For one summer, college students arrive in Chatham to live and breathe the theaterBy Lisa Cavanaugh | Photography by Michael and Suz Karchmer
There is a brief interlude of quiet on a hot, late summer afternoon in the garden outside the historic Monomoy Theatre. Lunch is being prepared by the resident chef, and the busy young actors, designers, costumers and property masters find a moment to sit and chat. They are nearing the end of a whirlwind summer in which they will have planned, staged and performed a fast-paced compendium of eight musicals, dramas and comedies.
Since 1958, when Elizabeth Baker, wife of then Ohio University President John C. Baker, bought the one-time professional theater from the estate of Mary Winslow, the endearing building and its environs have been home to an intense summer repertory program for college students. In 2014, Ohio University made the decision to pursue other theater education options for their students, and the University of Hartford took over the lease. Alan Rust, director of the theater division of the Hartt School at UH, has also been Monomoy’s artistic director for 37 years. He and his wife, Jan, the theater’s director of housing, return to Chatham each June to welcome a new crop of young creative artists whose 12 weeks will be filled with incredibly hard work, camaraderie and professional development.
Jan says that seeing the growth of students is really fun, both from the beginning to end of a summer. “It’s bittersweet,” says Jan, “but some of them you know you will see again. They come back to visit.” But now, it is late August and everyone is ready to go home. “They’ve lived together for weeks and worked extremely hard and this is the time for thinking through if this is really what they want for their whole life,” she adds.
Seven of the company’s actors sit in the shade and reflect on their summer, their roles and what lies ahead. Almost all of them are either recent graduates or returning students at the Hartt Theatre school, except for Gavin McNicholl and Jack Plozay who are from University of Connecticut and University of North Carolina’s School of Art, respectively. Karis Gallant, Madeleine Stevens and Caroline Jackson are roommates, as are Nate Healey and Daniel Shea. Nate is the veteran, and this being his third summer at Monomoy, he was instrumental in encouraging some of his fellow Hartt school compatriots to audition.
The players arrive in early June as soon as school is out. Everyone lives on the property in one of three houses, and the group spends most of their time together.
NATE: It’s wonderful here, but can get wild. You have to keep up, treat your body and mind right, and most importantly, treat your peers right. The only way this place survives is for it to work like a hive mind.
GAVIN: We have all of our meals here together. We wouldn’t need to spend money, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t.
DANIEL: When you get some free time, you want to get outside. Or sleep.
CAROLINE: The town is so picturesque.
JACK: Not a lot of young people, I’ve noticed.
KARIS: But there are a lot of really cute dogs.
MADELINE: And great coffee shops. I love being able to walk everywhere.
DANIEL: To the candy shops.
KARIS: Don’t forget soft serve ice cream.
Performing in numerous shows can be daunting. With three scripts in hand and a fourth one looming in the distance, it can be challenging to jump from rehearsal to run-through to performance—all in one day.
GAVIN: Early in the summer, we would rehearse two shows, morning and afternoon, and then perform another one at night.
DANIEL: It becomes a matter of, “Can I make it through the day to adequately perform tonight?”
CAROLINE: You have to pace yourself. But if you can get through this summer, doing it 24 hours a day, every day and still loving what you do, then it’s a good sign that you are doing the right thing.
JACK: One of the best things about this place is you get different directors to work with, who all have different methods. It’s good practice.
MADELINE: I like to watch other actors before they go on stage, to see what they do to keep themselves healthy, what they do for their characters. I’ve learned so much. It’s been awesome.
NATE: Monomoy teaches you to work with other people and to balance all the personalities and not let it affect the work you are doing on stage. We will need to bring that into the professional world upon leaving this place and I think that’s the most beneficial aspect.
The lunch bell rings and the actors get up to grab some food, before they have to resume rehearsals. They all say they will pursue professional careers in theater or film and a few are planning moves to New York City come fall.
NATE: I think we are all pretty serious about going into acting. I will go wherever the work is.
CAROLINE: I would love to be one of those actors who can do both theater and film.
JACK: One more year, then I’m then hitting the city.
Nearby, other members of the company are already eating. These are the stage managers and craftspeople who design the sets, costumes, and props for the summer. They haven’t stopped working, even during lunch. Nicole Bianco, who has just completed her MFA at the University of Florida, has set designs laid out on the picnic table, while property master Ilana Molina from Cal State Northridge picks up a sandwich. They are joined by Shelby Brooks from Maryland, whose necklace of tape measures gives away that she is a costume technician. All three are enjoying the challenges of the summer.
NICOLE: We all give each other ideas to make the productions as smooth as possible. It’s a real back and forth to discover how the stage space can work.
ILANA: Actors say, “Hey, I think this prop isn’t going to work; can we add this instead?” And it is nice to be able to talk to them and see what will help create a better show overall.
NICOLE: I’m the set designer for four of the shows, and assist on the others. We definitely “steal like artists here.” If someone has a brilliant idea, we say, “Yes, thank you, I’m going to use that!”
ILANA: I’m the props master for all eight, so I’m typically doing two to three shows at time, figuring it all out and looking ahead.
SHELBY: I’m still learning the craft of making and altering costumes and I feel this experience has definitely helped me practice.
NICOLE: I’m going to Charleston to be a resident set designer.
ILANA: My plan is to move back to L.A., where I’m from, and go into film.
SHELBY: I’m going back to school to continue studying costume.
Just as they are finishing up their meals, another student, Max Rosenberg, from Virginia Commonwealth University, sits down with his meal. It’s his first summer in Chatham and he is really enjoying his work as stage manager.
MAX: It feels close to a professional environment here. It is a big challenge to do so many shows in one summer, but everybody here does a great job at getting it all together.
As Jan watches the students wrap up lunch and spread out across the property to their run-throughs and rehearsals, she reiterates what Max has said.
“Alan works very hard to get everything set and then the students take over,” she says. “And around November, they will look back and say, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I did all those shows in such a short time!’”
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