in on the Ground Floor of Theater Production
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
That’s part of the point, says Zak Berkman, a co-founder
of the , 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 by Sarah Ruhl; April 27-June 5, 2010
From by George Bernard Shaw, adapted
by Ron Russell and Godfrey L. Simmons; March
4-April 8, 2007
From by Zak Berkman; April 24-June
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
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.
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.
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
“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
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.