The Arts

Creating Community to Create Theater

Irene Sakson ’15
Updated 7/20/2018 to include the 2018 summer play.

Walk by the big, glass windows of the Benaroya Theater lobby (nicknamed “The Fishbowl” for this reason) at nearly any hour of the school day, and you will likely see students studying and socializing. Throughout the school year, students gather in the Fishbowl, whether or not a play is in production, and laughter can be heard around the clock as students work, play, and converse. The community that emerges from The Bush School Drama Department exists nearly independently of the show cycle, and is something that Upper School Drama Teacher and director Jeremy Bryan and his students put a great deal of thought into fostering. Jeremy notes, “I think just the act of putting on a show creates a community because we’re doing something very difficult and very rewarding as a group. Sometimes those people are your friends, sometimes they’re people you just met, but at the end of the show, you feel close to all of them.”

Creating community to create theater

Recent 2017 graduate Madison Onsager recalls how, on the first day of her Freshman year, she decided to act in the fall play Poe: “I have been so, so grateful for that every day since.” Since then, Madison has been involved in nearly every play the drama department has put on. Madison notes that many of her friends are involved with the drama department, which she imagines is largely “due to the theater community and how incredibly tight-knit and supportive it is.” Madison imagines that the strength of the theater community is “at least in part due to the fact that theater teaches empathy, because you have to be able to understand what your character is feeling onstage. I think that that breeds a really accepting place to be.”

Madison recalls how, during her first show, she experienced the ways that community and theater can strengthen each other when she was part of a chorus called the Shadows. Throughout the narrative of Poe, the Shadows haunt the set and the characters, reciting moments from Edgar Allen Poe’s writing as a collective voice. Madison remembers working with the other Shadows in movement workshops, onstage, and behind the seating risers trying to “creep the audience out.” Madison reflects, “I was absolutely astounded by how tightly we all grew together throughout the process, because we had to move and sometimes speak as one,” and the connections she made with her fellow Shadows have continued to develop throughout her time at Bush.

The lasting nature of the connections that students form with each other in the drama department is not uncommon. A swath of alumnae/i attend every Bush drama production, waiting excitedly in the risers to see what the next generation of Bush actors has created. Madison reports that she is still close friends with former members of the drama department who were seniors and juniors when she was a freshman. Jeremy notes that he, too, has witnessed the effect of the Bush drama community on the students who are both currently and were formerly involved in plays: “This theater community really cares about each other. They care about the new people who come in, and they care about the people who have graduated. This is one of the stronger groups I’ve known for that, and it’s been that way for years and years.”

How do you create community?

One key way that the Bush drama department fosters community is through this focus on inclusivity. Jeremy emphasizes that “no matter who you are, you can come and be a part of a show and you’re immediately family.” The theater has embraced Bush’s no-cut policy, and even when faced with the challenge of choosing plays that can accommodate as many as thirty-four students, Jeremy is committed to casting all his students: “I think there’s something to embrace about having a big cast like that that you can connect to.” The no-cut policy has also been an important element of Madison’s experience, and she notes that it is something that is felt and valued by all those involved in the theater: “I think that that policy is really important, because it’s just another layer to the acceptance that’s built into the whole department. If you want a place in the department, in the show, behind the scenes, we’ll give you one.”

Jeremy is committed to fostering community both inside and outside rehearsal times. Unlike any other drama teacher he has known, his office is located directly off the theater lobby, with his door always open to students. “If they have a question, if they have a concern, if they have something about theater, if they have something about their personal lives, I’m always kind of right here nearby.” Jeremy once considered moving his office to a quieter space, but he did not want to separate himself from the lively Fishbowl and the community that emerges from the plays he directs. Jeremy’s connection with his students also helps him choose plays that will be challenging and fulfilling to the students in the department, for Jeremy’s primary goal as a director is for “every actor to feel that they had a rewarding experience.”

Staying close all year round

***For tickets to the 2018 show, Saga: Tales from Norse Mythology, click here.

Theater at The Bush School does not end with the close of the school year. Over the course of four weeks each summer, Jeremy directs a third play, where interested students work on the set and production of the show for half of each day, and rehearse during the other half. With such a short timeframe to work with, the production of the summer play often feels like a whirlwind, but Jeremy notes that it is part of the fun: “The anxiety about getting it all together is part of the energy we use to make it a very exciting performance.” Jeremy began offering the summer play in 2008, which makes this the tenth anniversary of summer theater at Bush. In the summer of 2017, The Bush School Drama Department is presenting Completely Hollywood! (abridged), a fast-paced comedy that celebrates and pokes fun at dozens of America’s favorite movies and tropes. All members of the Bush community and beyond are invited to come see the results of the dedicated effort, enthusiasm, and fun that the cast and crew have put into the show.