November 23, 2011 | Andrew Steiner

The cast of “The Shakespeare Stealer” rehearses a play within a play.

Jennifer Kang was coerced into her theatrical debut, a role in an elementary school production of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” She was cast as the beanstalk. After two more inauspicious appearances — she played a barmaid in an adaptation of Oliver Twist—in eighth grade, Kang landed the role of Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I think that’s really when I fell in love with theatre,” she said.

A new role

A member of Calvin Theatre Company, Kang has acted in She Stoops to Conquer, The Wednesday Wars and, most recently, Antigone, but now the senior English major has stepped up to direct the titular play in CTC’s upcoming dramatic medley Sunday Go to Meetin’ and Other Plays for Young Audiences. “I have more respect for directors now in this process, understanding how difficult it is,” she said.

The show will open Dec. 1 for an audience of middle school students from the Grand Rapids area. General admission performances will be held the evenings of Dec. 2 and 3.

Sunday Go to Meetin’ is the culmination of a semester’s-worth of research and planning by the students in professor Debra Freeberg’s “Special Topics in Theatre” class (CAS 395). Though Freeberg is co-directing the final play in the production, Gary L. Blackwood’s The Shakespeare Stealer, her class of eight is fully involved at every level of the process: “casting, blocking, assessing their needs for period costumes and props, meeting with designers and so on.”

Honest drama

Kang’s play, like the others, addresses concerns young teens have about how they fit into the world. Sunday Go to Meetin’, Shirley Lauro’s one-act set in early 20th-century Iowa, tells the story of two Protestant girls who come across a young Jewish immigrant selling apples at a roadside stand on the day of rest. The 10-minute play addresses the contradictory demands on teenagers to conform to the expectations of their culture, the opinions of their friends and their own sense of what is right.

Sunday also hints at a larger identity crisis, Kang believes: “I think it’s also a question of American identity. I think it’s interesting that we as a country call ourselves a melting pot but we see so many examples in history and in the news about people who are different from the norm being hurt …. If we’re not truly the melting pot, then what are we?”

The play doesn’t patronize its audience by dumbing down the complexity of its themes, Kang said: “I feel like it leaves questions more than it answers questions.”

“These are not fairy tale plays,” Freeberg affirmed.

Freeberg believes the best stories for young adults don’t underestimate what their audiences are capable of handling, what many of them have already experienced. One of Freeberg’s inspirations for the production is Astrid Lindgren, the Swedish author of Pippi Longstocking, whose work doesn’t shy away from hard subjects, but shows how imagination can be a source of strength for children dealing with loss.

“[This production] doesn’t patronize them,” Freeberg said. “We’re trying to meet them where they are, and that’s what Lindgren always did.”

Spieling and scrimming

But, Freeberg added, the plays aren’t downers: “They’ve got lots of energy.”

The opener, Mrs. Sorken, is a one-woman comedy about an enthusiastic theatre-goer who loses her notes just before a lecture on the history of drama. The play’s director, Buck Weglarz, a senior completing degrees in biology, religion and theatre, says the energy of the piece comes from its improvisatory feel. “It’s almost like this woman just got up out of the audience and started rambling,” he said.

While Mrs. Sorken’s energy is expressed verbally, Freeberg and co-director Emily Diener, a senior theatre major, want to express the energy in The Shakespeare Stealer more demonstratively. In order to tell their story about a young stage hand who discovers his love of drama while working in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the cast members are being trained in the art of “scrimming,” an early modern style of sword-fighting.

Vitality of the stage

The Shakespeare Stealer’s main character finds a new imaginative life in theatre, and Freeberg hopes the same might be said of the middle school students who attend. “I think that’s the future,” she said. “Theatre has been graying for years, and if theatre wants to be healthier, you have to bring them along with you.”

Despite the many different forms of entertainment young audiences can access, Kang believes live theatre continues to offer something irreplaceable. “Books give you the tools to help imagine all of the worlds around you,” she said. “In movies, there’s not really much left to the imagination because everything has been laid out for you.

“I feel like theatre gives you the great in-between — there are still things left to the imagination. It gives you the trust that the audience is able to go there with you. Theatre would be nothing without its audience.

Buck Weglarz directing Abby Beasley in “Mrs. Sorken”

Prof. Debra Freeberg is coordinating CTC’s latest production

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