Alumni Impact New American Theater
|Alumni contributions to Theatre Seven's inaugural production of Is Chicago include (front, l-r) playwright Marisa Wegrzyn, A.B. '03; cast members Robin Kacyn, A.B. '04; Tracey Kaplan A.B. '04; (back, l-r) Brian Stojak, A.B. '06; Charlie Olson, A.B. '04 (also set designer); and director Brian Golden, A.B. '04. (Not pictured is Justin Wardell, A.B. '04, who was lighting manager.)
Several recent graduates of the Performing Arts Department (PAD) have devoted themselves to what Carter Lewis, University playwright-in-residence, calls the "gritty, important work" of developing new American theater.
In Chicago, there's Theatre Seven, formed by six alumni: playwrights Brian Golden, A.B. '04, and Marisa Wegrzyn, A.B. '03, along with Annie Erickson, A.B. '02, Charlie Olson, A.B. '04, Tracey Kaplan, A.B. '04, and Brian Stojak, A.B. '06. Golden, who is Theatre Seven's artistic director, says there's been a "migration of sorts" of Washington University theater grads to Chicago, arguably the most exciting theater city in America.
"When we started this project, undeniably a large part of it was just 'I really like working with my friends,'" Golden says. "We know each other and trust each other's ideas, so it makes a good collaborative experience for all of us."
Theatre Seven's goal, as stated on the organization's Web site (www.theatresevenofchicago.org), is to focus on new works, providing "a home for playwrights to hone and develop their work with the support of dramaturgs, directors, actors, and audience."
"There's definitely a DIY spirit in the theater community [in Chicago]—we're not the only new theater, by far," Golden says. "It's not the desire to do new plays that sets us apart. It's the ability to do new plays, and to be able to grow and sustain that ability over time. Knowing how to develop a new play and talk to a playwright isn't easy. It's so rare to find people who know how a playwright works."
Theatre Seven's first production opened in March 2007, with a duo of one-act plays set in the same Chicago neighborhood, 30 years apart. One play, Diversey Harbor, is by Wegrzyn; the other, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, is by David Mamet. Four other alumni made up the cast of both plays. The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Reader both gave the production glowing reviews. The Reader's headline reads "Mamet Meets His Match," while the Tribune writes "Chicago always has been a fertile breeding ground for playwrights, but only every so often do you come across someone who is clearly on the cusp of something big."
Wegrzyn's play Killing Women is scheduled for production next, in mid-August at Chicago Dramatists.
In Philadelphia, Nice People Theatre is another alumni-founded new works project. Its inaugural production was Golden's Hotchner-Festival play, Six Seconds in Charlack. The company also will be producing Wegrzyn's Killing Women, in September at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
Miriam White, A.B. '03, who started Nice People Theatre with Nicole Blicher, A.B. '03, says the idea took shape over many late-night meals shared by PAD students at Uncle Bill's Pancake House in St. Louis.
"As students we used to gather there to learn our lines and write and analyze plays," White and Blicher state. "We had talked about Nice People many times, and at our last gathering we signed a mission statement and contract on the back of an Uncle Bill's Pancake House placemat."
White and Blicher, both with theater-acting degrees, decided to "fully jump into this project" after Bill Felty, casting director for the prestigious Wilma Theatre, agreed to direct their inaugural production. Felty has since signed on as a third company member.
"Our mission is all about creating opportunities for PAD alumni and playwrights," White and Blicher say. "Producing new works is exciting because there aren't any preconceived notions about what the production should be. Often new works also come from new playwrights, which makes collaboration exciting."
Carter Lewis, who embarked on a similar path when he helped found Upstart Stage in Berkeley in the mid-'80s, is excited to follow the progress of these new theaters.
"New works programs and the adventurous nature of producing new works have faded in this country," Lewis says. "Theaters are too focused on the bottom line, so they produce only sure things to draw audiences."
Luckily for the future of American theater, Lewis' former students are following their adventurous natures.
"It's really exciting to see former students producing new works," he says.
Treating Trauma Victims with Multiple Therapies
When a person experiences a life-threatening event, the nervous system is activated for a "fight or flight" response—the pulse races, mouth goes dry, breathing gets more shallow, and the hands and feet might go cold as the entire body tenses.
Whether it's a one-time stressful occurrence, like a car accident, or repeated trauma, as is usually the case in domestic violence, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop when the nervous system fails to return the body to its normal state once the danger is past. Subsequent reminders of the life-threatening event may trigger the body to re-experience the trauma.
Left untreated, PTSD can result in psychosis, suicide, and a lifetime of suffering. Yet there's no one-size-fits-all approach to helping trauma survivors to heal.
"In the trauma field, there's a huge and rather volatile competition going on between different schools and models for working with trauma," says therapist and author Babette Rothschild, A.B. '72, M.S.W. '75. "Each one is hoping that they'll be recognized as the one evidence-based method that everybody will have to use."
Unfortunately, when trauma clients are forced into a single method of therapy that does not suit their needs, more harm can come than good.
Somatic Trauma Therapy, developed by Rothschild over the past 15 years, integrates multiple methods—both cognitive and bodywork—to help people with PTSD to recover. At the heart of Rothschild's Somatic Trauma Therapy is the goal of establishing homeostasis, or balance, of the body's systems that have been disrupted by trauma.
Though much of her current work involves training other mental health professionals in workshops and lectures she is invited to present worldwide, Rothschild also maintains a private therapy and supervision practice in Los Angeles, where she lives. She is the author of several books, including Help for the Helper: The Psychophysiology of Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma (2006) and the bestseller The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment (2000).
With her second book, The Body Remembers CASEBOOK: Unifying Methods and Models in the Treatment of Trauma and PTSD (2003), Rothschild furthered the message that therapists should be prepared to employ a variety of treatment methods and even mix and match therapies to help their trauma clients.
"Really, most of the stuff that's out there can be useful for particular types of clients. It's like antibiotics," she says. "If you only had penicillin to offer, a lot of people would get well, but some would die. Likewise, if you have an assortment of treatment methods available, if one doesn't work or appeal to the client, you can try another, which is much better."
In the Somatic Trauma Therapy workshops, Rothschild speaks often of the need to "put on the brakes" as a therapeutic tool, which can be vital to helping trauma survivors rewire their experience of painful events. "Some people jump right into treatment before they've gotten to know their client," Rothschild says. "Working with trauma memories is volatile and destabilizing.
"The common belief is that people have to process the trauma memories," Rothschild continues. "For some people, that's great and it really does help them get back to themselves. But there is a substantial group of people who actually get worse from doing that. They're the kind of people who have been working on their childhood traumas for years and years to no avail, and no one has ever stopped them and said, 'Wait a minute—why don't you let go of that, and let's get you a better quality of life instead.'" — Gretchen Lee, A.B. '86