Student actors tackle tough content in Spring play
University Theater’s production of “Woyzeck” opened last week to positive reception, following the department’s successful production of “subUrbia” earlier this year. Because of the play’s different style and physical nature, the cast members faced unique challenges in their work backstage.
Set in a German provincial town, “Woyzeck” follows the story of a soldier living with Marie, the mother of his child, and his descent into psychosis after volunteering to be a part of a medical experiment to earn extra money.
“I chose ‘Woyzeck’ because right now there’s much discussion about social and economic inequality, which are central to (the story),” said Thomas Riccio, a performance studies professor and director of the play. “Even though the play was written in the 1830s, the lesson is still pertinent and speaks to (audiences) today as it spoke to them.”
Auditions for the play took place at the end of the fall semester. The cast of 12 members rehearsed over a period of five weeks beginning in late February, before performing in four shows during the week of April 14.
Each rehearsal focused on one scene. The cast would read through the scene and then hold a discussion about its meaning and historical context. As scenes were rehearsed and stitched together, lightning, sound and props were gradually folded in.
“When we pieced the scenes together, everything started clicking for me,” said Ryan Scott, a psychology sophomore who played the titular role of Woyzeck. “I started connecting with my character even more.”
As audiences only watched the live performance, they didn’t get to see the flurry of activity backstage. Because some actors portrayed more than one character, costume and makeup changes occur between scenes. A crew of five students managed the lighting, sound, scene and prop changes.
“Most of the time, we’re having fun backstage, but (we) always keep our characters in mind,” Scott said.
Because of the play’s expressionist style and overarching themes of insanity and madness, some cast members said they faced difficulty relating to their characters and keeping up with the taxing nature of the play.
“I’m still covered in bruises, (as) I’ve been choked, thrown around and stabbed to death,” said Stephanie Oustalet, an arts and performance sophomore who played the role of Marie, Woyzeck’s girlfriend. “Ryan always made me feel really safe when he ‘abused’ me. If I didn’t have actors I trusted alongside me, this would be a very different show.”
For Scott, “Woyzeck” marks his theatrical debut and first lead role. He said he found it difficult at first to get into the mindset of his character.
“Before Kathy Lingo, my improv teacher, told me about manic bipolar disorder, I was having a difficult time grasping the character and figuring out what exactly was wrong with him,” he said. “After I looked up (the disorder), I was able to grasp onto this character that isn’t fully part of a tangible existence.”
Despite the challenges, both actors emphasized the rewarding aspects of being in the production.
“Woyzeck doesn’t have a happily ever after, but it has a message that changes people’s perspectives and gets them to think,” Oustalet said. “I really love doing shows like (this), because I’d rather do a show that changes communities rather than a show that just makes you feel good when you walk out.”
Scott echoed Oustalet’s sentiments, noting the complexity of the play and its potential impact on audiences.
“The most rewarding thing for me is that everyone appreciates how much work has gone into it and that people are actually enjoying the show, even though it’s kind of loony and hard to understand at times,” he said.
After performing in four shows, Oustalet said her biggest take-away from the experience was the importance of maintaining her character’s persona — even after blunders onstage.
“You’ll learn in Acting 101 to keep going … even if you screw up. It’s especially important with this play, because we have to keep such a strong illusion of ‘weird,’” she said. “We cannot break that illusion.”