No drama here: How GW’s theater family evolved from a caste system to a community

Ashley ‘Scout’ Seide has worked on 30 shows, memorized thousands of lines and spent long, grueling nights at rehearsals. But when the curtain fell on “Chicago,” – her final show this April – it wasn’t the effort she remembered. It was the feeling of closeness and fond memories that came with the GW theater family.

And that feeling of closeness was created in part by the Student Theatre Council, a coalition of student theater organizations that has built a close-knit community extending beyond the stage.

However, with three major theater companies – Generic Theatre Company, Fourteenth Grade Players and Forbidden Planet Productions – the GW theater community did not start off as a family.

“As a freshman, it was like a caste system. You picked a theater company and you worked with them,” said Seide, outgoing president of the Student Theatre Council. “I remember seniors telling me, ‘Oh you did the freshman showcase for Generic, so now you’re a Generic person. You don’t work with the other companies.'”

Although some members did attempt to test the waters and experiment in other companies, it wasn’t until the fate of the Lisner Downstage – the primary performance space for student theater – was in jeopardy in 2007 that theater members came together as one community. Noise complaints had prompted discussions by the University to restrict stage use for GW theater groups.

“The Student Theatre Council, in liaison with the University and student theater community, really stepped up and took up the role of creating a feeling of community. The unity that was missing was suddenly there,” Seide said. “We all wanted to perform, we all wanted to direct, we all wanted to design; we were all there for the same purpose and this unwritten divide between us was absurd.”

In 2008 – with the Downstage still intact – student theater was reborn as the companies rejected the caste system and coordinated with each other as one cohesive community.

“Company loyalty is becoming less of ‘who you will bleed for,’ and more of ‘what flavor your feel like at the moment,'” Daniel Kaufman, artistic director of FPP said.

Breaking into university life is a daunting task for any student, but Seide said theater made her comfortable in D.C.

“Some people come to college and decide to rush since they want to make their world smaller. You go to a school with [10,000] undergraduate students and sometimes you need to find your niche, but student theater was that for me and I know that it was for a lot of other people,” Seide said. “As a member, it’s like being in some weird, huge, dysfunctional, incestuous family, which everyone loves being a part of.”

And despite its tempestuous past, the theater community is welcome to even those outside of the theater majors, graduating senior Dominick DeGaetano, a music major, said.

“The more spatially-gifted may find a home on a set-building crew, or playing with the subtle art of lighting design, or, dare I say, learning how to create a stereophonic rain effect,” DeGaetano said. “In any case, you’ll be joining the most enthusiastic and interesting art-making community on campus. It’s something you want to do.”

Meanwhile, the Student Theatre Council puts on as many as 36 shows a year – with nine shows per company – working with and under the direction of its peers. Rehearsal times vary between the theater department and the Student Theatre Council and so do practice spaces. From Phillips Hall classrooms and residence hall community rooms to the main stage the week of a production’s opening, theater students wander around campus like nomads practicing in different settings.

The Downstage and Betts Theatre are the main stages for theater productions, along with the newest addition, Pelham Hall theater. It was designed with the GW theater community in mind in the hopes of making a trip to the Vern for a play or musical a gradual norm.

“James and the Giant Peach” will be one of the first shows in the new Pelham theater, said Amanda Newman, rising sophomore and public relations director of the Fourteenth Grade Players.

With Lindy’s and Kogan Plaza as their regular haunts, theater participants meet up off-stage by simply hanging out during the weekend or catching a good costume party.

Under such close quarters, relationships can go beyond friendship. “Student theater romance is interesting, but also like Pandora’s box – it’s best not to get into it,” said graduating senior Amanda Rhodes. “For some it works, but theater people know drama on and off-stage.”

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