Directors Discuss Fall Theatre’s Challenging Production, This Is Modern Art

This Is Modern Art CastOn Weds., Oct. 30, the Saint Mary’s community was treated to a a faculty talk, or Fac Chat, that featured Assistant Professors Amissa Miller and Deanna Zibello of the Performing Arts Department. They discussed the fall mainstage production, This Is Modern Art, which opens Nov. 7. Their dynamic conversation explored not only the play’s inception and the unique opportunities the production offers Saint Mary’s, but also the nature of storytelling itself.

This Is Modern Art centers on the true story of a team of young artists of color who felt compelled to make a statement by painting a 50-foot graffiti piece on the towering wall of the Art Institute of Chicago. The play asks: What is art, where is it found, and to whom does it belong? In a multicultural society and an increasingly volatile sociopolitical landscape, these questions are intensely important, and can be difficult to ask and to answer. As the Fac Chat revealed, however, SMC’s Theatre Department is more than ready to take on the challenge and has accomplished a number of unprecedented firsts along the way.

Miller, the director of the production, noted that the script stood out to her for its piercing examination of power and identity. Indeed, the play met with controversy during its initial release because it was seen as advocating for civil unrest and teenage rebellion. “I hope the audience is challenged to think about whose voices are at the center and whose voices are at the margins. You’ll find that there’s quite a lot of talk about inside and outside in this play,” she said.

This Is Modern Art also considers the broader question of what it means for people of color to take or reclaim space. In a world in which voice and agency are privileged commodities given to certain groups more than others, Miller noted that it was essential to cast actors of color to maintain the integrity of the production.  Ultimately, This Is Modern Art celebrates how artists form community, and in the process of casting the play and building this world, “We’ve expanded our own community as a department,” Miller said.

In addition to the play’s focus, the audience will experience theater magic courtesy of the play’s technical director, Zibello, and her team. She explained that one of the unique challenges facing the production team was how to portray the simultaneous permanence and impermanence of graffiti onstage.

“As I was reading the script, it struck me how making a mark with ink was important on a symbolic level to the production,” Zibello said. In response to this task, the production team created spaces where lights could be hidden onstage in addition to a double-sided wall, through which the audience could both see the graffiti coming to life and watch the actors paint. “I wanted it to feel as alive and present as possible,” Zibello said, “so we could see the graffiti in real time onstage.” This meant that the audience could be fully immersed in the world of the play without having the actors’ back to them during key scenes while they painted.

SMC’s production is noteworthy too in that it includes a number of students in key roles, including stage management, lighting design, and dramaturgy. This level of student involvement is unparalleled in an SMC production, Zibello noted. “Typically, we have one or two roles filled by students, but this year we have five,” she said. Proud of the student contributions, Zibello noted, “It’s been an opportunity for me to challenge my own ideas about expertise and who has it,” she said.

Miller also added that the all-female-identified production team has allowed her to feel supported in approaching the play with a feminist lens, and “doing some things with gender that the script didn’t necessarily call for,” she said.

The SMC Theatre Department has accomplished a number of firsts with This Is Modern Art, and the play hasn’t even opened yet. The SMC community is invited to attend the Bay Area premiere of this acclaimed and controversial play, and support a dynamic team of faculty and students. The performance dates are below:

 

Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019—8 p.m.

Friday, Nov. 8, 2019—4 p.m.

Friday, Nov. 8, 2019—8 p.m.

Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019—8 p.m.

Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019— 2 p.m.