Student production will either entertain or insult audience

Sara Petersen

Low budget ‘Ubu Roi’ premieres tonight

WATCH a video of a scene from the play.

VIEW a slideshow featuring props and people from the production.

“Ubu Roi,” which opens tonight, includes a drag queen teacher, people eating sausages from a man’s crotch and a woman proclaiming a horse’s ass is better than yours.

“Lab shows are usually edgier and more controversial stuff that you really wouldn’t see on the mainstage just because of the nature of the material,” said Jason Leupold, sophomore musical theater major. He plays Captain Mac’Nure in the play.

Rick Coffey, senior musical theater major and director of “Ubu Roi,” said the play is grotesque – but funny.

“It insults the audience because they don’t know how to feel,” he said.

Lab plays, or student productions, in the theater department aren’t well known across campus, but they provide invaluable practice and experience for the students who direct, act and produce them.

There are two mainstage productions, which are generated by the faculty every semester, and participation is mandatory for some students. The mainstage productions this semester were “Jane Eyre: The Musical,” based off of the book by Charlotte Bronte and Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and each cost approximately $16,000 to produce. There are usually three or four student productions each semester, which have a budget of $250 and are completely student produced and extracurricular.

“Students don’t have to do it,” said Cynthia Stillings, director of the School of Theater and Dance. “They do it because they want to.”

The director of every student production must receive approval from a student board, then students do everything that goes into a production, with the only help coming from a faculty adviser.

“They go through the process from start to finish,” Stillings said. “They audition and they rehearse, and they go through getting the rehearsal space and reserving it. They really, truly learn everything that goes into putting on a production, some of which they wouldn’t get if they were an actor in a mainstage production.”

Theater professor Terri Kent said students see the “bigger picture” of a production through lab plays, and they also benefit the theater program.

“It’s always interesting to see how they perceive their strengths and the strengths of their peers,” Kent said. “They get to showcase something we maybe didn’t know they could do.”

“Ubu Roi”

French playwright Alfred Jarry wrote “Ubu Roi” to premier in 1896.

“Shit” was the first word uttered in the play and the audience rioted, shouting insults and fighting.

“Nobody ever heard the word ‘shit’ on stage before,” Coffey said.

He had never seen a production of “Ubu Roi” before, but he decided to direct it anyway.

Coffey held auditions in December and modified the play to a Catholic school setting and the characters around the actors over winter break.

“My adaptation is about a man (Ubu) who is convinced by his wife to kill the king and the royal family,” Coffey said. “Ubu then kills all of the royal family except for one son, who seeks help from the Russians and eventually overthrows Ubu.”

As Coffey thought about adapting the characters from the play, he found that they all fell into a school stereotype, such as a bully, a nerd and a secretary.

“The play itself is written in a very childlike manner and that’s when I first started thinking about ‘Ubu’ being set in a school,” he said.

In Coffey’s adaptation, there are three different options of what could be going on. However, he wants the audience to decide what is happening and the school setting helps the audience understand.

“By setting it in a classroom, the audience understands what is happening, but the interpretation is up to them,” Coffey said. “It gives (the audience) a place that they’re familiar with.

“The action is so abstract, and the characters are so abstract (that) if there’s one thing that they can cling onto as a part of their reality, it will kind of be a bridge to the abstract world.”

The auditions

Auditions for the mainstage plays normally consist of an actor reading a monologue and singing about a minute of a song in front of theater faculty.

But Coffey held auditions very differently for “Ubu Roi.”

He made students read Beatle lyrics in different situations.

First Denise Dumper, senior musical theater major, read “Eleanor Rigby” lyrics like she was a mean girl and Rigby was her enemy. Then she read those same lyrics as if she were an anchor on the evening news.

Leupold, with the help of three actresses, performed “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” as a man trying to bring customers into a brothel for elderly people. The next take, Leupold is a ringmaster encouraging people to attend a circus.

Senior theater major Kelly Morgan read “Help” lyrics like a six-year-old lost in a department store, and Brain Crowley, sophomore musical theater major, read “Act Naturally” as a hillbilly who honestly thinks he’s going to make it into the movies.

Coffey used Beatles lyrics because the songs are so well known and he wanted to take away the “functions of the fixations” the actors have with the songs.

“This allows me to see that the actor is willing to take what I’m telling them to do and go beyond what I’m telling them to do and continue to add on character,” Coffey said. “It really shows me how workable the actors are and gives me a sense of who they are.”

Exposure of underclassmen

Freshmen and sophomores usually only receive and ensemble part and a few lines in each mainstage production. In student productions, the underclassmen are presented with larger parts, which allow them to prove themselves to the faculty.

Both Crowely and Leupold participated in a lab play when they were freshmen and earned the attention of Kent, who encouraged them to audition for the Musical Theater Program. Underclassmen are sometimes overlooked because the faculty see the students for three to five minutes in an audition, Kent said.

“We’re making an assessment about their talent in a very brief amount of time,” Kent said. “But it doesn’t give you the whole picture. When I got to a lab show, I see their work for an hour.

“I see not how they craft a monologue or sing 16 bars; I see that they know how to craft an entire role, that they understand the entire function of the role within the show. You get a lot of information in that hour of time.”

Both Crowley and Leupold said participating in lab plays helped their names and faces become recognized by the faculty. They both participated in a few mainstage productions as part of the ensemble, but they said they are excited to have bigger roles in a play.

“This is the first production that I’m going to be in here at Kent State that is … going to let me put out more of my acting into it,” Leupold said. “With ensemble work and with the smaller parts it’s harder to be out there. I think (this is) really going to put me out there and say ‘Hey! Here’s what I can do.'”

“This will show such a broad range of what I can do,” Crowley said. “Hopefully (the faculty) will take note that I can definitely handle something other than ensemble.”

Opening night approaches

“Ubu Roi” is part of Fringe Fest, which has been happening all this week. Its avant-garde genre fits in with the rest of the productions that are associated with the festival.

“I guarantee most of the people coming to this show have not experienced anything like it, but that’s the nature of Fringe Fest,” Crowley said. “It’s really obscure.”

“Ubu Roi” will be performed in Room B005 of the Music and Speech Center, which is a black box theater.

The intimacy the actors will have with the audience, along with the surreal nature of the play, is going to make the audience a key ingredient to the production, Coffey said. That makes predicting the audience’s reaction difficult.

“Really, going into it I have honestly, absolutely no clue because it’s so odd that this play is going to have so much audience interaction and the audience is viewed as the co-creator of this piece, and it’s so odd not to have this co-creator here,” Coffey said. “I’m thinking once we pack this house full, it’s almost going to be a completely different play from the play we’re seeing tonight.”

But the actors are eager to see what the audience’s reaction to the play will be.

“I’m really excited to just put it out there and see how people will react because it’s so different,” Leupold said. “It’ll be really interesting to see what they do.”

Contact performing arts reporter Sara Petersen at [email protected].