Tag Archives: Featured Dispatch

A Return Engagement

It seemed improbable that five alumni, in the middle of their busy professional lives in film and theatre, would return to Middlebury on short notice to work on a new play and perform it during Reunion Weekend. And as if that weren’t enough, the alumni — together with the theatre department’s resident playwright, Dana Yeaton ’79, in the role of producer, cajoler, and on-site coordinator — decided to make the week in June a learning experience for nine current Middlebury students. There would be rehearsals, feedback sessions, master classes, on-camera workshops, and more rehearsals. They called it MiddSummer Play Lab, and boy did they ever pull it off!

Rehearsal in Seeler Studio Theatre

Rehearsal in Seeler Studio Theatre

Emily Feldman ’09 brought her play “The Pilot Project,” about three people who meet on a flight from New York to Rome. Jesse Holland ’02 came from Los Angeles to direct; Tara Giordano ’02 and Joe Varca ’02 came from New York for the roles of Savannah, a sharp-tongued flight attendant with a heart of gold, and Larry, a suspicious man might also be a reluctant hero; and Kristen Connolly ’02 arrived from the set of season two of “House of Cards” to play the part of Eve, a gentle ingénue in emotional danger.

The play was performed on June 8 as a dramatic reading in Seeler Studio Theatre with about 50 people in the audience. Throughout their week together, the five professionals revised the 75-minute drama by cutting lines, changing stage directions, and examining the logic of each character’s words and actions.

On the eve of the play’s premiere, the cast sat down with Middlebury Magazine for a conversation. 

MiddMag: What’s it been like to test out a new play here?

Emily: We are doing it in one of the safest possible ways, but with people who are fiercely intelligent and able to help us decide where to go with it. For me to come back and be amongst the teachers who got me interested in writing and supported my writing, and to connect with them and show them where I am now as opposed to where I was four years ago, it’s a great benchmark. And it’s a way to launch myself into the next phase of my writing, which will be pursuing a master of fine arts [at UC-San Diego] in the fall.

Dana: It feels like the same voice grown up. [To Emily] You have always had this quirky ability to nail the thought, nail the emotion on paper, but you have all this confidence now about what’s theatrical and what pleases you and what makes a scene work in your world. It’s still “Emilyworld,” but it’s all grown up.

Tara: We have a similar language as a foundation because we all went through the theatre program here. But it’s not only that. Jesse directed my senior project and Joey’s senior project and Kristen’s, and now he’s directing all three of us. We don’t have to figure out what’s safe. We have a shared history together and I feel really comfortable going deep into the work right away.

Joe Varca '02 as Larry, the salesman

Joe Varca ’02 as Larry, a modern-day traveling salesman

Joe: Jumping into that vocabulary is such an incredible gift for all of us. And it’s wonderful when you start working on a new play and there’s already so much depth there. There is logic and answers for all of the stuff our characters are doing. It just feels like an incredibly even and rich world that we are jumping into.

Kristen: A lot of times when you are working on a new play or you are doing a staged reading, you don’t have that much time to work on something and people are running in a million different directions, but here we can focus. We have had this whole week to work together, and then, by all of us going back to the same house at night, we keep talking about the play.

Emily: Right! When working at home, people meet for rehearsal and then go their separate ways. But by having a house for a couple of days and having the college let us to go back to college for a week [everyone laughs] lets us keep the conversation going about the work.

Jesse: Most of us live in cities right now, and it is just really, really beautiful up here. And the people in cities are generally pretty stressed out and self-centered, and the people up here are generally very giving. We have gotten so much support from everyone here. They really didn’t have to do it…

Dana: Fools! Fools!

Jesse: … and then there are trees and people here.

Kristen: And the cheese.

Jesse: Yes, the trees, the people, and the cheese.

Kristen: Let’s devote a few hours of rehearsal to that.

The cast of three

The cast of three: Tara, Kristen, and Joe

MiddMag: How did the idea for MiddSummer Play Lab get started?

Tara: Emily said, “Do you want to work on a play again this summer?” We had worked on one in a similar manner last summer in New York. And she said, “I’ll write it. Who do you want to be in it with you?” and I thought immediately of these two [pointing to Kristen and Joe] although we figured they’d be too busy.

Jesse: For me, it just felt like something I really wanted to do, so I came on board and committed to it happening.

Kristen: And then there’s the other part. We thought maybe there’s a way of incorporating theatre students into the process — to be rehearsing the play and working with the students. So it was like, “What would they be interested in?” [During the course of the week the students produced their own actor demo reels.]

 Tara: After the first rehearsal we had a feedback session with the students. I was taken by how much the students had to contribute and how intelligent their views were. It was one of the best feedback sessions I had ever been to.

Jesse: Yeah, I have been to some deadly feedback sessions! This was the best feedback session I have ever been to. It was a combination of Dana leading it and the brilliance of the students.

Dana: The students were all talking about the play as opposed to pretending to be talking about the play when they were talking about themselves, which is what kills feedback sessions.

Jesse: Who’s idea was it to use the [Liz Lerman Critical Response] guidelines?

Joe: It was Emily’s.

The playwright and the director.

The playwright and the director

Emily: So I was thinking about, what do I have to offer people who are actors going into theatre, especially in New York? When I first got out of college, I was practiced at talking about work when the writer wasn’t there, [but not at] talking about work that’s in progress. I had to get used to phrasing my questions and opinions in a way that’s flexible and opens up possibilities for the writer rather than closes doors.

Kristen: It was really great.

Jesse: It was astonishing!

Joe: One of the exciting things about what we have been doing is that we have an on-camera class with the students during the day, and then we have the open rehearsals so the students get to see how a new play is made. They are getting both worlds: film and theatre.

Emily: It was exciting for me watching Dana lead the feedback session, especially thinking about myself as a teacher this fall. Recognizing the presence and clarity and peace of mind he brings to creating the energy in that room. He allows for those kinds of conversations.

Jesse: I have a final thought. My focus right now is on directing films and my favorite part of the process is working with actors. Unfortunately, that is not a high percentage of the film experience because the focus is on getting the shot, and so this week has reconnected me with what I love most in the world, which is working with actors.

Emily: I don’t think I knew when I was 18 why I was choosing to go to a small college in Vermont, but the ability to do this kind of thing now is probably why.

Kristen: I hadn’t been back in 10 years so I got choked up a couple of times. It’s wonderful to see the things that have changed and the things that have stayed the same, and just to be here.

Kristen Connolly '02

Kristen Connolly ’02 as Eve

And with that, Kristen Connolly’s final remark hung over the theatre for a few extra seconds, for isn’t that what a college reunion is supposed to be all about? Seeing what has changed and what has stayed the same and immersing oneself in it for a few days.

The alumni then stood up and Jesse Holland announced that rehearsal would start in five minutes. Later this summer, “The Pilot Project” by Emily Feldman will be presented again in a special one-night-only performance, July 26 at 10:30 p.m. at the Atlantic Stage 2 Theatre in New York City, in conjunction with Middlebury’s Off-Broadway summer theatre project, PTP/NYC.  

The Faces of a Farming Tradition

With a little extra time over his break this past spring, Levi Westerveld ’15 decided to pursue his interest in portraiture and begin sketching the local farmers around his home in the Dordogne region of southwestern France, where agricultural traditions are fast becoming a thing of the past. The sketches became an impressive exhibit at 51 Main, and here Levi talks about the people in the drawings, their individual stories, and his sketching process. (For more of Levi’s work, visit his website.)

Things That Happened, Things To Do: Week of May 13

dispatch_distressed-300x160Our regular recap of goings on at the College and a look ahead to events on the horizon. As always, we hope to call your attention to items that captured ours and alert you to events that you won’t want to miss. If you have a news item that you think we’d be interested in, drop us a line at middmag@middlebury.edu.

  • If you missed the Narrative Journalism Showcase on Tuesday, you still have a chance to listen to the amazing stories in the “How Did You Get Here?” series on middmag.com. Check out the trailer to get a taste of what’s in store!

  • Not only is Sue Halpern the director of the Narrative Journalism Fellowships, she is also the author of A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher.
    She talked to the folks at the Dish about what surprised her most as she visited nursing homes with her therapy dog, Pransky.

  • The Solar Decathlon team is hard at work on its entry for the competition next fall, Insite. Recently the Burlington Free Press highlighted the students as they worked to deconstruct a historic barn so they can repurpose the wood to use as siding for their house. Check their website to stay up to date on their progress!
  • The school year is winding down, but some athletic teams are still going strong. Both men’s and women’s tennis won their respective NCAA Regionals and are headed to the NCAA Quarterfinals. The women’s lacrosse team is making its 16th trip to the NCAA Final Four this weekend, and the women’s golf team is competing in the NCAA Championship in Destin, Fla.
  • Senior Andrew Ackerman has been working hard on this thesis project and as part of his research, he’s been training in extreme mixed martial arts. Recently he took part in an amateur fight night in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in his first competitive fight ever. And he won!

  • Finals begin on Wednesday, so it’s quiet on campus and things to do other than studying are scarce. Downtown, at 51 Main, good music is available as usual with a Blues Jam Wednesday night and Mint Julep on Friday night, performing an ecletic mix of swing and Latin rhythms.

  • Artist and photographer Edward Burtynsky is receiving an honorary Doctor of Arts from the College at Commencement on May 26. His exhibit, Nature Transformed, will be on display at the Museum of Art until June 9. If you haven’t seen it yet, you still have a few weeks to check it out!

Things That Happened, Things To Do: Week of May 6


Our regular recap of goings on at the College and a look ahead to events on the horizon. As always, we hope to call your attention to items that captured ours and alert you to events that you won’t want to miss. If you have a news item that you think we’d be interested in, drop us a line at middmag@middlebury.edu.

  • Midd alum Andrew Forsthoefel ’11 walked from Philadelphia to California, and his story was featured on NPR’s This American Life.
  • Laurie Essig shared her latest take on beauty-product advertising in her blog “Love, Inc.” at PsychologyToday.com, and it ain’t pretty
  • Harvard professor and tour de force political theorist Eric Nelson made an incredibly complex historical concept both graspable and engaging for a packed house during last Thursday’s Fulton Lecture in Dana. You can read about it and see the entire hour-plus talk here.
  • President Liebowitz sent a message to the College community this week reaffirming the College’s support for the construction of the natural gas pipeline project that will come through Addison County.
  • On Wednesday at 5 p.m., the women’s lacrosse team will host Castleton in a first-round NCAA game for its 19th tournament appearance in 20 years. Tickets are $3 for adults, $2 for students.
  • Make time on Friday at 8 p.m. to catch Alexander Twilight Artist in Residence Francois Clemmons for his final solo concert before he retires this month. The beloved tenor will take center stage at the Concert Hall in the Mahaney Center for the Arts, and it’s free!
  • Tuesday, May 14, is Arbor Day, and campus horticulturist Tim Parsons and student volunteers have plenty of activities planned–live music, tree tours, tree planting, food, a kids’ race–spelled out at go/arborday. Can’t make it? Enjoy our ligneous, leafy friends by virtually touring the trees here on campus.
  • Stop by Axinn 229 on Tuesday from 5–7 p.m. and check out this year’s “How Did You Get Here?” audio slideshows from the Narrative Journalism Fellows.


Things That Happened, Things To Do: Week of April 29


Our regular recap of goings on at the College and a look ahead to events on the horizon. As always, we hope to call your attention to items that captured ours and alert you to events that you won’t want to miss. If you have a news item that you think we’d be interested in, drop us a line at middmag@middlebury.edu.


The Enigma of Alan Turing

UnknownEvery seat in the Orchard room of the Franklin Environmental Center was taken, and people were standing against the walls to hear mathematics professor Michael Olinick present the Carol Rifelj Faculty Lecture about Alan Turing—the scientist who helped save the British by breaking Germany’s cyphered codes during World War II, created computer science, and who later died of cyanide poisoning.

Professor Olinick did not disappoint. His multimedia presentation included pictures of Turing as a child in a sailor suit, a song about Turing, and a scene from Breaking the Code, a play about Turing by Hugh Whitemore.

“At the age of 23” said Olinick,  “Turing made the modern world possible.” And yet, until recently, he could have been “easily described as the most important person you’ve never heard of.”

Turing was born in London in 1912. He attended Sherborne School, where he was at the bottom of his class according to Olinick, preferring to study math on his own. He attended King’s College at Cambridge University as an undergraduate and received his PhD from Princeton. And during this time, he was laying the groundwork for computer science and artificial intelligence.

“He published relatively few papers in his lifetime,” Olinick said,  “but almost all of them are considered landmarks in their field.” At a very young age, he conceived of his Turing Machine, which could do possibly any mathematical computation. It used an infinitely long tape divided into squares that would be left blank or encoded with a one or a zero as the machine worked on a problem. Turing demonstrated that “anything computable could be computed by such a machine.” He also developed the Turing Test, which measured machine intelligence, including the ability to learn.

Olinick’s presentation included two artifacts from the WWII era—Enigma machines. These machines, which look like typewriters with an extra keyboard, were used to encipher messages. Tom Perera, an expert on “everything enigma” brought them for audience members to try out at the conclusion of the talk.

The Enigma machines used a series of rotors that could be interchanged and rearranged and were connected to a “plug board.” They could be configured in so many combinations that, for all practical purposes, they were nearly limitless.  When a letter was typed, it cycled through the rotors and emerged as a different letter altogether. To give the audience a sense of how complex deciphering the code was, Olinick tried to explain in terms people could grasp.

“Suppose you had a high-speed computer that could process 100 million configurations per second,” he said. “Imagine that we had a computer this fast that started running the day the universe was created and was running continuously ever since, examining different configurations of this machine, trying to find all of them—and among all of them, finding the correct ones. This machine, which has been running since the dawn of creation, would be 1/800,000 of the way through.” Yet, Turing broke the code.

But for all of his success, “Turing’s life took on the dimensions of a Shakespearian tragedy,” Olinick said. He was an openly gay man during a paranoid, unaccepting time. When he was young, his closest, dearest friend, probably his lover, died tragically just as they were about to go to Cambridge together. In 1952, he reported a burglary, and during the investigation the police discovered that Turing had a homosexual relationship, which he admitted. He was arrested, lost his security clearance, convicted, and subjected to chemical castration (estrogen injections).

Olinick said that the estrogen had a terrible effect on Turing, feminizing him and destroying his sexuality. He died in 1954 of cyanide poisoning. According to Olinick, it’s widely believed to have been suicide, but Turing did not leave a note and had been making future plans; he’d even just purchased new socks. Some speculate that his death could have been a political assassination. And his mother believed it was an accident, because he worked with cyanide.

As appreciation for Turing’s contributions and tribulations has grown in recent years, a “plethora of novels and short stories, five dramatic plays, three operas, a musical now on the London stage, and a monopoly set” have been devoted to Turing. The play Lovesong of the Electric Bear by Snoo Wilson, directed by Cheryl Faraone, debuted at Middlebury College in 2010. It was later performed by the Potomac Theater Project.

In the wake of public demands for restitution for Alan Turing, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology in 2009. Printed on a handout at the lecture, it read in part, “Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. . . . This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue.”