Ithaca College Quarterly

Bringing Theater Classics to Life

In 1993 an international student from Norway named Grethe Boe had a talk with associate professor of theater arts Jack Hrkach about her interest in staging plays by little-known female writers. Boe’s interest spurred Hrkach’s. He and associate professor of English Gil Harris decided to stage a reading of two plays by Hrosvita, a 10th-century nun who is the first known female dramatist.

This staged reading gave birth to what was first known as Women on the Verge --- an organization dedicated to producing readings of plays that students were also studying in their Dramatic Literature, Shakespeare, and Theater History classes. The two professors recruited a colleague in the English department, Claire Gleitman, as a third principal faculty member, and the group took on formal status as a student organization with faculty participants. The reading series --- which became known in 1994 as On the Verge to allow for a broader range of works --- became increasingly important to students, who seemed to relish the opportunity to play juicy roles in difficult, complex plays. By now On the Verge is a well-established and extremely active group.

On the Verge presents two to three readings a semester, usually directed by either Gleitman or Harris and typically featuring student actors as well as faculty members --- including not just Hrkach (who has gamely taken on roles ranging from Pandarus in William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida to the slipper-loving Tesman in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler), but other theater and English faculty members. The students who take part include theater majors, English majors, and students from other departments who are eager to try their hand at performance. On the Verge readings typically receive just two or at most three rehearsals; the directors provide minimal blocking; and the actors perform with texts in hand. Despite --- or perhaps because of --- this informality, On the Verge audiences have grown each year, and Hrkach, Harris, and Gleitman have found their class discussions enhanced by the opportunity students have to see the plays on the syllabus performed in the flesh.

During the last several years, On the Verge has produced readings of such plays as Hedda Gabler and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1997); Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive (1998); Troilus and Cressida, Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and Caryl Churchill’s Blue Heart (1999); and John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, and Jean Anouilh’s Antigone (2000).

Besides acting, students contribute to On the Verge productions by writing program notes, giving an outlet to those with a serious interest in dramaturgy. Trish Urso ’01, who wrote the notes for Antigone, Saint Joan, and ’Tis Pity . . . , will after graduation be working in a regional theater as a dramaturge. She says that her work with On the Verge provided important additions to her résumé.

Guest Talent Joins the Troupe

Rehearsing for Caucasian Chalk CircleThis spring the group prepared a reading of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, with Hrkach in the role of Azdak and students performing the other roles (photo). A temporary health setback of the lead player caused the cancellation of the production, but On the Verge was nevertheless busy. The troupe brought to campus the Tony Award–winning actor Frank Wood, who played the leading role in the 1999 Tony Award–winning play Side Man. Wood played that same role in an On the Verge reading directed by Gleitman. This gave students the exciting opportunity to work along-side a professional actor, while also exposing the audience to a reading of a play featuring its original lead. The reading was followed by a discussion of the play, during which Wood emphasized the large role that staged readings play in the life of most professional actors. "In so many ways, On the Verge has become an important part of Ithaca College’s creative and intellectual life," says Hrkach. "It has given students the chance to step into roles that they might not otherwise ever have the chance to play --- like Hedda Gabler or Titus Andronicus or Saint Joan." It has also encouraged hundreds of students in dramatic literature classes to consider performance as a part of the analytical process and to recognize that performance itself is a process of interpretation. It has enlivened class discussions of texts that might otherwise seem wooden or alien to students. And it has provided an arena for collaborative work by students and faculty members. Rehearsal of Indeed, says Gleitman, "students seem to especially enjoy seeing their professors step out of the classroom into the role of grand inquisitors, clowns, and fools --- which we hope students view as changes of character!" She added, "It has been a pleasure for all of us to take part in bringing these dramatic texts to life, usually in just a matter of days." In the early years, say the three professors, they had to scramble to find casts for On the Verge’s readings. These days, students and faculty members often volunteer their services at the start of the semester, and there is almost always more interest than any one reading can accommodate. "The degree of interest has been immensely gratifying," says Harris, "for something that began so humbly nearly a decade ago." next

Photos by Charles Harrington