until the basic structure for each play began to take shape. Individuals and groups of students then took on the challenge of weaving these experiences into cohesive audio dramas.
Nealmonté Alexander, a senior dual Fine Arts candidate in Acting and Apparel and Textile Design, took a notably personal approach to the project. He liked the poems the team shared, but did not feel connected to them, so the poetry he used to inspire his play was his own.
The audio play, “Missing Link,” tells the story of a student in a therapy session who discusses issues of ethnicity, identity, intimacy, community, mental health, and being a mixed-race person. The student, Alexander says, is him.
“I had to revisit things in my past, but if I stay silent, I’m doing everyone a disservice and I am hurting myself by not talking about it,” Alexander said. “The character is absolutely me. The experiences that the character goes through are not made-up experiences; they are authentically and personally mine. I’ve experienced the exclusion and feeling disconnected from people for reasons around race, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Making a conscious choice to share this has made it more comfortable for me to talk about it in general.”
For sophomore English major Mary Claire Zauel, the mystery project was a dream opportunity that merged all of her areas of interest.
“As someone who wants to be a playwright, I was excited to combine my passion for poetry and theatre,” said Zauel, whose play, “For Detroit” is inspired by “There Are Birds Here,” a poem by Jamaal May that addresses the uninformed and biased perception that many Michiganders have of Detroit and its citizens.
Zauel read the poem in a class during her freshman year. “As soon as I read it, it quickly became my favorite poem. It really opened my mind,” she said. “When I was given the opportunity to write the play, I felt very honored. It was an emotional experience at times because I felt that I shouldn’t have been the one to write the piece. I’m not from Detroit, I don’t share the same experiences as people who are from Detroit and the character in the play. But the group had a lot of faith in me, I felt very supported by the other cast members and everybody else in the creative team.”
Even after the scripts had been developed, the experience continued to be atypical of what the students had grown to expect from their involvement in past theatre productions.
“Before the plays were cast, we got the opportunity to express which roles we were really excited about or strongly identified with,” Carter said, “which is something an actor never gets to do in a typical audition.”
The art of directing an audio play was also inherently unique, says Zauel. “One of the really positive sides of directing just for audio is the amount of impact that a voice can have, which is something that can be overlooked in physical theater because we’re so focused on where our hands go and how we need to move around the stage.”
Carter agreed, adding that she found physicality to still play a critical role in voice acting. “My characters were in a coffee shop, so I directed the actors to put a coffee in their hands, eat something, take a sip. You could hear that movement in their voice, and it painted a better picture overall.”
The students all agreed that beyond the experience of writing, acting, and directing, the biggest takeaway was the creative bond they’ve formed as a group. For Carter, the anthology brought a newfound confidence as a writer. “I’d never written a script before and all the people who had experience in that area gave me feedback in a super respectful manner that made me feel like I was so capable.”
For Alexander, the lessons learned from the project have already made an impact in his personal life. “When I first submitted my script, I was so nervous. I didn’t know how people would take it. I didn’t think people would like it, but I received validation and positive feedback from Deric and my peers. We discussed how to tackle that kind of vulnerability and it has absolutely helped me in classes and other facets of my life going beyond the project. It’s opened me up to so much.”
McNish hopes that those lessons will now extend from the students to the audience. “If one person listens to these plays and becomes a little more empathetic, a little more kind, maybe if they just listen a little bit better knowing the struggles that people are carrying around with them, then this will be time well spent.”
Visitors to the anthology at theatre.msu.edu/dei_audio will find an audio file of each play, along with the poems that inspired them, links to a transcript of each play, and additional resources and information relating to the themes and topics explored.
Written by: Michigan State University
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