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Smith Professor's Theater Company Collects 13 Obies

By Eric Sean Weld

When five longtime friends come together in a surreal house that also hosts bees, mice, ants, cows and various other animals, set to an improvised musical score that flows with the action on stage, the result is a critically acclaimed amalgam of comedy, choreography and musical theater.

Painted Snake in a Painted Chair, directed by Paul Zimet, associate professor of theatre at Smith, and written and composed by his wife, Ellen Maddow, a former visiting fellow with the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, played last January at La MaMa, a 100-seat theater on East 4th Street in New York. The play was produced by Talking Band, a contemporary theater company co-founded by Zimet and Maddow.

Of the unique work, New York Times theater reviewer D.J.R. Bruckner wrote: "As usual Talking Band collects a superbly disciplined and experienced cast. The characters are some of the funniest people you are likely to meet this year."

So impressed was the New York stage community by Painted Snake that when the Off-Broadway Theater Awards (Obies) rolled around in May, the work snagged 13 awards, two of which went to Zimet and Maddow. Obie awards, which are presented by the Village Voice, are the top awards, determined by consensus, for off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway productions -- the equivalent of Broadway's Tony awards.

"It is a tremendous honor to receive an Obie," remarked Zimet after the awards, "and it is remarkable for one show to receive so many." The play also took awards for production design, set design, lighting design, choreography and sound design, as well as for each of the six performers.

"This really was an ensemble piece," notes Zimet of Painted Snake, "and people really responded to the ensemble element of it."

As with many of the recent productions by Talking Band, Painted Snake in a Painted Chair includes contributions from an assortment of Smith-affiliated theater professionals and scholars. In addition to Zimet and Maddow, Kiki Smith, professor of theatre, took an Obie for her costume design for the play. Three Smith students also contributed to the production: Maria Filippi '03 and Ariel Aberg-Riger '03 worked as production interns; and Sara Beane '04 was a wardrobe intern. Selena Kong '01 also worked on the show, and Nic Ularu, a former teacher of set design at Smith, took an Obie for his contribution.

Painted Snake is the sixth Talking Band production on which Smith students have worked, Zimet says. The collaboration with Smith's theatre students dates back to 1998 when Zimet and Maddow recruited interns from the college to work on Black Milk Quartet, a series of musical one-acts written and directed by Zimet. Since then, Smith students have contributed to the company's productions of Tilt, Bitterroot, Bad Women, and Star Messengers, a work commissioned by the Kahn Institute as part of its 1999–2000 project "Galileo at the Millennium," which premiered in Theatre 14 at the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts in 2000.

"It just seemed like an ideal arrangement," says Zimet of his collaboration with Smith personnel. "We always need help on a production." Zimet typically becomes acquainted with students through the acting and directing courses he teaches in the theatre department. "I always get to know highly motivated, bright, committed students in my classes, students who are fun to work with. I've been very happy with the Smith interns. And for students, it's a great way to expand their education. They're in the real world and I'm there so I can supervise. It continues to be a teaching situation."

Zimet says he will enlist more Smith students to help with the Talking Band's upcoming production of The Parrot, a Smith theatre department production by Zimet and Maddow that will have its premiere in April and open at the New York theater The Flea in the spring.

Zimet describes the Talking Band, which is now in its 30th season, as a poetic/political theater company that examines the conditions of people in our time while exploring and stretching the aesthetic parameters of theater. "We're interested in exploring extraordinary circumstances within ordinary life," he says in describing the intent of the company's productions. "Especially in these times, when our culture and politics are inundated with recycled clichés and shallow slogans, it is important to have theater that speaks of real events and real relationships."

"Since its beginning, the company has collaborated with designers and musicians as well as poets to create works of rich and energetic language underscored by a broad range of musical expression and visual imagery," says Zimet. The Talking Band, which has created and presented more than 30 productions, has garnered several other awards over the years and has toured in Europe, South America and extensively in the United States.

"It's great to be able to include Smith folks in this endeavor," says Zimet.

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