Under the umbrella of the Theater Arts Council, TACe, students at the University of Pennsylvania, have the opportunity to bask in the limelight, both behind and in front of the curtain. TACe is a sub-committee of the Performing Arts Council, housed at the Platt Student Performing Arts House.
Each of the seven TACe groups has its own mission based on cultural or social relevance, community service and more. While these organizations differ, they don’t operate entirely in silos: each year, they all work together to produce the One Acts Festival, a collection of short plays in February.
“Any student can try out for any play, whether as an actor or a member of the production staff,” says Laurie McCall, the director of the Platt Student Performing Arts House, “and some students are involved with multiple performing arts groups.”
A case in point is Jeremy Cohen, a senior classical studies major in the School of Arts & Sciences from Sudbury, Mass. He is wrapping up his college experience the same way it began: by bringing Shakespearean tales to life on the stage.
Cohen’s first production at Penn was an unusual interpretation of “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” with iNtuitons Experimental Theatre, often recognized for its non-traditional performances, such as “Macbeth” with the audience and actors switching places.
As iNtuitons outgoing chair, Cohen mentored the producer of Anne Washburn's “Mr. Burns: A Post-electric Play,” Noah Lee, a sophomore engineering major from Cranford, N.J., who brought the production to life under the stars and on the patio at Stouffer Commons, in partnership with Stouffer College House. The play centered on how “The Simpsons” became modern mythology after the collapse of civilization.
In addition, Cohen directed Front Row Theater Company’s “The Merchant of Venice.” A group dedicated solely to socially relevant theater, Front Row makes an impact by mobilizing its 60 members to participate in community-service projects.
“Being a part of TACe has defined my Penn story,” Cohen says.
Established in 1983, it is the in-house company at Harrison College House, which shares its Rooftop Lounge for Front Row performances and offers a unique residential program that allows theater buffs to occupy two of its floors.
Adam Mansell, a junior communication and public service major from Livingston, Tenn., and the incoming chair of Front Row, says it’s ironic that “The Merchant of Venice,” one of Shakespeare’s best-known works, is also one of the least-performed on college campuses.
“His most controversial play offers a display of courtship, money and revenge, ending in a choice between life and death,” Mansell says. “Questions of status, identity, free expression and hate speech are significant, especially now.”
Theater at Penn is much more than Shakespearean classics. Many theater clubs introduce contemporary offerings to the stage.
PenNaatak, formed in 1999 as a group that focused exclusively on South Asian plays, has undergone some dramatic changes, broadening its scope to global theater and plays.
McCall says, “PenNaatak just finished a production about Syria which was both timely and controversial.”
Alexander Atienza, a senior cognitive science and philosophy major from Gaithersburg, Md., joined PenNaatak as the director for “Could You Please Look Into the Camera?”
Written by Mohammed al-Attar, the play follows a documentary filmmaker who is torn between her family and her obligations to her interview subjects, Syrian citizens who were tortured for speaking out against the government.
“We have no doubt about its timeliness and relevance in today's political climate, where a global perspective is increasingly important,” Atienza says.
The performance at Penn also had an internationally diverse cast and crew from the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and India. Its youngest participant was a freshman and its oldest a graduate student.
McCall says there has been an uptick in student inquiries when it comes to the behind-the-scenes roles, like directing, producing or stage-managing.
“Students are more and more interested in the production of a play or the design of the set, lights, etc., than in the past,” McCall says. “Those who participate can take the skills they learn here and explore production in movies or television.”
“The performing arts community can be the place one discovers or hones their future profession,” says Maria Fumai Dietrich, assistant director at the Platt House.
One of the students who found a future profession here was alumna Elizabeth Banks. She was active in the Stimulus Children’s Theatre Company, the only group that performs shows like “James and the Giant Peach,” and “Charlotte’s Web” for children at local schools. This year’s production was “The Little Prince.”
“The messages in ‘The Little Prince” are important for children,” says Joselyn Calderon, a junior sociology major from Perris, Calif., who joined Stimulus in her freshman year.
“That's what we bring to children in West Philadelphia: shows that might seem silly or unnecessary to adults but mean the world to the kids.”
Now its chair, Calderon says Stimulus does its best to interest children in the arts. “We represent Penn wherever we go,” she says. “No matter who you are, as long as you can help kids feel passionate about theater and the arts, you belong with Stim.”
McCall says Stimulus does wonderful work in a highly selective niche category.
“Not everyone wants to be part of this genre,” McCall says. “However, the group takes their shows to local schools, offering most of their tickets for free to children.”
Banks also participated in Penn Players, which has been around since 1936. The only professionally directed student theater group, it performs in the Harold Prince Theater in the Annenberg Center. This semester’s show was “Bob: A Life in Five Acts,” a story that details the life of a man who struggles to find his purpose.
“Another one of their famous alumni is Hal Prince,” McCall says, adding that Penn Players produces a 24-hour Theatre Festival at the Platt House.
An alternative to Penn Players, Quadramics, formed in 1973. One of its well-known alumni is Marc E. Platt, one of the 1979 graduates for which the Platt Student Performing Arts House was named. The other is Julie Beren Platt.
Today, it is Penn’s oldest student-directed and -produced group that’s known for its midnight show: a blend of audience participation and improvisation. This semester, they performed “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a comedy that shares the private thoughts of ultra-competitive middle-schoolers.
“We try to make sure that everyone involved gets the best possible experience,” says Joe Nahra, a senior philosophy, politics and economics major from Chevy Chase, Md., its chair. “Quadramics has been the family that I've found at Penn, and joining it was the best decision I've made in college.”Dietrich adds that the close connections are one essential part of the theater community.
“Students build lasting relationships among peers and staff, explore important and challenging topics, celebrate the human experience and learn about themselves by engaging in the collaborative artistic practice that is theater,” Dietrich says.
One of the Penn’s newest theater organizations, the African-American Arts Alliance, or 4A, emerged in 1991 to promote awareness of black culture through the arts. Their spring show was “Once on This Island,” a musical that is set to return to Broadway in November. Set in the Caribbean, a peasant girl falls in love with a well-to-do young man and the gods bet on whether love or death is more powerful.
Being a part of the theater community at Penn also teaches camaraderie and teamwork, along with other lessons that can stay with students for a lifetime.
“If you can put up a theatrical show, you can do anything,” McCall says. “You learn how to work with different types of people, manage resources, meet deadlines and prioritize. The show must go on!”