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Students working behind scenes, on stage preparing ‘American Buffalo’ for CCRI audiences
Nov. 23, 2015
Long before the curtain comes up and the lights go down, there’s a lot of work happening behind the scenes of a theatrical production. This is certainly true of the Community College of Rhode Island Players’ production of “American Buffalo,” written by David Mamet and directed by Associate Professor Luke Sutherland, which will be staged next month in the Liston Campus theater.
“It’s not all about acting,” said Sutherland, who, in addition to traditionally filling the assistant director position for each Players’ production with a student, makes a practice of bringing as many student designers as he can on board. “It’s about the entire ball of wax. This is the students’ place to learn and prove themselves and find out if they want to pursue theater or not, either way.”
Mamet is a writer known for a fine ear for dialogue and nuance and, in this case, the cast and crew have a big job ahead as they work to bring this timeless play to life in the here and now. So while acting – and memorizing a seemingly impossible spate of fast-paced back-and-forth lines written in iambic pentameter – is clearly an important part of this process, the Players are heavily relying on some of this behind-the-scenes assistance from dramaturg and assistant director Ray Legare.
Dramaturgs function as on-call research assistants; they comb through the text for everything from the big picture themes to the most granular turns of phrase. They look for meaning and motivation, helping to answer questions that the director, actors or designers might have. “For me, it’s throwing a wider net to get all the information we can bring back that can be utilized to help understand and sharpen the production,” explained Sutherland.
Legare was more than eager to jump into this role. A true lifelong learner, Legare, a Pawtucket student, is pursuing a degree in theater after graduating last May with an associate degree in Fine Arts. He has two full-fledged careers in his past, having served in the Navy during the Vietnam War as an ocean systems technician, and then as a computer engineer. When his daughter went off to college, he found he could be a little more adventurous in his pursuits, working as a freelance graphic designer. For Legare, information is its own reward.
“I’m a hard worker, and I put a lot into the things I do,” he said, joking that Sutherland has had to tell him more than a few times that he was doing more writing than necessary.
To help the actors get into character and understand the era – the play was first performed in 1975, and this production is set in that time – he assembled a thorough packet covering everything from slang to sociological information. He also put together a teacher’s guide that Sutherland has shared with other humanities professors in the hopes that they will integrate the play into their curriculum.
Legare’s work as a dramaturg and assistant director is also helping him gain a more intimate understanding of the playwriting process; he has written two full-length plays so far, and after graduation wants to continue to embark on a playwriting career.
“Working with the actors on this has been really exciting and fun,” he said.
In an early rehearsal, Legare sat hunched up against the stage, a script and a yellow legal pad splayed in front of him, scribbling notes as two of those actors, Nick Menna of Warwick and Yunus Quddus of Pawtucket, ran through a tense scene. Quddus, a Philadelphia transplant who came to Johnson & Wales University to study criminal justice and sociology before he discovered the arts community in Rhode Island, said he has always been partial to storytelling, and acting gives him plenty of opportunity for that.
“I am fascinated by every part of acting – learning the lines, learning the characters and putting on a scale. It’s like a car; all of these parts come together and it just works,” he said.
With his wife, Quddus teaches poetry and acting workshops for middle schoolers, as well as programs that mix art forms such as painting, poetry and storytelling. But like Legare, his ultimate dream would be to make a living in the theater.
He will graduate next spring and is looking ahead to next steps: Roger Williams University, University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College all have theater programs he’d potentially be interested in. “You can’t do anything without education,” he said, particularly teaching at a higher level in the arts. “More doors and opportunities are open and afforded to you with an education. You put yourself among the elite.”
Although their interest in the theater discipline spans two different – though intersecting – areas of focus, both Legare and Quddus exemplify what Sutherland said is so important about these student-mounted productions. They’re both immersing themselves into a world within a world, truly comprehending the context of its characters and circumstances. They’re able to take part in that process on an involved level – Legare parsing out the intricacies of the script and Quddus bringing part of that script to life onstage.
“When I teach theater, I really get students to try to understand that nothing is ever just the surface – there’s always something deeper. Both the students performing in it and then the students attending it will hopefully get the message that we’re dealing with some of the same problems” – poverty, marginalization, self-interest in the name of good business – “still today.”
“American Buffalo” runs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, Dec. 3 to 5, with 2 p.m. matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 5 and 6. Tickets cost $10 for general admission and $8 for students, seniors, faculty and staff. Reservations can be made by calling 401-825-2219.