Student Projects Break Barriers

Friday, Jan 31, 2020
Juilliard Journal
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two characters embracing passionately
Anthony Richardson and Mallori Johnson in 'What Light,' based Shakespeare’s 'Romeo and Juliet,' directed by Sean Wiberg

Juilliard Drama

In years past, some drama students have chosen to do independent projects. This year, the opportunity was afforded to the entire third-year class, allowing them to propose and bring to life pieces for which they have a particular passion. Over the course of six days this fall, they presented eight pieces as classroom projects and engage d in all aspects of theatrical creation—from acting and directing to writing and adaptation to design and production.

We asked a few of the participants to talk about their projects.


Fiona Robberson directed Brontë; she also stage-managed Cowboy Mouth, was on the backstage crew for What Light, and played Narrator in Colored

By Fiona Robberson
Till five months ago, I’d never been a reader of the Brontës. However, when my family was living in London in 2005, my mom came home from seeing Polly Teale’s play Brontë, and I remember how fiercely she spoke of the sisters that the play centered on, the intensity of their language, and a wooden table center stage that supported highly choreographed movement. I never saw this play, but my mother’s borrowed memory remained in the back of my mind for years, only to resurface this summer when a new opportunity was made available to the Juilliard third-year actors.

In June, Evan Yionoulis asked us to pitch projects for this winter, when a few selected proposals would be given the opportunity to rehearse and be presented. I had a burning desire to direct a show that somehow incorporated my loves of movement, text, and female leads, and with only three days until the proposal deadline, the memory of the wooden table came to mind. I ordered Brontë by Polly Teale online, read it in an afternoon, submitted a proposal, and got my hands on every Brontë book I could find. The show was chosen, and our fast and glorious three weeks of rehearsals and showings began in mid-October.

I came as an actor to Juilliard and never imagined getting the chance to direct or collaborate with my classmates on our own stagings. This show was a tiny piece of magic. Brontë spoke to what it meant to be a woman writing in the 1800s, tethered by the tight bonds of society, but the play also touched on more universal truths. With Bianca Norwood’s devised movement choreography and a soundtrack by theater artist/musician Alexander Sovronsky, we explored tension and release, what it means to hide one’s true self, and the physical freedom that comes from being given the space to breathe and dream. As a company, we researched, read countless books, spoke poetry. The actors meticulously used their voice and speech work to pay homage to these spectacular literary works. All our training from these past three years started coming together in this little hourlong show.

At the top and tail of the production, a huge stack of papers was thrown into the air by the character of Cathy from Wuthering Heights—an allusion to birds being set free. Together, we set these women free, in an incredible love letter to the English language.

Master’s student Fiona Robberson, who received her BFA in acting from NYU Tisch, holds Anne l. Bernstein and Agnes Varis scholarships


Anthony Richardson directed and played Man in Colored; he was also in the ensemble of See Invisible, was the sound operator for Brontë, and played Romeo in What Light

By Anthony Richardson
Set on the eve of Judgment Day for America, Colored is a satirical and succinct examination of the moment America has been called to answer for its sins. The story follows various abducted Africans who have been forced to submit their allegiance to a country that has terrorized (and continues to terrorize) them, but they manage to escape when they recover their drums and find their power in their madness, a power strong enough to destroy America and its oppressive values. Stemming from George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, with poetry by Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou, this piece highlights the oxymoronic nature and history of being African-American and reveals that big parts of healing this deep-rooted ancestral trauma are self-actualization and self-love.

I first read The Colored Museum a couple of years ago and found that Wolfe is incredibly thorough and compelling in the way he uses satire to display jarring truths, almost as if he were showing two sides of a coin at the same time. I was drawn to directing it for this classroom project, and it was clear from our initial read that while this piece was timeless, it could also still be digested in a fresh and thrilling way in 2019.

In addition to the time crunch of this process, trying to direct and act in Colored was challenging, but thankfully, Richard Feldman, our artistic advisor, was available to offer support. I’m incredibly grateful to have been given this opportunity not only to direct but also to work directly with all of the Black actors in my class (Group 50) as well as two fourth-year actors, Sekai Abeni and Mel Golliday, who also performed in Colored. To have the space to collaborate with these gifted Black artists in the launch of third- year Student-Initiated Classroom Projects was the ultimate joy.

Bachelor's student Anthony Richardson holds a Helen G. Palmer Scholarship in Drama and a Shubert Foundation Scholarship

A scene from 'Brontë.' The set features three of the cast seated at a wooden table. The room and tabletop are littered with papers.
Rosie Yates, Piper Patterson, and Gabriela Torres in 'Brontë,' directed by Fiona Robberson

See Invisible

Zachary Desmond co-conceived and co-directed See Invisible with Bianca Norwood; he also stage-managed Brontë, was the wardrobe supervisor for Lost Girls, and played Mercutio in What Light

By Zachary Desmond
We like to talk about marginalization as if the marginalized are themselves the boundary. When I began to interview people living on the street around Lincoln Center for See Invisible, our Student-Initiated Classroom Project, I had to remind myself that the social barrier I was trying to cross existed as much if not more in me than it did outside. If civil conversation is reserved for those who dress well, appear healthy, and smell good, what’s so civil about it? The same might be asked of art.

It’s very easy, especially as a theater-maker, to take boundaries for granted. The proscenium arch is one of the most exalted and comforting barriers I know. The audience enters through its own door and sits in chairs facing a stage where a few actors, musicians, dancers, etc. offer entertaining and/or nourishing art-goods for the joy or derision of the seated many. The lights go down, claps proceed to bows. These projects gave us an opportunity to set every assumption, exaltation, and comfort aside, so my co-director, Bianca Norwood, and I decided that the best way to spend three short weeks of rehearsal and our small budget was to build a verbatim theater play based on conversations with people living on the streets.

Our first week of rehearsals was spent wandering up and down Broadway, unsure how even to begin speaking in earnest with people we see every day but manage quite effectively to otherwise ignore. Our fellow actors supported Bianca’s and my enthusiasm but were wary of exploiting these people, or blinding ourselves with the bias of good intentions, so we had to ask ourselves continually how to avoid causing inadvertent harm. We did research and equipped ourselves with food and water, scarves and gloves, curiosity and humility; we asked people their names, if they wanted some food or clothing, where they’re from, and if they wanted to tell us about their lives. We aspired to lead not from our artist-ness, but our human-ness. And the humans we met responded in predictably, variously human ways. Some great stories were shared. Many were not.

Eventually we went off-off-site, visiting workers and clients at the Bowery Mission soup kitchen and the Ali Forney Center to gather more perspectives. I met Paul, a former auxiliary firefighter and homeless activist and advocate (that is, an activist who is homeless and who also advocates on behalf of homeless people). He provided a full-hearted tour of the Bowery neighborhood and his unique point of view on homelessness, society, and what he would share with a group of aspiring young artists were he granted the platform and a captive audience at the exalted Juilliard School.

Our second week was an amalgam of editing and movement rehearsal and dramaturgical quandary as we struggled to distill what we’d gathered. The question of editorial control loomed: on one hand, the ethical responsibility to our interviewees—to represent them honorably and not as mere props in our narrative; on another, the confluence of confusing and contradictory perspectives and the necessity of representing someone as fully as time allows, warts and all, not just as a sanitized version of themselves designed to win an audience’s approval. That’s just two of many hands.

During the final week of rehearsal, we gathered our wits and our resources to supplement our interviews with statistics about homelessness punctuated with movement and poetry. We dismantled the margin separating artist and audience by trisecting the space and giving the community a tour through each of our three interviewees’ stories, requiring them to join us on stage as more than just spectators. We played with simultaneity and overstimulation, repetition and cacophony. We realized with only two days before our first presentation that we needed a coda, a chance for the audience to absorb some of the lessons we learned from our experience as an ensemble. After inundating them with stats and stories and images absolutely designed to stir them to action, providing a few actionable steps was the least we could do. As the first showing came to a close, I heard a sigh of appreciation when we informed the community that everyone would leave with a care package, something small but tangible to offer to someone they see living on the street, an opening to connect across that invisible barrier in their own lives.

For the second presentation, Paul was there. I’d been nervous about inviting him, unsure how he would fit into this world. A barrier was being crossed as the separation between those who sit in this building and learn and those who sit against it and struggle was ever so slightly dissolved, at least for the evening, the glass and travertine gone. If Paul was aware, he showed it only by honoring us with his deepest attention. In the final minutes, he walked across the stage to watch my interview, that is, his interview. He wept as I repeated his words, in his cadence; he watched his frustration and passion mirrored in my eyes and my hands. He cried so openly that I pulled him to my side to continue my monologue, realizing with a single gesture of inclusion not unlike the one Paul offered me on the day that I met him, Oh, this man is my friend.

As I spoke, he tearily affirmed his own ideas and offered brief details for the community, now encircling us, full participants in a total dissolution of theatrical and cultural boundaries. Paul, The Subject, a “victim” of systematic marginalization, was seeing himself in The Artist, literally arm in arm with him in conversation for a body of witnesses to his world. Paul became an audience to himself, and the rest of us became witnesses to this man seeing himself seen, in fully realized theatrical fashion, at one of the world’s most elite storytelling institutions.

Paul later said that it had been a dream of his to share his cause. He felt See Invisible proved that “Finally, the mainstream has taken up the cause that’s been my whole life’s work.” Paul is an activist, advocating for those who are hurting and vulnerable, including himself, to be seen and heard. In the show, he finishes his monologue by saying, “What we need is more compassion, and I may not be the best way to do it. … I may not have the oratory language to speak the big big words that college professors put out there, but it’s here,” pointing to his heart, “and it goes beyond words.” I learned to love our ambitious experiment because here, Paul was the one with the words. And for one night at least, the barriers between us gave way to a threshold, and, standing in a circle where for a moment there was no one on the margins, it went beyond words for us all.

Master’s student Zachary Desmond, who holds a Gladyce and James Stais Scholarship in Drama and a Stephanie and Carter McClelland Fellowship, received his bachelor’s in philosophy from Boston College