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'And Thus They Began: A Decameron' signals the theater department's embrace of contemporary theater styles and new venues.
This winter, for the first time in decades, the Department of Theater's MainStage production won't take place at the nearly 500-seat Moore Theatre at the Hopkins Center for the Arts.
And for the first time ever, no auditions were held for the cast.
As the Hop undergoes a transformative renovation scheduled for completion in 2025, faculty and students are embracing the opportunity to explore experimental theater and create new cutting-edge venues. The winter MainStage, And Thus They Began: A Decameron, will be the theater department's first "devised" production outside of the Hop—a performance generated by the cast and creative team through a collaborative rehearsal process.
"Moving out of the Hop has forced us to think more deeply about where and how we create theater," says Dan Kotlowitz, the Leon E. Williams Professor of Theater. "This has forced our students, staff, and faculty towards a process of reimagining all the steps of our production process."
"Looking ahead, we are building into our season selection process a lot of amazing thinking about how the fundamentals of theater can be enhanced when companies purposely limit production complexity," says theater department chair Rebecca Biron. "For instance, what can we learn about theatrical practice and history when we don't rely so much on fully produced sets and costumes for our performances? What new work and concepts might such limitations generate?"
"In the end, I think this process brings a kind of clarity of purpose to our work as teachers, learners, and artists," Kotlowitz says. "The impact will certainly reach far beyond the time when we return to the Hop."
And Thus They Began: A Decameron, which will run Feb. 24-25 at Sudikoff Hall, is part of an innovative spring season that also features the premiere of Noon Panir in the Dark, the Ruth and Loring Dodd Playwriting Competition-winning play by Armita Mirkarimi '25; and the 2015 hit musical Pretty Filthy, whose script based on interviews with members of L.A.'s adult entertainment community helped pioneer the genre of investigative theater.
Devising a 'Decameron'
The devising process for And Thus They Began: A Decameron was co-led by Associate Professor of Theater Laurie Churba—who also serves as the show's costume designer—and director Sarah Hughes '07.
Hughes was a natural choice to direct Dartmouth's first school-sponsored devised work. A New York City-based director and producer, Hughes discovered her passion for experimental theater at Dartmouth and earned her first directing credits with the student-run theater ensemble Displaced Theater Company. Since 2016, Hughes has shared her expertise in contemporary theater with students in Churba's THEA90 - Contemporary Theater Practice course.
Hughes and Churba selected Giovanni Bocaccio's 14th-century story collection The Decameron as the basis of the department's inaugural devised work outside of the Hop. The anthology's stories are intertwined by an overarching narrative about a group of young people who flee to the Italian countryside to escape from the Black Plague, offering an abundance of cultural touchpoints and creative opportunities.
"It not only felt like where we are as a society, but it also gave the students a lot of ways to play," Hughes says.
With their source material in place, Hughes and Churba put out a casting call for the production. In a disruption of the traditional theater process, they did not hold auditions; instead, the duo invited students of all interests and abilities to attend an open ensemble workshop.
"We got a lot of people who are not theater majors but are excited about this particular project," Hughes says. "They've made an incredible ensemble. They have such good ideas and such good instincts."
The show has a cast of seven student performers, with four other students serving in roles behind the curtain. Over the past six weeks, the group has worked with Hughes and Churba to create the production's script.
"We've been doing all sorts of activities and exercises to guide students as they create their own experience," Churba says. "The students are so blown away that you can take a 1,000-page book and create one-minute scenarios out of each story. The wonderment and exploration—just the entire process that they're going through—is really exciting."
"What I love most about this production is that we, as an ensemble, are fully committed to leaning into the absurd—rewriting what's normal and logical and practical—and, as a result, creating something that truly feels like our own," says cast member Elaine Xiao '25. "While it's terrifying that a bunch of strangers are supposed to come together and make something out of almost nothing, it's so much more gratifying this way."
Creating New Venues
While the first two performances of the winter season are taking place in Sudikoff Hall classrooms, theater faculty and staff are working tirelessly to reimagine rehearsal rooms Wilson 301 and 4 Currier as intimate performance venues.
The transformations have focused on designing and manufacturing custom performance infrastructure for each space, including lighting and grids, stage platforms, audience seating, power hookups, lighting and sound booths, dressing rooms, and storage areas. Students were asked to contribute name ideas for the new performance venues.
The 4 Currier space, now known as Uproot Playhouse, features an end stage and seating for 60 audience members. Wilson 301, which will be called Nine Elms Theater, has been outfitted with a thrust stage and seating for about 35. The Wilson 301 transformation will be complete in time for the March 3-5 production of Pretty Filthy.
"I recently stopped by Wilson 301 and I was blown away by its transformation and energy," Koltowitz says. "It was unrecognizable to the old Wilson 301, which was a slightly dingy rehearsal hall. It now feels like a space with all the potential, possibilities, and energy of the empty theaters that I love."
Koltowitz says the intimacy of these smaller theaters provides myriad benefits for students.
"The strength of these two new spaces is the intimacy between audience and performance," he says. "Audiences will be a few feet away from the performers and will see nuance in performance and design that is sometimes missed in larger stages. These new spaces will also push us towards different types of productions with smaller casts, enabling more one-on-one interactions between faculty directors and student actors."
As a lighting designer himself, Koltowitz is particularly excited about the creative opportunities the new spaces will offer students working behind the scenes.
"Our directing and design students will have the opportunity to create on a scale that requires a refined focus on detail and narrative," he says. "They will have to think visually like a haiku poem, in which the form is condensed and simplified and the narrative is revealed through the smallest of gestures. I am always telling my design students to use the barest minimum to make a statement. These new spaces will give an urgency to simplicity of gesture—for the performers, the creative team, and the craftspeople who make it happen."
Embracing the Process
The move out of the Hop and into an experimental theater experience has created an opportunity to examine the foundational processes of theater itself, to challenge core concepts accepted as givens, and to rewrite the theater experience at Dartmouth.
"At Dartmouth, we strive to produce very high-quality theatrical performances and as a result, we don't always focus enough on process," Churba says. "Now that we've moved and are out of our large theater spaces, we're not as interested in the 'big picture' on opening night and what the audience feels: We're more interested in the students' experience and what they go through to get to that point."
That concept of the ensemble's journey is at the heart of devised theater. Hughes and Churba's decision not to hold auditions was one of the most significant departures from the traditional life cycle of a theatrical production.
"We want to make theater feel very accessible to students who might not ordinarily try out for plays," Hughes says. "My hope is that And Thus They Began: A Decameron will signal that the theater department is open to anyone."
Students also assisted in curating the design elements of the production. "They're in the room when we're discussing costumes, they're in the room when we're discussing audience seating," Churba says. "They have agency in every decision in this piece. It's an equitable, beautiful, and inclusive experience."
Churba also believes that taking part in experimental productions prepares students to enter the theater world beyond Dartmouth. "This kind of theater exists out there in the world," she says. "The more that our students know about it, the better off they will be in the field."
At heart, the devising process fosters the ability to grapple with the ambiguity inherent in art and life.
"One of the biggest challenges for the students was that a lot of the questions that would typically be answered earlier in the rehearsal process could not be answered yet," Hughes says. "As the director of a devised theater work, I'm asking my cast to live for a little bit longer than they're used to in a state of uncertainty."
"When you're asked to come up with a script, that ambiguity makes participants very nervous," Churba says. "But it is a great place to learn to be comfortable, because as adults, it's where we always are. We think we have control, but we don't."