Academia meets real world show biz as director crafts student experience
Posted on Wednesday, September 23, 2015
WYE MILLS – Dr. Rob Thompson wants his theatre students at Chesapeake College to be challenged - both artistically and intellectually. For the audience, Dr. Thompson wants to challenge with visceral performances that build engagement.
For Dr. Thompson, instructor of theatre, building Chesapeake’s theatre program and building the skills of his students are twin goals that can be achieved with thought-provoking performances.
This fall, Dr. Thompson is producing an edgy interpretation of Greek tragedy. Already in rehearsal, the production is providing the students with lessons in classical drama. In his second year at Chesapeake, he’ll tackle a big, beloved musical production to mark the college’s 50th year.
“I try to choose shows that have an important place in our culture and tell stories that can connect the performers with their audiences,” Dr. Thompson said.
The instructor arrived at Chesapeake last year and built a new troupe of performers – most of them young - from throughout the mid-Shore. Both traditional-age Chesapeake students and high school students in Chesapeake’s Dual Enrollment program are performing and working back stage in the Peake Players’ productions. On the Wye Mills campus, the director can stage productions for the 900-seat Todd Performing Arts Center or the smaller, Cadby Studio Theatre.
Just in time for Halloween, Dr. Thompson will direct a macabre version of the Greek tragedy “The Bacchae” by Euripides. The story centers on Dionysus, the newest god in Zeus’ pantheon, as he descends upon Thebes seeking revenge. Thebans refuse to honor Dionysus, so he whips the city’s women into a frenzy and lures them into nearby woods.
“It’s dark, and the audience will be surprised by how affected they are by this ancient Greek story,” Dr. Thompson said of the production. “This will be a very physical performance. Some of the action that usually occurs off stage, we’ll be bringing to the stage. The audience will see what happens in the story rather than simply hearing about it through traditional narration.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the musical “Gypsy,” which Dr. Thompson selected to mark the college’s 50th anniversary.
“This is a musical about show business where the story and songs are recognizable,” Dr. Thompson said. “It’s about a stage mother who lives through her kids. One, she eventually drives away, and the other pursues a career in burlesque.”
In addition to staging a production each semester, Dr. Thompson teaches a variety of theatre classes. He said that some students are fulfilling arts credits for their academic programs, while others are interested in a deeper exploration of theatre. As he completed casting for the fall production, Dr. Thompson said he has been impressed with the students who have audition for shows and signed on to work backstage.
“There is a lot of talent in this area, and we have students who come out of high school thinking they may be interested in theatre careers. Must students interested in theatre assume that they need to attend a university with a big theatre department for four years to get experience,” Dr. Thompson said. “Instead, they can come to Chesapeake, learn the skills they need and perform in beautiful theatres for two years. The great thing about Chesapeake is that these students can learn, perform and figure out their own goals here without a huge financial investment.”
Young actors can quickly age of premium roles, Dr. Thompson said, so some students may choose to try for a professional career before finishing a bachelor’s degree.
“I like to see students go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. If they want to delay that bachelor’s degree, I also try to give students the skills they need to take a shot at professional theatre. They can do that at Chesapeake without incurring a lot of debt,” he said.
Sophomore Megan Murphy of Queenstown performed in both of Thompson’s major productions last year and was part of the college’s improvisational troupe. She’s earning her general education credits while considering a bachelor’s degree and career in theatre.
“Dr. Thompson has changed my perspective of theatre. He has completely changed my life and the lives of many other students by showing us that theatre can not only be an interest or major, but we can turn it into a real career,” Murphy said. “He's taken everything I thought I knew about theatre and changed it for the better.”
This past summer, Dr. Thompson placed Murphy and two other Chesapeake students in an internship program with a professional theatre troupe in Philadelphia.
“This gave us a chance to see what it was like to do this for a living,” Murphy said. “Some days were harder than others, but there was never a day when I didn't enjoy myself. It was an absolutely incredible experience that I wouldn't have gotten anywhere else.”
Recently Murphy was cast in the “The Bacchae,” and said she expects to audition for “Gypsy” in the spring.
“The Bacchae” will be presented in the Cadby Theatre at Chesapeake College Oct. 23 -31. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7 p.m., with a 4:30 p.m. performance scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 29. Tickets are $10 adults/$5 students and can be purchased by calling the box office at 410-827-5867.
The Spring production of “Gypsy” will be presented April 15, 16 and 17 in the Todd Performing Arts Center. For more information about theatre arts at Chesapeake College and the Peake Players, please contact Dr. Rob Thompson at email@example.com.