Acting Up in Class

Actor Charlie Thurston shares a dramatic reading in Michael Katz's Chekov course.

For the first 60 years of Bread Loaf dramatics, plays were cast solely with students. The addition of professional actor John Doolittle as Oberon in the 1980 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream revolutionized that tradition. Six years later, Alan MacVey (who has taught or directed at Bread Loaf continuously since 1976) created the first acting ensemble, with the idea that such an ensemble would contribute in multiple ways to the academic life of the community.

“For me, it’s been a summer of mothers,” says veteran Bread Loaf Acting Ensemble member Cindy Rosenthal, describing her work during the 2012 session. After playing Gertrude in the ensemble’s production of Hamlet, Pentheus’s unintentionally filicidal mother Agave in The Bacchae, the voice of mother Addie in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and the farmer’s wife in Frost’s Home Burial, Rosenthal remarks that she “voiced and embodied a series of unhappy mothers.”

Outsiders might wonder at the breadth of Rosenthal’s dramatic roles, recognizing Hamlet as the only major Bread Loaf production for the summer. But Bread Loaf students and faculty know that she and her fellow acting ensemble members were kept busy fulfilling the other side of the actors’ mission at Bread Loaf: to engage with students in the classroom by bringing words to life.

"At Bread Loaf we’ve learned that much can be excavated, explored, and revealed when actors collaborate on bringing writers’ words off the page,” Rosenthal explains. She describes the process of collaboration in the classrooms as beginning with a question. For Michael Woods’s theory class, the question “Who is Dionysus?” led to interpretations of the god as an imposing, respectable figure, and, alternatively, as a classic “bad boy.”

For Michael Katz’s Chekhov class, it was an investigation of acting as opposed to reading The Cherry Orchard as dramatic literature. As Katz remarked after one classroom reading with actor Charlie Thurston, “It sent chills up and down more than one spine in the room.”

A particularly enlightening moment occurred for students in Will Nash’s course, Images of Freedom in 19th-Century America. Actors Lynette Freeman and Mia Ellis dramatized a passage from Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which the author describes a sense of liberation even during confinement in a tiny garret. “Suddenly the students, who had been responsive to Jacobs’s description as an abstraction, had visual and auditory suggestions of her suffering,” Nash explains. “Assessing the symbolic possibilities of the Barn East classroom, Lynette transformed the narrow space under the built-in desk into Jacobs’s garret; never in all my years of teaching Incidents have I felt the realities of the author’s confinement so intensely.

“As we processed the experience of ‘being in’ Jacobs’s garret, it became clear to me that none of us in the room likely would or could ever read or teach another slave narrative dispassionately. The actors had, as ever, given us an invaluable gift, an experience unique to the Vermont campus that reinforces Bread Loaf’s ethos and intellectual identity.”