Student-Directed Play Gets Close to Audience, Cues Dark Humor

5C students flooded Seaver Theatre's Large Studio, a blackbox theater at Pomona College, last Thursday, Nov. 5, and Friday, Nov. 6, to find out “What Happened in the Woods.” The play, which ran for a little over an hour, began at 9 p.m. Packed wall-to-wall, the venue was intimate with its dark walls and curtains and three rows of chairs pushed to the back of the room to make space for the performance area. The audience, which filled every seat, spilled over onto the floor, spreading to the sides of the room.

“What Happened in the Woods” is a student-written play, co-directed by Emma Silverman PO '19 and Jessie McKenzie PO '19. The cast, which consisted of 5C students, included Ben Hogoboom PO '19, Marco Iovino PO '19, Juan Zamudio PO '18, Izzy Simon PO '18 and Casey Cheng PZ '19. The play self-describes as a “Ted meets Donnie Darko” dark comedy. The space of Seaver Big Studio certainly was conducive to a darker, dramatic setting, making the surprising and often retrospective humor pop out even more.

Silverman, playwright and co-director, spoke to TSL about her experience from the play's conception to its delivery onstage. There wasn’t really a set inspiration, she explained, just an image in her mind that she decided to write about. Silverman had worked on other projects with McKenzie prior to coming to Pomona and knew she trusted her with handling work. Near the beginning of the process, Silverman worked to rewrite the play as well as direct it. She adjusted stage directions and reimagined monologues and dialogue to sound more natural.

However, as soon as most of the adjustments were enacted, she took a step away from writing. This allowed her to evaluate the show from a more distanced perspective. “It became its own thing, separate from my script,” Silverman said. “Woods” was the first full-length play Silverman, who did some one-act shows in high school, wrote and directed.

Silverman’s dynamic with McKenzie was well-balanced. “I’m super neurotic,” she admitted. “Jessie is super chill; she’s a dancer, so she’s very focused on dance elements and the movement parts of the script. I worked on language, like which words to put emphasis on.”

The cast, though small, was packed with first-time and veteran talent. Silverman says she lucked out with everyone who came out to audition for the show. Iovino, who acted as Faulkner in the play, described his experience in the cast as “a really nice dynamic.” He recommended student theater for first-time actors because everyone was collaborative and not overly intense. As a first-time actor himself, Iovino had previously thought the most challenging part would be the actual performance in front of a live audience, but actually ended up liking that experience immensely.

A large part of the “What Happened in the Woods” production was its venue. Silverman said that she thought the show would have worked well in a black box theater; however, the cozy, informal setting of the studio brought the audience close to the characters and emotions of the play in a raw way. She described the scene in which one character is rolling on the floor, curled up in a ball, and how that perceived experience would have been so different had the audience been far away looking up at a stage, rather than looking down and seeing him on the floor beneath them.

Casey Goodwin PO ’19 agreed that the studio space provided a very different viewing experience. “Everyone was on the same level,” he said. “When you’re right next to someone, it feels like you’re watching a movie. Movies are a lot more focused.” Because of the small venue, “What Happened in the Woods” became a focused experience.

So what actually did happen in the woods? The directors, cast and audience are keeping their lips sealed on that one.

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