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By Eric Weld   Date: 1/12/11 Bookmark and Share

Students in on the Ground Floor of Theater Production

When members of the Epic Theatre Ensemble visit Smith for a weeklong residency beginning January 15, they won’t know what shape their theater projects—which they will develop with Five College students—will take.

That’s part of the point, says Zak Berkman, a co-founder of the Epic Ensemble, a company of actors and theater professionals in New York City who produce socially mindful plays Off Broadway.

Scenes from Epic Theatre Off-Broadway productions:

From Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl; April 27-June 5, 2010

From Widowers' Houses by George Bernard Shaw, adapted by Ron Russell and Godfrey L. Simmons; March 4-April 8, 2007

From Beauty on the Vine by Zak Berkman; April 24-June 3, 2007

Next week, Epic members will produce three works in collaboration with some 40 student participants from Smith, Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Hampshire colleges, and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. It will be the Epic Ensemble’s third January residency at Smith.

“Each project will have a wealth of new discoveries and ideas to draw from at the conclusion of our residency,” says Berkman, who is the son of Len Berkman, the Anne Hesseltine Hoyt Professor of Theatre at Smith and a co-organizer of the residency.

Participants in the residency will work in groups, in various rooms in the Mendenhall Center, focusing on three theater works, devised at Epic, all in early stages of development, said the younger Berkman.

One piece is based on Henrik Ibsen’s play The Pillars of Society, among the playwright’s “social realism” works, which plumbs the injustice and deception of greed and power. Another, the Horatio Project, will utilize the character Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet to explore the nature of biography, Berkman explains. The third piece, referred to as The Natalya Piece, will tackle questions of global empathy and the chronicling of human rights abuse through the real-life relationship between Natalya Estemirova and Anna Politkovskaya, two Russian journalists and human rights workers who were murdered after reporting on abuses in Chechnya. The Natalya Piece project will be led by Eliza Baldi ’01, a theater major while at Smith.

The Epic residency is made possible by funding from the college’s Alumnae Association, the Lecture Committee, and the theatre department.

A cornerstone of the Epic Ensemble’s mission is to develop socially conscious works for theater, with the intention of inspiring dialogue and interaction around social issues. The company, which opened on September 11, 2001, was a recipient of the 2009 Coming Up Taller Award, presented by First Lady Michelle Obama, among numerous other awards.

Residency participants will conduct research and engage in improvisation and creative brainstorming to assist with the development of the three projects, each of which will take distinctive paths afterward. The Pillars of Society piece is being designed for touring public high schools in New York City. Epic aims to develop the Horatio Project as a theatrical centerpiece to initiate public conversation about the nature of biography. And The Natalya Piece is intended for an eventual international tour.

“Given these differing aims, the next step for each project’s journey will also be different,” says Berkman, “but all will be entering a very intensive writing phase following the residency.”

For the 40 student participants in the Epic residency, the intensive engagement with the development of projects will provide valuable first-hand knowledge of the production of a theater work from its very early stages, says Len Berkman.

“We hope the students will come away with a sense of how the development of a play (and its later production) can illuminate and explore urgent societal issues and concerns.”

Also, says Len Berkman, students, while working alongside theater professionals, will learn how an ensemble develops and the impact that development can have on new works.

Afterward, they will come away with the knowledge that their participation influenced the development of a new play.

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