Have you ever wondered about Penn's Theatre Arts Program: what it does, where it is, and what it offers to students? Back when I was a prospective Penn student interested in theatre, I attempted to research those questions. I quickly realized that the Theatre Arts department is an incredible, unique, interdisciplinary program, and its benefits cannot be grasped through a Google search. The program encourages experiential learning to immerse students in the world of theatre, allowing them to thrive creatively and think analytically. We also critically examine one another’s work in order to grow as actors, directors, designers and writers.
One of the most valuable opportunities that Theatre Arts offers is the chance to break away from the classroom setting. In these instances, students gain exposure to and training on particular theatre styles that, often times, are rarely offered to those new to the theatre world. Last month, for instance, on three Fridays, the Theatre Arts department brought Mason Rosenthal, an actor, director, dancer and teacher who specializes in devised theatre and dance, to lead original performance creation workshops. At the age of only 26, Mason has already displayed phenomenal performance talent. He earned a BFA in drama from New York University while studying with The Atlantic Theater Company Acting School. He was then employed by The Atlantic Theatre Company, where he learned to teach theatre through improvisational dance from his mentor, George Russell.
In 2011, Mason moved from New York City to Philadelphia to become Headlong Performance Institute’s first teaching fellow. Now he is acting and creating performances all over the Philadelphia area. He recently appeared in “Go Long Big Softie,” an original performance piece that premiered as part of the 2013 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. As the festival wrapped up, Mason took time to workshop with a group of students, teaching techniques for creating original work.
Devised theatre, a term referring to performance work that begins with an idea instead of a script, pushes creators to draw from theatre, voice, dance and scripting techniques with the purpose of unlocking skillful and spontaneous creativity. Open to the Philadelphia community, students from the College, Wharton, and Nursing, from majors spanning the Cinema Studies program to Communications and English, from various ethnic backgrounds and years of study, along with Temple students and others, joined Theatre Arts program students in an Annenberg Performing Arts Center classroom to be trained in Mason’s expertise.
As students entered the classroom for the first workshop, it was clear that some were skeptical. Theatre calls for participation, for interaction with others in a way that traditional lecture-style teaching does not require. Students were quickly propelled from their comfort zone, as we were immediately asked to make up a “floor dance,” for which participants lay on the floor, quickly switching between low- and mid-level body positions. We were later asked to “surprise one another,” moving through the classroom at different paces, greeting one another and confronting one another. These were not confrontations in the opposing sense. They were confrontations in which we shared space and ideas, confrontations that resulted in moments of what Mason called heat — meaning feeling compelled by a moment’s image, awkwardness, beauty, or a combination of all three.
After these activities, participants lost their skepticism. People became suddenly comfortable being forced out of their comfort zones. In three short hours, the group came together to create five creepy, fascinating, awkward, fun pieces inspired by a specific activity called “Ordinary to Extraordinary.” The exercise asked that two people stand on opposite sides of the room, walking towards one another as if walking on Locust. When the two were close enough to greet one another, the exchange became abnormal, entering into an “extraordinary world.” The two then disengaged and walked away as if the exchange had been completely ordinary. Both Mason’s favorite moment, and several participants’ favorite moment from the first session, this exercise allowed students to relax and enjoy their time at the workshop. It also taught participants about devised theatre through observing one another’s interactions and creating new ideas based on them. One piece had so much “heat” for me that it resulted in a collaborative scene that I was able to use for a midterm in one of my classes.
The following two workshops were equally successful. The second encompassed an activity called “body surfing,” where participants depended on one another to roll each other’s body through the space. Participants also wrote unusual love letters, danced in pairs and created a large group piece at the end. The final workshop was more personally focused; participants brought three source materials, each of a different medium (a song, video, text, image, object, etc.), to investigate any subject of interest. This exercise allowed students to practice skills for devising original work specific to their own goals. Mason recalled one moment from the final workshop that was particularly beautiful: a Japanese graduate student studying business attended the workshop interested in improving his presentation skills. He was terrified to see that the workshop was acting-driven. By the time he left, though, this student had opened up immensely, delivering an entire monologue in Japanese.
Transformations like that make me feel that Penn needs more theatre-related events that open to the greater community. There are benefits for students of all kinds, from those studying theatre, to those in the business school or students interested in the medical field. My most vivid memory from the workshops is laughter. I heard more laughter during the workshops than I typically hear for weeks at Penn. In those moments of humor, I could see that each participant enjoyed him or herself, despite any initial feelings at the start of the workshop. Theatre could be incorporated into the life of any Penn student with various outcomes, from technical training, to strengthening interpersonal interactions, to stress-relief, even to simply having fun.