Elmhurst College’s theatre season went out with a bang this year. Literally. The final play in the Mill Theatre’s 2010–2011 line-up began with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, followed by a five-year flashback.
“I tried to portray the real guy, not the iconic Lincoln,” said Billy Surges ’11, who grew a beard to play the lead in Abraham Lincoln but joked that he could not increase his 5’11” height. “In real life, he was modest, awkward around women, very self-conscious about his looks. But he didn’t take crap from anyone.”
Faculty in the Elmhurst College theatre program had set out to produce a play about the Civil War in association with the Elmhurst Public Library, whose reading program commemorated the war’s 150th anniversary. Surprisingly, there were few good scripts, said director and adjunct professor Frank Del Giudice. He settled on a 1918 work by British playwright John Drinkwater that recently had been updated by Robert Brock during his residency as artistic director of Kentucky Repertory Theatre. To add drama and intimacy to the script, Del Giudice wrote a prologue, set in Ford’s Theatre, and an epilogue that dramatically brought the play full circle to the fatal gunshot of the opening scene.
The play, in late April and early May, drew full houses of students, alumni, area residents and Civil War buffs. The production triggered laughs as well as tears. When an official accused General Ulysses S. Grant of drinking, Lincoln replied, “Then tell me the name of his brand. I’ll send some barrels to the others. He wins victories.”
Abraham Lincoln capped an exciting Mill season at a time when more students are becoming involved in theatre. Space limitations haven’t stopped the department from staging ambitious productions such as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Stage Door. The recent season also included four student-directed undertakings: Almost, Maine; Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead; Alice in Wonderland and two one-act plays by David Mamet.
The number of Elmhurst students with majors or minors in theatre has more than doubled in the past 10 years, according to Janice Pohl, associate professor and director of the theatre program. And that doesn’t count the dozens of others who participate in theatre productions.
“You don’t have to be a theatre major at Elmhurst to be in a play,” Pohl said. “Some students do it for fun, and others do it because they learn skills that they will use whether they become doctors, business leaders or educators.”
Jenni McCarthy ’13, who played Mary Todd Lincoln, said that Elmhurst’s small size leads to ample opportunities both on stage and behind the scenes. “The Lincoln cast included freshmen through seniors and people from many majors,” she said. “Everyone brought different viewpoints.”
Just as Abraham Lincoln was updated to appeal to a contemporary audience, so must the Mill Theatre be modernized. The popularity of theatre has strained the Mill’s rehearsal and classroom capacity, said Richard Arnold, assistant professor and technical director. For example, in the weeks leading up to Abraham Lincoln, the cast had to compete for the Mainstage rehearsal space with groups preparing for two student-directed shows and an end-of-term showcase.
The Mill, which once functioned as the millworks building for a lumber yard (the scene shop was the warehouse), was converted to a theatre in the late 1960s. In addition to more classrooms and rehearsal space, the lobby and restrooms need to be renovated, Arnold said. Indeed, the College’s 2009-2014 Strategic Plan calls for the Mill and the adjacent Barbara A. Kieft Accelerator ArtSpace to be updated. The College would like to turn the north side of campus into a center of activity for the arts.
Renovation won’t change the theatre’s intimate setting. There are no bad seats at the Mill, where seating encircles the stage. That intimacy worked well for Abraham Lincoln, which included dramatic exchanges among the major characters: Lincoln; his wife, Mary Todd; his cabinet and General Ulysses S. Grant.
“We didn’t want to bore people with a history lesson,” said Surges, who played Lincoln. “Everyone knows the slaves were freed and Honest Abe was shot. But what were these people like? Seeing the characters through Lincoln’s eyes, we see them differently.”
The production benefitted from some additional resources. Pohl and several students received a grant through the College’s Center for Scholarship and Teaching to research Civil War fashions and produce costumes for Abraham Lincoln. Using patterns from vintage sources, the students manufactured corsets, frock coats and hoop skirts. “We used period tailoring and dressmaking techniques, adjusted for 21st-century bodies,” Pohl said.
The set design was a collaboration between Richard Arnold and Jay Sierszyn, associate professor of theatre at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee. “Jay worked with our students on the Lincoln show, and I worked with his students on a set [for a different play] there,” Arnold said. “This gave the Elmhurst students a chance to work with a designer from a different background.”
Students in the play said they learned much more than Civil War history. Mike Greco ’14, who played several parts, is a football player who never had time in high school to be in a play. “At Elmhurst, I took an acting class and Frank [Del Giudice] encouraged me to try out,” he said. “My mom was thrilled because she always said I had the personality for theatre.”
Greco said the experience gave him a greater appreciation for drama. “I found out how much work and how many people it takes to put on a play,” he said. “It’s a lot like being in a team sport—you have to help your teammates. When someone forgets a line, you jump in.”
On a spring night between shows, the cast got together to address problems that had bubbled to the surface. They discussed how to improvise background conversation while another actor is talking. “Keep talking, saying what your character would say, but keep the volume down,” Del Giudice told one student.
“Try that again without ‘acting’ it,” Del Giudice said to a student who thought he was too stiff in one scene. The student ran the scene again, this time with shoulders relaxed and lines delivered with force. “That’s it! This time, you did it in character,” said Del Giudice.
To the actors who had gathered to fine-tune the scene, Del Giudice said, “Now, let’s take that again, from the top."