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VUT’s Spring Showcase: The Apocalypse, an Apartment, and a Wedding

Posted by on Thursday, April 13, 2017 in 1010 blog posts, Blog posts.

On Friday April 7th, a few dozen spectators filed into Neely Auditorium to witness Vanderbilt University Theatre’s (VUT) Spring Showcase. A collection of three short plays, the Spring Showcase highlighted the directing efforts of Vanderbilt seniors Benjamin Kitchens and Hannah Lazarz. Neely Auditorium’s small size facilitated audience receptivity, allowing the relatively small crowd of friends and family members to intimately engage with each production. Employing completely distinct plots, characters, sets, and lightings, each production comments on a different aspect of Vanderbilt’s campus.

The Quintessence of Dust offers a glimpse of post-apocalyptic America, and director Benjamin Kitchens features the lighting as its most powerful production element. The play begins with Jane, a cynical young woman, ranting about how she appreciates a world without Facebook and Netflix. The decision of lighting designer Robyn Hendrix to open with a black stage, focusing a dim white spotlight on Jane emphasizes the isolation and lack of emotion experienced during the apocalypse. Later, red lights convey the malicious intent of Henry, a cannibal who seeks to consume Jane and Chip. The play reaches a climax with Jane’s soliloquy that quotes Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which she expresses her consideration of not only material objects but also human beings as simply dust. During this scene, an orange hue envelops the entire stage, giving the impression that even the optimism of sunlight is blocked by the dust of a post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Jane has become so jaded from placing her self-worth in popularity on social media or in her shallow relationship with Chip. Suggesting that such superficialities distort perceptions of worth, this production challenges its viewers to confront the areas of their lives that fail to provide true fulfillment.

The Ballad of 423 and 424 tells the story of Ellen, a motivated nurse, and Roderick, a social-awkward novelist, as they navigate the relationship of living next door in the same apartment building. While viewing this play, I was reminded of production elements that portray Christopher’s behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Pre-recorded voices of advertisements and announcements in combination with flashing lights and moving actors during the scene at the train station captures Christopher’s hypersensitivity to his environment 1. Similarly, Roderick displays tendencies that are associated with autism. Deficits in social interaction, such as his lack of eye contact, as well as repeated patterns of behavior, such as his insistence of making of Ellen’s coffee each morning and not having different foods touch one another, align with symptoms of an autism spectrum diagnosis. The lighting, which fades in and fades out with every new encounter between Roderick and Ellen, reflects Roderick’s adherence to routine. Moreover, the simple and orderly set that displays two apartment doorways in a bare hallway with a small table and vase perhaps illustrates Roderick’s preference for order.

The Ballad of 423 and 424 offers a situation contrary to what most Vanderbilt students experience with on-campus housing. One could argue that most upperclassmen do not have conversations with or even know the names of the peers living on their floor. Through witnessing Ellen and Roderick’s progression from awkward neighbors to genuine acquaintances, the audience is encouraged to go out of their comfort zone and seek out conversation with strangers that might develop into authentic friendships.

The Wedding Guest, written by Steve Moulds (the writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt) and directed by Hannah Lazarz (also the successful director of Vanderbilt Off Broadway’s Damn Yankees) was the final production of the evening. The play opens with Babe and Honey, an impoverished couple, celebrating their wedding with only the brother and sister of the bride-to-be. The family invites their wealthy cousin Addison Engel to the wedding, hoping he does not show up and sends a monetary gift instead. Yet, when Addison arrives unexpectedly, the seemingly organized and amicable get-together fragments into disorder and conflict. Director Hannah Lazarz envisioned the physical space of the set to reflect the mental space of the characters. In the beginning of the production, the actors remain centralized on stage, symbolizing their unity. As the play progresses, however, the characters move increasingly off-stage, reflecting their distance in agreement and their differences in intention. While Sister seeks completion through Addison’s wealth, Junior desires Addison for financial security, and Honey becomes lustful for Addison’s wealth. In the dramatic final scene of the production, Gabe (who is previously unable to understand Addison) begs to hear Addison’s voice. Scottie Szeqczyk, who brilliantly portrays Addison, proceeds to spit out coins into Gabe’s hat, revealing that his family only communicates in terms of wealth.

This production sheds light on the reality that Vanderbilt students often generate assumptions about the financial background of their peers. A recent study of The New York Times reported that “the median family income of a student from Vanderbilt is $204,500, 70% of students come from the top 20 percent, and 23% come from the top 1%” 2. This article opened discussion about economic diversity on Vanderbilt’s campus, specifically how students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to be involved in Greek life 3. In response to financial divisions, “Experience Vanderbilt” is a recent initiative that grants extracurricular funding to students who qualify for financial aid, allowing them to participate in campus activities that involve costs which extend beyond tuition, such as Greek life or service trips on spring break. Ultimately, The Wedding Guest reminds the Vanderbilt community that wealth influences a person’s assumptions about others and their subsequent interactions. In the end, money talks. But Vanderbilt’s conscience is trying to speak louder.

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1 Stephens, Simon (2012). The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. New York, Bloomsbury.

2 “Economic diversity and student outcomes at Vanderbilt University” (2017). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/college-mobility/vanderbilt-university

3“Vanderbilt Greek Life’s Money Problem” (2017). Vanderbilt Political Review. http://www.vanderbiltpoliticalreview.com/vanderbilt-greek-lifes-money-problem/


5 Comments on “VUT’s Spring Showcase: The Apocalypse, an Apartment, and a Wedding”

I appreciated your analyses of each short play! Although the plays were very strange, I agree that Benjamin and Hannah did an excellent job directing. I thought they did a great job of highlighting certain qualities, such as the lighting in The Quintessence of Dust, or the physical manifestation of greed in The Wedding Guest. In particular, I believe that Jane’s fixation on emotional stimulation and her hesitance to reconcile with Chip emphasizes how detached our perceptions have become, making us forget about more important things, which in this case, is surviving against cannibals and thieves. However, I am hesitant to put a label on Roderick (such as ASD) in the Ballad of 423 and 424. At best, Roderick has “quirks” that make him socially uncomfortable. I think Ellen’s approach was meant to signify that people should not be predisposed to categorize someone based on their “condition,” but rather to be holistically viewed. I also really liked your analysis of The Wedding Guest and how it ties back to the Vanderbilt community. In my opinion, Addison was the human embodiment of the family’s true interest: money, and serves as an analogy to problems greed has on our view of others. Babe could not see Addison beyond his wealth, perhaps subconsciously viewing Addison as money. That would also explain why he spit the coins into the hat. Overall it was a very enjoyable experience, and I think the showcase was a great display of the talented people at Vanderbilt.

Alexander Tu on April 18th, 2017 at 4:41 pm

Vanderbilt University Theatre’s (VUT) Spring Showcase 2017 was one of my few experiences of watching short plays, but also one of the most enjoyable theatre experiences throughout this semester. I completely agree with Jeremy that the showcase did an amazing job on reflecting our life on Vanderbilt campus. Among the three 30-minute long short plays, my personal favorite is The Ballad of 423 and 424. This fast-paced play, which depicts how the relationship develops and improves between the two neighbors, brought so much laughter to the audiences (the audiences literally laughed every two minutes). By opening and closing the doors, Ellen and Roderick are playing a ballad of interpersonal Interactions.

While Jeremy found Roderick’s behaviors in the play resonating to Christopher’s behaviors associated with autism, I actually find Roderick’s situation different in the play. Different from Christopher, Roderick actually pays efforts to seek communication with Ellen, but feels afraid to break the ice and get out of his comfort zone. However, by preparing a bottle of coffee for her every morning and writing about her in his book, Roderick tries to navigate the relationship in his own way. Although it takes time for Ellen and Roderick to find a way to break the silence, it is sweet to see how they actually want to get to know more about each other. Just as Jeremy recognizes, “the play encourages the audience to seek conversation with strangers that might develop into authentic friendships.” As the play portrays the opening-and-closing-door ballad, it also reflects the kind of love and loneliness that can happen on campus or in our daily life, encouraging us to make a step in our interpersonal relationships.

Peichen Lu on April 19th, 2017 at 1:12 am

I really like the idea of connecting this three shot plays with the Vanderbilt community. The three short plays seemed distant from real life, but in fact inspired me a lot and conveyed some important messages.

In The Quintessence of Dust, Jane was complaining about the excessive use of social media like Facebook and artificial relationships that social media fostered. I definitely see this problem a lot on campus. Last semester, I was doing a project on the excessive use of social media and did an observational experiment and a survey on campus to see how many people walk alone while looking at their cell phones. It turned out that 7 out of 10 walkers were fixated on their phones and more than 50% of participants said they looked at their phones just to check social media updates. Meanwhile, a lot of the participants also admitted that they intentionally or unintentionally created this polished version of themselves on social media and that social media reduced the amount of face to face talk with their friends. Some even said that social media use hurt their relationships with friends and made them less confident. Although the sample size of this experiment was not super large, it still supports the fear that Jane had in this play that excessive use of social media might undermine relationships and in my opinion people on this campus do need to be careful with that.

On the contrary, The Ballad of 423 and 424 showed the warmth of interpersonal relationships. Ellen and Roderick were strangers to each other at first. After active interactions (mostly initiated by Ellen), they became friends at the end. I believe that we would all like to live next door and make friends with Ellen, while the fact is that we rarely know our next door neighbors. Maybe we are just too busy with our own stuff, but after watching this play, I’m kind of motivated to know more about my neighbors: kindness might make our lives better.

The Wedding Guest probably has the most profound implications out of the three. It is a story about money, value, and intention. I’m pretty shock by the number Jeremy listed here “the median family income of a student from Vanderbilt is $204,500, 70% of students come from the top 20 percent, and 23% come from the top 1%.” Probably because of the socioeconomic backgrounds, a lot of students at Vandy are super stressed out about academics and future: it’s almost like getting a high GPA and getting into consulting/ investment banking and then earning a high salary is the only way to prove our self-worth. From some perspectives, money is important. But it is also important for us to think about what else makes our life meaningful and stop letting money define our self-worth.

Shuying Xu on April 19th, 2017 at 2:25 am

I really appreciated the gravity Jeremy gave to each of the three performances in this Showcase. Without a doubt, each of the pieces was selected for contrasting reasons, and Jeremy nicely noted the varied applicability nicely.
Starting with Quintessence, I couldn’t agree more that lighting functioned to heighten plot development. Karim, Riley and Price all worked endlessly to provide the right delivery of the material, due to its often grim humor and sarcastic wit. I personally couldn’t agree more about the dangers of social media in our interpersonal relationships – the statistics Shuyung listed are daunting – and I think opening the show with this grim comedy made Ballad, in many ways, stand out in stark contrast.
I’m certainly biased about Ballad, but I find the takeaways that all these viewers outlined interesting. Scottie, Benji and I explicitly aimed to avoid labeling Roderick with any kind of diagnosis, but rather tried to focus on the personal, specific obstacles outlined by the playwright in shaping Roderick. There were numerous specific stage directions – i.e. “pause for what feels like an eternity” – which left a lot open to interpretation for Benji, especially in mitigating our pauses and our overlaps in lines. The experimental approach we took to attacking this one (we were constantly trying new things, which was fun) also really allowed Scottie and I to find pointed conflicts in our budding relationship, which drove it forward (and also served to contrast Riley, Price, and Karim, who are in many ways stagnant in their interpersonal connections).
The financial undertones of Wedding Guest clearly rang through, which Jeremy succinctly contextualized with his article (facts which made me cringe, yikes). Definitely seems ironic to me, since Vanderbilt so proudly boasts of its financial aid office – perhaps the reason the office is able to address so much demonstrated need is due to the narrower demographic which it serves compared to other universities. It would be interesting to see how Vanderbilt stacks up against other parallel institutions, though I’m not sure any of us would be comforted by the facts we’d uncover regarding lacking diversity measures (though, if you overhear tour groups, you’d better believe they’re talking up the new Diversity and Inclusion office as if it were the Vatican). As all of the above commentaries stated, the fiscal environment we all navigate at Vanderbilt certainly cannot be easily simplified, just as the multifaceted effects of greed (as evident through the family’s various uses for Addison, as Jeremy mentioned) cannot be simplified. I think Jeremy did a great job of piecing together overarching points from each show, and I enjoyed his commentary!

Emma Noyes on April 19th, 2017 at 7:46 pm

I really enjoyed your insight on the play. As a spectator I too found it very interesting how the play writers mixed in the addition of three plays all with very different intended messages for the audience. Beginning with “The Quintessence of Dust.” In your article you mentioned the different effects lighting had on the mood of this first play. I absolutely agree with you from the dim white lighting you mentioned which showed the isolation and lack of emotion from Jane to the switch to the red lighting which showed Jane had to deal with some negative choices she made. While you stated that you feel as if this production confronts the areas of lives where people fail to provide true fulfillment. I personally feels its a question of how strong ones mind can be. While society today has placed so much emphasis on social network, people have lost their true self identity and the things that are truly important in life. Rather than hold a steady conversation, or study for an exam a simple phone alert from twitter or Instagram consumes ones brain. And this is an unfortunate reality of a majority of people in modern day culture. On the contrary The Ballad of 423 and 424 offers a very interesting perspective. As you mentioned Vanderbilt students many times do not know the name of the person living next to them and its truly sad. Any individual can honestly say this story is something they would want to take away from there living experience. This production really motivated me to get to know more individuals out of my inner circle of friends here at Vanderbilt. And finally “The Wedding Guest” I really found it interesting the statistics you provided in your analysis. This production truly does shed a light on the financial background of students at Vanderbilt. As a student from a lower income area a lot of times it is difficult to compete with your peers from higher income areas. Social events, going out to eat, paying dues to be greek life are all obstacles you really have to determine if you want to have vs if you want to save money. As I read other comments I noticed Emma state it would be interesting to see how Vanderbilt stacks up agasinst other institutions, I would also enjoy reading over that information.

Jordan Griffin on April 26th, 2017 at 10:23 am

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