Director Jamibeth Margolis '95 returns to IC to stage the world premiere of a musical cowritten by Ben Cohn '97.
by Godfrey L. Simmons Jr.
"I ran rehearsals at Ithaca just like I would at a [professional] theater in the city," says New York-based director Jamibeth Margolis '95. Jamibeth directed the March world premiere of Owl Creek: A New Musical in the College's Clark Theatre. "My expectations of [the students] are the same as they'd be for New York actors," she says. "The students seem to enjoy working on a new musical, seeing a writer come in and make changes based on what we're discovering in rehearsals. They've really enjoyed that challenge."
Scene from the IC production of Owl Creek
Owl Creek, written by Ben Cohn '97 and Sean McDaniel, centers on a love triangle in Civil War-era Virginia. A confederate colonel's fiancée falls in love with an aspiring writer, whom the jealous colonel subsequently frames for treason. The writer's life hangs in the balance as an 1893 tour group visiting the Owl Creek Bridge historic site tells the writer's story in flashbacks.
Jamibeth's process involves a heavy dose of collaboration, according to Owl Creek musical director John Bell '05. "I'm most thankful that Jamibeth never treated me as anything but an equal," he says. "Even though I'm a student and she's been with the show so long, Jamibeth and the composers completely trusted me and my artistic input during the process."
Kaitlin Stilwell '05, who played the fiancée, Sarah, concurs: "Jamibeth had trust in us to find our way. I never felt that if I didn't get it right the first time, she would just tell me what to do."
The production proved mutually beneficial for the College and the creators. After three years of staged readings and backers' auditions, says Jamibeth, "it was hard to get a sense of how Owl Creek would actually play in a production. Ithaca College's production afforded us the use of all of the design elements -- costumes, lights, and sets. We couldn't have afforded to do this in New York."
Cowriter Ben Cohn says the student actors in Owl Creek served the developmental process even better than New York actors. "New York actors are worried about making connections and whom they're inviting to a performance," says Ben, who wrote the musical with McDaniel as part of a second-year thesis project for New York University's graduate musical theater program. "The students are truly exploring the music, their own voices, and their characters. I really felt like our piece was part of their course of study."
Jamibeth pitched Owl Creek to theater department chair Lee Byron last summer. "We had already filled the spring musical slot," says Byron, "but I told her to send me the script anyway." He liked it so much that when the planned spring musical fell through, Byron successfully pitched Owl Creek to the department's design and technical team.
Three years ago Ben had approached Jamibeth about helping him and McDaniel develop their musical adaptation of an Ambrose Bierce short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Ben had served as Jamibeth's musical director for her senior directing project at IC, so he knew Owl Creek was her kind of musical -- "contemporary, with a love story at its base, set in an historical context." Jamibeth admits she has a passion for musical theater with a historical bent. "I love the research that goes into these shows," she says. "There's a fine line between keeping things as accurate as you can while still using dramatic license to keep things theatrical." Her recent New York directing credits include the New York Fringe Festival production of Mossadegh, a rock opera about the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup in Iran, and the Theatre 315 production of Berlin, a musical about the Berlin airlift.
The director and writer
Many of Jamibeth's early influences have history backgrounds. Her parents both received college degrees in history, and the man she calls her mentor, Jack Hrkach, teaches theater history and has headed the B.A. theater program at Ithaca College for 15 years. "I've taught thousands of students," says Hrkach, "and I can't count more than eight or nine students that even approach her mastery of both the academic and theatrical worlds." Jamibeth has spent the last 10 years in New York succeeding as both a director of new musicals and a casting director. After earning a B.A. in drama with an emphasis on directing, she spent seven years at prestigious Johnson-Liff Casting Associates, where she served as casting director for the Broadway and national touring companies of Cats, Les misérables, and The Phantom of the Opera, among others. She then teamed with business partner Gayle Seay to form Margolis-Seay Casting and Productions, which casts off-Broadway shows, regional theater, industrials, and films.
While Jamibeth has made much of her living as a casting director, her personal focus has always been directing. In fact, she sees her experience as a casting director as indispensable to her success as a director. "If you're looking for a second job as an aspiring director, there's no better job than casting," she explains. "You get to see all the actors in the city that you'd want to work with. You also get to see firsthand how different directors work with actors through the process."
A watershed learning experience took place in the summer of 2003 at New York's Lincoln Center, where she assistant directed for Tony Award-winning director Jerry Zaks in his production of the Jules Feiffer play A Bad Friend. "Just being in a room with Jerry Zaks and Jules Feiffer at the same time was great because I aspire to be like Jerry Zaks," Jamibeth says. "He knows how to finesse all of those relationships between the writers and designers and make the whole picture." Zaks often met with her after rehearsal to talk about the day's work.
She hopes that her experience with IC students inspires them in much the same way that Zaks inspired her. "When the show closed," she says, "I had more passion to direct the kind of projects that appeal to me. I wanted to hurry and apply all of the things I'd learned."
Photos: Jon Adams/H15