Since Nov. 4, student and professional actors alike have been performing in the Drexel University Mandell Theater’s latest production, Watership Down, directed by Allen Radway. Conceived when Richard Adams cooked up a story for his daughters along several car journeys, Watership Down was published as a novel in 1972. It received several literary awards before John Hildreth adapted it for the stage. Now, the adventure of countryside rabbits escaping the destruction of their warren has found its way to Drexel.
The critical aspect of the production is the nature of the collaboration going on behind the scenes. The performance was organized by the Mandell Professionals in Residence Program, a project whereby Drexel’s theater students have the opportunity to work alongside industry professionals on a rotating basis. Every year, Drexel’s theater faculty partners up with a local theater company for students to collaborate with. This fall, the Simpatico Theatre Project, a group dedicated to using the stage as a means of discussing social issues, teamed up with Drexel. With Watership Down, that conversation was centered on perseverance and community.
The cast and crew for the production were split evenly between students and professionals, making the partnership a learning experience for both parties. For Drexel undergraduates, it was a peek into the working process of professionals. Students had the chance to take away lessons that taught them how to do more than just standing on a stage. Drexel sophomore Brendan McHale, who acts in the play, had the unique opportunity to work alongside Sound Designer and Composer Josh Totora, and ended up being the show’s live music coordinator.
“We sort of arranged the music together. He did most of the arranging but we coordinated it together and saw how it fit, and added parts to the scripts. We were still adding music up until after tech, and we were adding little bits of music to really fill up the show,” McHale said.
He continued, “It’s great to have someone to look up to, in that sense, people who really know what they’re doing. Not that [students] don’t, but it’s a different perspective.”
The more experienced actors from the professional world also had some valuable takeaways from the production, especially after being surrounded by the students’ youth and energy.
“There is a kind of excitement and a newness to people who haven’t done it as much, a lack of jadedness, that it felt special, and an important part of life. That’s kind of refreshing to be around. It’s easy to not feel that way after you’ve found it for a while,” Sam Sherburne, the actor who played BigWig, said.
The show featured a surprising number of innovations, utilizing the restricted stage environment to impressive effect. Besides the anthropomorphic performances by the actors, the show used a digital backdrop as an added emphasis for the storytelling. Illustrations projected onto a white backdrop proved just as effective as handcrafted scenery, and the minimalist set design enhanced the impact of the amorphous background.
However, the most fascinating component of the show was the use of shadow puppetry to portray the story’s mythical characters and the humans, since the humans on stage were playing rabbits. This last mechanism was a true highlight. Using a variety of projectors, lights and cardboard cutouts, head puppeteer Lorna Howley and her team were able to produce dynamic characters that occasionally upstaged the actors. The puppetry was a great complement to the acting; at times, the puppetry mirrored the activity on stage, and interacted with the actors at others. Those interactions had to be synchronized and coordinated to perfection, and there were no hiccups during the night. The shadow characters were just as thorough with their sense of space and timing as the onstage talent was, with the puppeteers maneuvering those miniature cutouts behind the scenes, applying depth and distance for dramatic effect.
Despite the end of the show’s run Nov. 22, Drexel’s MPiRP will ensure that students continue to learn and thrive from the knowledge imbued by Philadelphia’s premier artists. This quarter may mark the conclusion to the partnership with Simpatico Theatre Project, but next year, another reputed organization will take the helm to school Drexel students on the intricacies of theater.