the magazine of the columbia daily spectator
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Sex & Low Beach
In the college bubble, it’s easy to ignore that those of us who major in the arts will one day face a scant selection of well-paying jobs. I, for one, am majoring in film studies, although part of me doubts that I’ll ever direct a film or write for television. Once I graduate and the real world slaps me around a bit, I’ll probably have to let go of my lofty artistic dreams and settle for something more reliable. These college years may be my last opportunity to work on productions of any kind. Right?
Evan Greenberg would beg to differ.
Greenberg is the creative director of the AfterWork Theater Project, a program in Midtown Manhattan that stages productions of popular ensemble musicals, including, most recently, Hair. The twist? The cast is made up of working adults of all ages and professions, many of whom have little to no theater experience. For a “tuition” on par with that of a gym membership or a child’s summer camp, adults from any walk of life can be part of a complete staging of a musical with real sets and costumes, with the help of a professional creative team.
This past February, Erik Piepenburg featured the project in his New York Times article “The Audience Pays, but So Do the Actors.” Of the participants, Piepenburg says, “Every performer got something that many a struggling actor strives to achieve by skill alone: a New York stage credit.” Though the overall tone of the article is positive, lines like these show the disconnect between professional and recreational performing arts.
When I ask Greenberg about this skepticism, he is understandably frustrated. He didn’t start the project to further anyone’s theater career. AfterWork is like an after-school theater program, except this program is, literally, after work. But Piepenburg hints that a recreational theater company for adults seems ridiculous.
“When I look at my cast of Hair, I see big kids,” Greenberg tells me. “I don’t see the line that people draw between kids and adults, it just doesn’t exist in my world.” Greenberg loves theater, and the AfterWork Theater Project lets him keep theater in his life as he offers the experience to anyone who missed out.
Greenberg never dreamed the project would inspire any backlash. The main purpose of AfterWork is to give people a chance to be a part of a theater community. Regardless of the quality of the show, just being in the musical makes the participants feel like kids again. The cast of Hair formed a strong bond, complete with sleepovers, hair braiding, and pre-performance chants, according to Greenberg. Some felt that the production was life-changing, some fulfilled dreams of being onstage, and some who had just moved to New York found friends in a new city. “It really does regress you to another time. I don’t know why we don’t operate like that anymore, and I don’t know why theater is the key to bringing that back, but it really does do that for people,” Greenberg says.
Theater can be therapeutic, as anyone involved in student productions like the Varsity Show would agree. When I explain the AfterWork Theater Project to members of the crew, I expect a bit of snobbery, but all I get is immediate approval. “I think it’s great, a program that can give the arts to adults who otherwise would lose that or would never have found it,” says Laura Quintela, a Columbia College junior and coproducer of the Varsity Show.
Everyone in the Varsity Show is so eager to share their love for theater that they can’t get the words out quickly enough. They take pride in their completely original production, but they still feel the camaraderie of more than a hundred Varsity Show groups before them. Ally Engelberg, a Barnard College sophomore and the other co-producer of the Varsity Show, says, “I have dedicated my entire life to this show, and I feel great about it.” Everyone I talked to found the same pride and joy in their work, despite the time commitment.
When they look to their future in the arts, they are uncertain, but do not despair. Gina Borden, a Barnard College junior, is a choreographer for the show. She loves to dance, and she expects that after college she will continue to dance unpaid. “The great thing about New York City is that there are so many opportunities for not-prominent choreographers and dancers to perform. Even if you’re not getting paid, you will be able to find a group of people that you can work with on a weekly or monthly basis,” Borden says. Whatever happens, Borden plans on finding a way to incorporate dance into her life because she can’t do without it.
When I asked Greenberg about the power of taking part in a production, he explained, “It’s a collaborative art that we’re talking about. It’s really much more than the art: It’s the art as a mode of connection with other human beings.”
The AfterWork Theater Project, the Varsity Show, and the many other creative opportunities in the city create a feeling of community based on building something together. Every individual is a valuable part of a collective production. According to Nick Parker, a Columbia College junior and lyricist for the Varsity Show, “It’s almost like discovering what is best about yourself.”
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