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Wofford Theatre transformed for 40th season

MetamorphosisA
2009-11-19

‘Metamorphoses’ performances scheduled this week

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Wofford College’s Tony White Theater has undergone a transformation. Going from a deserted black-box theater back in August, it now engulfs a 6,000-gallon pool of water built by students and in which they are performing “Metamorphoses,” which continues this week. In a way, that physical change represents the transformation Wofford Theatre has experienced in its 40 years of existence.

(Performances of “Metamorphoses” are scheduled for 8 p.m. Nov. 18-21. For tickets, call the box office at 864-597-4080.)

The visions for the opening performance of Wofford Theatre’s 40th season began to crystallize this summer in director Mark Ferguson’s head. He then added them to a wall-length story¬board ripped from a roll of white paper. It was dramatic and chaotic, but made perfect sense against the background of flat-painted black.

The physical transformation – complete with the water pool – happened under the direction of faculty designer Colleen Ballance and technical director Jesse Moshure. The student bring the training and discipline they’re learning in acting and movement classes to evening rehearsals and now the performances for “Metamorphoses.” The play by Mary Zimmerman is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a Greek narrative poem about transformation myths and love. It won a Tony Award in 2002, but that’s not why Wofford Theatre faculty chose it to anchor the 40th season.

“It’s apt because it’s about transforming and shifting,” says Ferguson, a 1994 Wofford graduate. “In some ways it echoes the transformation that Wofford Theatre has undergone during the past 40 years.”

Wofford Theatre’s spring performance carries the idea of transformation even further. The play, “Big Love,” is based on Aeschylus’ “The Sup¬pliant Women.” It explores gender and freedom in all stages of life.

MetamorphosisB“Both of the plays we picked for the 40th anniversary season are con¬temporary updates of classical Greek texts and encompass the entire scope of human experience,” says Ferguson. “Both plays also allow us to reflect as a theatre about where we come from, where we are now and where we’re headed.”

Founded in 1970 by Dr. J. R. Gross, the Wofford Theatre Workshop engaged and entertained for 34 years before adding an academic compo¬nent. The department, which includes four full-time faculty and staff and one adjunct, now mentors and advises 20 students who have chosen to pursue theatre training though major or minor coursework.

“I’m proud of the faculty team we have now. It’s easy to find people who are good at what they do, but finding talented people at the top of their game who also are passionate about undergraduate education is much harder. That’s what we have in the Wofford Theatre,” says Ferguson. “We’re not a conservatory. We provide rigorous theatrical training in the context of a liberal arts education. The entire faculty is focused on that mission.”

Gathering a cast of faculty and building a base of theatre majors, however, completes only part of the transformation. According to Ferguson, one of the most important innovations in theatre at Wofford has been the creation of Pulp Theatre. “It’s learning by doing on the highest level,” says Ferguson. “Students can learn a lot in theatre classes, and they do. They can learn a lot by working with faculty rehearsing for a performance, and they do. But nothing can compare with student-directed, student-designed work where students have complete, unadulterated control of the final product.”

This year, Wofford Pulp Theatre will develop a production of “Flight of the Lawn Chair Man,” based on the true story of the man who attached 45 helium-filled weather balloons to his lawn chair so he could fly. Each student designer, director and choreographer working on the performance will have a faculty mentor, much like a having a hired consultant, who will help them reach their vision and walk the tight¬rope of acting for and directing their peers.

“Pulp Theatre is a testament to the strength of Wofford Theatre,” Ferguson says. “The high level of theatrical training has empowered our students to take on executive artistic and leadership roles.”

Ferguson also takes pride in the post-graduate success of Wofford’s theatre students. In addition to the required classes, production experience and senior capstone project, each year the theatre department sends students to national theatre conferences where they compete for and earn prestigious apprentice¬ships. The entire program is intentional and designed to help students grow as both artists and human beings.

“Almost every single graduate who wants to pursue theatre as an artist or as an academic is doing so,” Ferguson says. “Still, that’s not all we’re educating people to do and Wofford’s program is not a one-way ticket to Broadway. A Wofford student becoming a star isn’t beyond the realm of possibility, but there are so many factors — like unbelievable drive, uncompromising vision, talent, amazing luck — that it takes to reach that level…. The skills and values our students learn by working in class and on shows give them something to take with them whether they become lawyers or doctors or CPAs or parents. We teach stu¬dents how to work on and solve problems within whatever context they find themselves.”

Ferguson acknowledges that even though theatre has been present at Wofford for a long time, it wasn’t always what students came for. “It used to be that students came to Wofford to prepare for careers as phy¬sicians, clergy, scholars and then would discover Dr. Gross and their love for theatre would blossom. One of the most significant changes since I’ve been here is that people are now coming to Wofford to study theatre — they are beginning to identify us as a theatre school. That was the plan and it’s exciting to watch that happen.”