MRT Partnership Includes Internships, Classroom Visits

Theatre Arts students Matthew Hayes and Jillian Zuber prepare to workshop a new play, "Chill," by Eleanor Burgess. Image by Katharine Webster
Students Matthew Hayes and Jillian Zuber workshop a new play with artists from Merrimack Repertory Theatre.

By Katharine Webster

Students in the Theatre Arts Program had a rare opportunity this fall: the chance to watch professional actors and directors from Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT) fine-tune a new play over the course of a week. Two students, a stage manager and an actor, even got to take part. 

Jillian Zuber, a junior, read the stage directions aloud as three professional actors and sophomore Matthew Hayes ran through the script of “Chill,” a new play about four millennials by Eleanor Burgess that premieres in March.

“It’s really interesting to be able to work with professional actors,” said Zuber, who studies stage-managing and acting. “To see a play go from one stage to a different stage over the course of a week and be part of that was really cool.”

Three of the cast members — Jessica Jain, Monica Giordano and Alphonse Nicholson — as well as Burgess, director Megan Sandberg-Zakian and MRT Artistic Director Sean Daniels spent every afternoon for a week on the stage of O’Leary 222. They performed read-throughs on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and then discussed the process, their craft and careers with students on Tuesday and Thursday, while Burgess frantically rewrote pages. 

“The difference between the rehearsal process and a new play workshop is that we’re all here at the service of Eleanor (Burgess), so she can hear what works, what doesn’t work, what could be better,” Daniels explained by way of introduction Monday afternoon. “As a playwright, you work alone, but our medium is meant to be performed.”

Merrimack Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Sean Daniels with lecturer Brian Saxton, technical director of the Theatre Arts Program. Image by Katharine Webster
MRT Artistic Director Sean Daniels with lecturer Brian Saxton, technical director for the Theatre Arts Program.
The workshop, which culminated in a final staged reading on Saturday, was the second on campus by MRT, which workshopped the comedy “Home of the Brave” last year. 

It’s part of a growing partnership between the Theatre Arts Program and MRT that includes student internships and summer teaching assistantships, lectures and classroom visits by MRT artists and special invitations to tech and dress rehearsals.

Brian Saxton, a lecturer in English and technical director for the Theatre Arts Program, invited Nicholson and Giordano to visit his English class in drama. All the students benefited, not just the theater majors, he said.

“Drama is written to be performed. The opportunity for students to share a conversation with accomplished practitioners about their experiences as actors, directors, and playwrights reinforces that concept,” he said.

In the first act of “Chill,” four friends who are about to graduate from high school hang out together, talking about their hopes and dreams — just a few months before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The second act, in 2011, exposes the strains and disappointments in their lives and relationships wrought by a decade of unexpected changes.

The play presented challenges to the actors, who were supposed to talk over and interrupt each other, the way real people do, instead of taking turns with their lines. At times, two separate conversations were going on simultaneously — a challenge for the audience, too. Sandberg-Zakian paused the first read-through on Monday to remind the actors to listen to each other instead of focusing solely on jumping in on cue.

Actors Jessica Jain and Alphonse Nicholson have been cast in the premiere of "Chill" at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Image by Katharine Webster
Actors Jessica Jain and Alphonse Nicholson are in the cast of "Chill" by Eleanor Burgess.
On Tuesday afternoon, students passed around a copy of the script showing four columns of dialogue that often overlapped, while the actors discussed the play’s unique format.

“I was so frustrated. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m missing stuff, I’m jumping all over the page, this is not how I was taught to read!’” Nicholson said. “By the end, it was a lot easier and more natural.”

Hayes seemed right at home interrupting the other actors in his character’s breezy, smart-alecky voice.

“Being part of a new show, written in such a new way, is really interesting,” he said. “I didn’t know such a thing existed.”

Assoc. Prof. Nancy Selleck, who tapped Hayes for the role of Ethan, said that was precisely the point of the partnership — to expose students to cutting-edge theater.

“They get to witness the collaboration: actors, director, and playwright in the room together all week, combining their skills and perspectives to make something fresh and powerful.  And the students are part of it.”