The Play’s the Thing at MICA: Art Students “Dancing at Lughnasa”

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Each spring a small army of impossibly youthful and talented MICA students tackles a high-concept  stage drama under the guidance of producer/director and award-winning lit professor Christopher Shipley. I’ve seen Rivals of the West — MICA’s theater company, which requires most participants to enroll in Shipley’s popular course “The Play’s the Thing” — pull off the following shows with astounding chops for art-school kids (not perfect but not hard to lose yourself inside): The musical Hair, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Neil Labute’s Fat Pig, and perhaps most impressive of all, A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, the most existentially advanced and the one I expected to resist hardest. That’s why I have sky-high hopes for Dancing at Lughansa, the 1990 play by Brian Friel set in 1936 Ireland in the fictional town of Ballybeg on the coast of Donegal, “a memory play” that features a cast of complex adults facing midlife disappointments and financial crises. What’s the jumbo challenge here? Age progression, to be sure. But these Irish “adults” also speak in an Irish brogue; and when they’re not feeling too somber, they dance with real Celtic flourish.

Formerly, Shipley’s gifted playwright son, Peter Shipley, served as director, while Shipley produced (and offered directorial/dramaturge-style feedback). For now — since Peter’s relocation to Seattle — the elder Shipley’s tripling as producer-director-instructor. His youngest child, Trevor Shipley, provides fantastic background music and has done so since the theater company’s launch in 2009.

I talked to Professor Shipley about his attraction to this particular play and how he and his hyper-creative team pulled it off (in another encore feat).

Who is eligible for your course? How many hours does each enrolled undergrad put in? What is the schedule like for each participant? What is the budget of each show roughly?

Anyone can audition for a role and/or apply to the tech team. Those not cast are offered tech positions. Nearly everyone who applies only to tech gets a spot. We have also cast staff members. This year Father Jack is being played by David Crandall, a member of MICA’s Technology Department. In Hair, Hubert was played very memorably by Dana Small from the registrar’s office.

…The course typically consumes 40 percent of a student’s workload and so lots of hours are spent on the production. Work begins in November when the play is cast and the company is formed, continues over winter break, and ends when the stage is struck after the last performance in mid-April, three weeks or so before the end of the spring semester. Budgets run typically between 15K-20K. Midsummer, however, ran nearly to 30K. We built a moveable forest for that.

Why are you drawn to this difficult process as a teacher?

Theater is one of the best collaborative, project-oriented learning environments possible. And it happens in the real world, not enclosed in the MICA bubble, where all sorts of people pay to see what you have created, so you better be good. What could be better for a teacher?

And who are a couple of significant behind-the-scenes reinforcements?

Kris Messer is helping out as dramaturge — she’s great. Trevor still does the music, which this year is all authentic 30’s recordings and period traditional Irish music, also recorded. It comes out of the Mundy radio (nicknamed “Marconi”) after all.

Why are you drawn to Dancing at Lughnasa?

Dancing at Lughnasa is Ireland all over — beautiful, joyous, sad, bitter. Deeply melancholic yet shot through with love, wit, charm, music, and an inextinguishable life force. That’s Ireland, that’s the Irish, and I’ve always loved both. It’s also all about memory and there is nothing more delicious than memory.

Who serves as choreographer? Did you aim to cast students who dance especially well?

Linda Poggi (formerly Linda McHale), a shining star in the Baltimore/DC Irish music and dance community for over 30 years, did all the choreography, teaching the kids from scratch. These are MICA kids — born performers — so they have been very apt pupils as you will see.

How did they conquer/fine-tune the dialect?

…In this case from County Donegal and it is not easy. They listened regularly to recordings of the Donegal accent.

Poverty, financial insecurity, and family love are deep themes in Dancing at Lughnasa. How did these modern undergraduates handle/portray such heavy issues? What kind of dialogue did you offer to help them better imagine the history from an emotional/empathetic standpoint?

We did serious background work. They all read a history of Ireland and other background information [including a relevant obituary]… We are all just a tick or two from poverty and death, a wrong turn to a dead end. That’s in us — it’s part of what we inherit as a species when we are born. Good teachers can find a way back to that, a passage into the darkness that lies within each of us, however obscured. Kafka said we are drawn to tragedy, to loss, because such stories “melt the ice around our hearts.” Teachers can encourage that melting, provided their own hearts are not locked in ice.

What is your favorite scene and why?

The end — you’ll see why. By the way — we now have a “Theater Concentration” at MICA with The Play’s the Thing its curricular centerpiece.

Very cool!

You can catch the show Thursday through Sunday. Tickets available here.

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