The Drexel Players’ newest endeavor offers an unconventional look at a place we all think we know so well: campus. “Welcome to Campus” breaks down the fourth wall completely: Audience members take on their own roles as potential Drexel students as they hear from student guides about the realities of life here. It opened Feb. 19.
Director Adrienne Mackey said that she’s interested in creating and working with a redefined theater experience, one that goes beyond sitting in a dark room watching people on stage. Audiences are limited to 15 members per performance, which allows a certain intimacy between the actors and audience. The fact that cast members are looking you in the eye, asking you questions, and standing with you awkwardly in elevators definitely breaks traditional boundaries. If you’re just looking to relax in a comfortable seat for a few hours and enjoy a show in the dark, sit this one out.
Mackey worked with students in a special topics class during fall term and crafted the script from scratch. Five of those students committed fully to the project and became tour guides for “Welcome to Campus.” These five lead the audience not only on the “exclusive after-hour student tour,” (complete with the notorious yellow folders) but also shared personal experiences and reflections along the way. From the URBN Center up, around and through campus to the final destination in the Mandell Theater, audiences are walked not just through buildings but through the five-year Drexel saga and the challenges and revelations that come along with it.
The performance begins in the URBN Annex Black Box Theater, where the audience is greeted by the tour guides in their “shiny” personas, according to Lexi Pozonsky, one of the five students from Mackey’s class last term. The five introduce themselves — annoyingly perfect, edited-and-approved guides. They go so far as to explain their favorite letter from the name of the school and why. Carl Roa, one of the guides, explains his favorite: “L stands for love because I love Drexel.” After they wear themselves out speaking way too highly of Drexel, their perfect personalities eventually crack into something much more realistic and they agree to show the audience the “real” Drexel.
Mackey explained that the goal for each stop on this tour is to convey an emotion instead of practical information that you’d receive on a traditional campus tour. Instead of facts and figures about living in the dorms, workloads and co-op, the cast uses stories and locations to make the audience understand the emotions they once felt in these places. It feels almost as if you have a say in where the story goes, even though you can tell that most of it is scripted.
Ensemble members are stationed around campus, sometimes acting out scenes that the guides describe, sometimes blending into the background while meaning to be noticed; Mackey referred to them as “secret theater ninjas.” Soon, it’s impossible not to question what is a part of the plan and what is just happy coincidence. Is that bit of phone conversation we overheard — “No, you don’t get stabbed in Old City … that’s North Philly!” — a scripted line or was that girl really talking to her mom? I find myself scrutinizing faces of everyone on campus. With only 12 cast members, the same faces begin to repeat fairly often, causing one to wonder which conversations we are intended to hear and which are between genuine passersby. You’ll also get to see confused students on the street trying to figure out what’s going on: When did Drexel start doing campus tours at night? Why are all of these people sitting on the curb? Why are 15 people running across the street like they’re all late for the same meeting?
Stories shared at various locations on campus span a scale from awkwardly funny to seriously thought-provoking. The script addresses a variety of issues facing students going to college for the first time; some that are unique to Drexel and others that may apply to any school. From crumbling long-distance relationships, to facing real failure for the first time, to learning how to survive on your own, to dealing with homelessness in the city, the cast walks the audience through it all. With some whimsical surprises along the way (my personal favorite was when we found ourselves acting out the scene of a stereotypical Drexel first date) it’s a show that keeps you guessing until the very end.
The greatest strength of “Welcome to Campus” is the frank way in which it examines life at Drexel. At the tour’s conclusion, the guides share personal revelations that they’ve had along the way. Writing the script and preparing the show seems to have forced the cast — particularly the guides — to do a certain amount of self-reflection that led them to some conclusions about Drexel and its student body. The city is cold, the schedule is demanding, but for some reason we’re all still here. Cami Kronenwetter, another of the five guides, sums it up nicely during the finale: “Hating Drexel is just a part of loving Drexel.”
This is a show that will make you rethink Drexel. It’s also just a fun way to spend two hours, walking around to familiar campus haunts, not quite sure what fun (planned or unplanned) surprise is waiting in the next building. “Welcome to Campus” will run from Feb. 19 until March 2. Tickets are available at welcometocampus.brownpapertickets.com.