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!
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: 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.
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.
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.
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.