Shortage of actors spurs play redirection

Published by Robin Bailey on

Editor’s Note: The author has participated in previous UCC plays, one of which is discussed within the article.

Bart McHenry’s DIY sign for his office catches students’ eyes as they walk by.
The Mainstream

Although last term Kat Grammon was the only student in theater director Bart McHenry’s Acting 1 course, McHenry’s task to reboot the theater program in a post-pandemic era is slowly getting students back on the stage.

Fall term, McHenry and his students put on “The 39 Steps.” The winter term play was supposed to be Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” but there weren’t enough actors available to bring the show to fruition. “We are excited to do Shakespeare at a later date,” McHenry says.

A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room”

To accommodate the smaller cast, “The Dining Room” will replace “Much Ado” on-stage this March at the end of the term with actors again playing multiple roles. “It has many parts, like in ‘39 Steps,’ but it’s different in spirit — ‘The Dining Room’ is more touching and heartwarming, whereas ‘39 Steps’ was a madcap comedy,” McHenry says.

First premiering in 1982, “The Dining Room” is a comedy of manners: a “mosaic of interrelated scenes — some funny, some touching, some rueful … set in the dining room of a typical well-to-do household.” 

The script requires the play to be performed with a cast of six, saying “it would be impossible to do with fewer.” However, McHenry has a cast of five; so actors and the director have been making the impossible possible.

Meet the cast

McHenry’s office can be found by following the long, sloped corridor next to Centerstage in the Whipple Fine Arts building to its eventual double-doored end that leads to the dressing rooms’ antechamber. In this compact space, theater director Bart McHenry’s office (and his often-practicing cast) can be found.

Kat Grammon, a merit award theater major, refers to the area as their (unofficial) office; a “merit award” is a kind of scholarship students may apply for in exchange for more rigorous involvement in the associated subject of study.

Grammon is one of three students in the current production who were involved in the previous “39 Steps” along with Tyler Burdett and Robin Bruns.

Both Grammon and Burdett have experience performing a variety of supporting roles in plays at UCC. Burdett, despite being a theater major, says he initially only got into the art at his mother’s insistence. “I found out I really enjoyed it,” he says. 

Bruns didn’t act in the last production, but did run its lights under instruction of Anthony Gordon, who is another merit award student for the theater program.

Natalie Shaw, an undergraduate, grins from the doorway to the dressing room.
Robin Bruns / The Mainstream

Others join the cast for the first time: Zach Gaxiola and Natalie Shaw.

Shaw had planned to only work backstage during production but was convinced to take an acting role by McHenry and the cast. “I’ve met new people who are very fun to be around,” they say, “and I’m happy to have met them.”

Open to those open to act

UCC plays are open to all students interested in participating in the production and/or performance. McHenry also mentions being in the works of offering community education tickets to non-students who might wish to be involved in future productions.

Similar to “The 39 Steps,” formal auditions weren’t held for “The Dinner Table.” Finalizations of the casting are still being figured out by McHenry and the cast as they continue to edit and read through the script. “We’re still trying to build up a regular cast,” McHenry says.

Cast’s call-to-action

Grammon sees the value of college theater for the entire student body. “It’s a very creative way to build self-confidence. It’s a way to discover different parts of yourself. Theater is a very joy-filled area, and there’s lots of encouragement — in all aspects. Especially right now,” they say.

Still, a noticeable absence of student engagement is felt by the theater department. “It’s partially disappointing,” Grammon says. “Even though all this is like everything I’ve always wanted.”

Students interested in UCC theater may speak to McHenry and their academic advisor about adding theater courses to their schedule. The current theater class is Theater Arts 253, requires two credit hours and, this term, is still listed as “Performance: Much Ado About Nothing” at the time of this article’s writing. 

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