Whitman College's annual one-act play contest puts creativity at fore

Whitman College's tradition of student one-act plays continues starting tonight at the college.

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WALLA WALLA - This week, three Whitman College playwrights, three student directors and 14 actors will compete for the top prize in the 21st annual One-Act Play Contest at Harper Joy Theatre. Every year students are invited to submit original plays for the contest; three are chosen, and are then directed, produced and performed entirely by students.

"The one-acts are a great opportunity for students to use the things that they have learned at Harper Joy Theatre to put together something that is truly their own," said sophomore Mackenzie Gerringer, production manager for the one-acts. "Because the students shoulder the complete responsibility for the shows, teamwork becomes one of the biggest priorities."

Gerringer works hard to make sure all 45 students working on the one-acts communicate with one another and are on the same page throughout the production process.

"There's a really exciting energy surrounding student theatre," playwright Michaela Gianotti, a sophomore, said. "Every person involved is dedicating so much time and effort to make each play the best it can be. It is a really exciting chance to explore our creativity and have the freedom to build something that is entirely our own."

Sophomore Caitlin Goldie, director of a one-act, has found the entirely student-run production uniquely fulfilling. "Everyone wants to have a professional-level show and works hard to do so. Student shows are much more rewarding, however, because we do it all ourselves."

The student-run production has become a long-standing tradition at Whitman, since retired physics professor Craig Gunsul founded the competition in 1989.

Gunsul's keen interest in ancient Greece inspired him to bring the one-act play competition to Whitman, as a way to replicate the classic theatrical contests of ancient Greece. He also hoped to encourage students to cultivate their creativity during their college years.

"I've always thought liberal arts schools are (excellent) at teaching analysis, but deficient in rewarding creativity," Gunsul said. "If we want to see creativity, we need to reward it."

Each year a committee made up of various faculty and community members reads through every submission and selects the three best plays for production. In the last 21 years, the committee has sorted through as many as 28 and as few as eight plays in a year, with an average of about 15 submissions.

After the committee makes its decision, Gunsul hires a production manager and the students take over. The writers of the selected one-acts choose directors for their plays, and actors audition. The three directors decide amongst themselves which actors should be cast in each one-act.

During each show, all three one-acts are performed, and audience members rank the plays from first to third place. After the Sunday matinee, Gunsul tabulates all of the votes from the six-night run and announces the winner.

Production manager Gerringer said this year's selections offer something for everyone: "comedy, drama, a little romance, or just some theater put on by a group of dedicated and passionate individuals."

"Ferrets of my Heartbroken Past," by senior Galen Cobb, tells the story of Gray, suffering from the aftermath of a breakup, and Irving, who seeks Gray's help in writing a love play.

Cobb selected senior Lindsey Witcosky, who had dabbled with directing in high school, to direct his one-act. Throughout the rehearsal process, she has had to make some tough calls as director.

"(In) student-directed shows ... it is hard to maintain control over a group of your peers," she said. "I get to work with great actors, but that also means that it's hard to decide when my opinion should trump their decisions."

Gianotti is the author of "That Chair is Empty," a one-act about a family preparing for a dinner guest. The play's director, sophomore Sarah Wright, has tried to foster a family dynamic both onstage and off.

"We have had weekly family dinners and family game nights to build a closeness that goes beyond the context of the play," Gianotti explained.

Senior Miriam Cook's one-act, "The Ride," places the ancient Greek characters of Agamemnon and his concubine Cassandra in a modern setting and occurs just before Agamemnon's return home from the war.

Goldie, who directs "The Ride," said she and playwright Cook have generally seen eye-to-eye throughout the production.

"(We) are usually on the same page with our vision for the show ... We (have been) very trusting of each other throughout this process."

For Cook, having a director and actors with different perspectives helps enliven the play in ways she had not expected.

"I see (a play) one way in my head, but my vision tends to be one dimensional. Allowing my director and actors to interpret the play brings out aspects I had never considered, makes the characters much deeper and more real than I could have envisioned."

As opening night nears, Gunsul feels proud of the enduring program he started and the creativity it has fostered.

"I think it's one of the better things I've done at this school," he said. "You retire and you're pretty much old history, but now that the one-acts are endowed, they will continue forever."

The cast and crew of the one-acts are looking forward to finally having their hard work rewarded by an audience.

"This year's plays are very strong," Gerringer said. "I think that the contest has been stepped up ... from impressive sets to strong technical elements, great acting, directing ... and really great scripts."

"Audiences coming to the one acts can expect a lot of fun," Witcosky said. "Three shows in one ticket is a guarantee for variety at the very least."

The one-acts will be performed on the Freimann Stage in Harper Joy Theatre today through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

The one-acts are sold out, but a waiting list will open an hour before each performance, and those on the top of the list will be granted seats if they become available.

Lara Goodrich can be reached at laragoodrich@wwub.com.

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