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Theatre in Philadelphia: A Freshman Seminar

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Theatre in Philadelphia: A Freshman Seminar

By Katie Marshall.


After growing up in New York City with Broadway as my playground and attending the performing arts high school on which Fame was based, it was difficult to stray from my destined path as a self-proclaimed theatre snob. Such theatre snobs might think that leaving their theatrical hub of a home to move to a city known for cheesesteaks instead of The Great White Way would result in a lack of theatrical exposure and appreciation. I am ashamed to admit I was one of them. Thanks to Dr. Rose Malague and her freshman seminar “Theatre in Philadelphia,” however, I was proven wrong.

"Theatre in Philadelphia” is a class that explores script analysis, the art of being an audience member, theatrical criticism, and performance and production analysis through live performances in Philly. The structure of the class includes biweekly seminars with an outing to a local theatre once a week (totaling eleven shows this past semester!), with tickets and transportation paid for by the College of Arts & Sciences. Class time is devoted to prepping for the upcoming production and reviewing previous works. Occasionally, the class would read the script and discuss the intricacies of the play before seeing it, while other times Malague opted to keep the content a surprise. Writing and discussion preparation were required after every performance, and with each production I watched as my theatrical vernacular grew and my analysis became more sophisticated. Dr. Malague, who holds a doctorate in Theatre and is a published author, also finds every opportunity in class to educate her students on the greater social and economic implications of theatre. 
 

    • Theatre in Philadelphia playbills
    • Playbills from the various productions attended by the "Theatre in Philadelphia" seminar during Fall 2015 semester.

    • Rose Malague
    • Dr. Rose Malague, Senior Lecturer in the Theatre Arts Program at University of Pennsylvania.

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“Theatre in Philadelphia” does an excellent job of demonstrating the eclectic range of theatre that the city has to offer. One of the first plays we saw was a production of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist drama Exit the King, which was staged in a small black box theatre with a low budget on the third floor of the Walnut Street Theatre. The final show we saw was the national tour of the outrageous Book of Mormon at the Forrest Theatre, a gorgeous old house that can seat nearly 2,000 people. We saw classics spoken in partial Greek, a Broadway revival with a pool serving as the set, and a Penn Theatre Arts production on campus at the Annenberg Center. With this diversity, Dr. Malague cultivates an appreciation for all different types of art in her students. In fact, she taught us that liking a play and evaluating it are different kinds of responses, and that what makes a production “good” can be measured by more than just how much the audience enjoyed it. 
 

    • Exit the King 1
    • The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium's production of Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo credit: Johanna Austin.

    • Exit the King 4
    • The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium's production of Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo credit: Johanna Austin.

    • Exit the King 5
    • The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium's production of Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo credit: Johanna Austin.

    • Book of Mormon 4
    • The Book of Mormon. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

    • Book of Mormon 2
    • The Book of Mormon. Photo credit: Joan Marcus. 

    • Book of Mormon 3
    • The Book of Mormon. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

    • Bury the Dead 3
    • Penn Theatre Arts Program production of Irwin Shaw's Bury the Dead at Annenberg Center Live. Photo credit: Penn Art & Culture.

    • Bury the Dead 5
    • Penn Theatre Arts Program production of Irwin Shaw's Bury the Dead at Annenberg Center Live. Photo credit: Penn Art & Culture.

    • Bury the Dead 6
    • Penn Theatre Arts Program production of Irwin Shaw's Bury the Dead at Annenberg Center Live. Photo credit: Penn Art & Culture.

    • Antigone 1
    • Wilma Theater’s production of Antigone. Photo credit: Alexander Iziliaev

    • Antigone 3
    • Wilma Theater’s production of Antigone. Photo credit: Alexander Iziliaev

    • Antigone 4
    • Wilma Theater’s production of Antigone. Photo credit: Alexander Iziliaev

    • Metamorphoses 1
    • Arden Theatre Company’s production of Metamorphoses. Photo credit: Mark Garvin.

    • Metamorphoses 3
    • Arden Theatre Company’s production of Metamorphoses. Photo credit: Mark Garvin.

    • Metamorphoses 6
    • Arden Theatre Company’s production of Metamorphoses. Photo credit: Mark Garvin.

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As a Drama major in high school, my peers and I had been exposed to a lot of theatre, but coming into a freshman seminar at Penn I didn’t know what to expect. As one might suspect, some of the twelve-person class were students like me, eager to add to their prior theatrical knowledge, yet some had never seen a play before. This spectrum allowed for a wide array of opinions. When we read Henrik Ibsen’s classic A Doll’s House, half of the class was reading it for the second or third time, while the rest had never heard of the acclaimed Norwegian playwright. Accordingly, the conversation about the script and the Fringe Arts Festival performance of the play invited both well thought out and practiced analysis along with new revelations. The class grew as a theatre-absorbing body with each new production; discussions that started out as simple statements applauding the productions’ efforts evolved into respectful debates of character and choice. We learned as a group after seeing a stale production of Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced that it is not a crime to critique theatre as long as there is evidence to substantiate the criticism. 
 

    • A Doll's House 2
    • Fringe Arts production of A Doll's House. Photo Credit: Jenna Spitz.

    • A Doll's House 1
    • Fringe Arts production of A Doll's House. Photo Credit: Jenna Spitz.

    • A Doll's House 3
    • Fringe Arts production of A Doll's House. Photo Credit: Jenna Spitz.

    • Disgraced 3
    • Philadelphia Theatre Company production of Disgraced at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. 

    • Disgraced 4
    • Philadelphia Theatre Company production of Disgraced at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. 

    • Disgraced 10
    • Philadelphia Theatre Company production of Disgraced at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. 

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Criticism, in fact, became a major theme of the class. Not only did Dr. Malague help us to advance our analysis skills, but she also brought in her colleague and professional critic David Fox to teach us about the craft of criticism. He taught the class about journalistic criticism, its functions, and its consequences. After listening to Mr. Fox speak, I realized that you don’t have to be Ben Brantley of The New York Times to write about the arts; in fact, I started my own theatre review blog. Dr. Malague made many other special additions to the class. We were given elaborate tours of both the Arden Theatre, the Wilma, and Penn’s very own Annenberg Center; we had a riveting talk back with the cast of EgoPo’s The Children’s Hour; we received a tutorial in library research specifically regarding theatre at Van Pelt; and, after seeing his beautiful performance in Equivocation, seasoned Philadelphia actor Ian Merrill Peakes spent an hour and a half discussing life as a working actor in the city.
 

    • The Children's Hour 2
    • EgoPo Theatre Company's production of The Children's Hour at The Latvian Society. Photo credit: Dave Sarrafian.

    • The Children's Hour 6
    • EgoPo Theatre Company's production of The Children's Hour at The Latvian Society. Photo credit: Dave Sarrafian.

    • The Children's Hour 1
    • EgoPo Theatre Company's production of The Children's Hour at The Latvian Society. Photo credit: Dave Sarrafian.

    • Equivocation 1
    • Arden Theatre Company's production of Equivocation. Photo credit: Mark Garvin.

    • Equivocation 2
    • Arden Theatre Company's production of Equivocation. Photo credit: Mark Garvin.

    • Equivocation 4
    • Arden Theatre Company's production of Equivocation. Photo credit: Mark Garvin.

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“Theatre in Philadelphia” became a crucial part of my first semester at college. In a class of all freshmen, I felt comfortable exploring theatre at Penn and in the greater Philadelphia region with familiar theatre nerds and welcomed converts. I learned how to use public transportation and get myself from one end of the city to another. I recognized the differences between looking at theatre from the prospective of a scholar, an investor, an audience member, and a student. Most importantly, I was exposed to the quantity and quality of Philadelphia's theatre offerings. I know which theatre companies are the most prominent, I know where to look for show listings, and I know how to get student tickets. If it were not for Dr. Malague, I would not know that I can see almost any production in Philadelphia for $10 with my Penn Card. Through the class, I have subscribed to most of the companies and receive weekly casting and performance updates. I already have plans with some of my classmates to see a production of Peter and the Starcatcher starring our new friend Ian Merrill Peakes at the Walnut Street Theatre this spring. It is no surprise that the arts play an important role in education, but Rose Malague and her “Theatre in Philadelphia” freshman seminar take artistic exposure and appreciation to a new level. 
 


Katie Marshall is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences and hopes to major in Communication with a minor in Consumer Psychology and Cinema Studies. She studied theatre in New York at LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts and now performs in the cast of the all-female comedy troupe Bloomers. She is also a member of UME (Undergraduate Media and Entertainment).
 

Edited by Mariah Macias.