Welcome Home, Dr. Sarah VandenBrink

“I’m curious to know what the post-show blues will feel like as a music director,” said Dr. Sarah VandenBrink as we chatted in the sun a few days ago.

Dr. Sarah VandenBrink

Currently the Theatre Department is wrapping up rehearsals for the musical Ordinary Days, which will be presented virtually Friday-Sunday, April 16-18, and Thursday through Saturday, April 22-24.

Dr. VandenBrink serves as music director. She is in her first year as a faculty member at Hope, but this is not her first hurrah on campus. Aa s 2011 graduate of Hope College, Dr. VandenBrink was a double major in Vocal Music Performance and Vocal Music Education. 

This track is incredibly rigorous, as many students that focus on just one of these are forced to carry an overload of credits each semester. Yet VandenBrink would not have had it any other way:. “I know people say you have to choose, but I love both. I have to teach and perform,” she told me. 

As a student at Hope, VandenBrink did (just about) everything. She served as co-president of the Chapel Choir and director of musical activities for Hope’s chapter of Delta Omicron. She also competed in competitions with the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) and Opera Grand Rapids (OGR). VandenBrink placed first or second almost every year she participated in NATS. At OGR, she placed second her junior year and first her senior year! On top of these commitments, VandenBrink also held an internship at the Second Reformed Church in Zeeland.

Dr. VandenBrink completed her final semester student teaching at The Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia. From there she returned to the area to teach at Hamilton Elementary School. Though she loved her experience teaching children, there was something missing.

“So I went to grad school,” she told me. She and I had to laugh at her use of a trope of life that is said by one of the characters in Ordinary Days

Dr. VandenBrink moved to Rochester, New York, and started her graduate studies at Eastman School of Music. At the conservatory she earned her masters in Vocal Performance and Music Literature. Yet VandenBrink missed teaching, so she decided to stay to complete her doctorate in Vocal Performance and Vocal Literature with a minor in Vocal Pedagogy. “I had finally found my home, because I love to teach and perform.” 

So now Dr. VandenBrink is back at Hope. Over the course of her first two semesters she has already impacted many students and has performed numerous times. She appreciates that our school encourages students and faculty to get involved in many facets of life.

“I knew after I left the conservatory that I preferred the liberal arts atmosphere,” she says. “I love that liberal arts teaches the whole person, rather than just the focused area.”

Not only is she inspiring students in the music department, but she is also music directing the theatre production, Ordinary Days.

“I’ve been finding it really inspiring watching students learn their characters and turn them into their own,” she says, “I’ve never been on this side before. Getting to see this has been really exciting.”

Dr. VandenBrink leads rehearsals for Ordinary Days

The musical is almost entirely sung and features some numbers that are very rhythmically and musically difficult. Dr. VandenBrink has been hard at work with the cast and crew of Ordinary Days over the past few months as they have prepared for the performance, which opens this coming Friday, April 16. 

While this is Dr. VandenBrink’s first time music-directing a production at Hope, she has also previously starred on the DeWitt stage. During VandenBrink’s senior year, the Theatre Department produced the opera Street Scene in collaboration with the Music Department. Now retired theatre faculty member John Tammi directed the production, which VandenBrink describes as one of the highlights of her college career. She also had a coaching session with Ordinary Days director Dr. Daina Robins during the Street Scene process. 

As Ordinary Days slowly comes to a close next weekend, those “post-show blues” will soon be felt by all involved. Though it is sad to wave goodbye to this great project, Dr. VandenBrink is excited to continue making her mark on Hope’s arts departments. At the end of our conversation, we found ourselves talking about our inspirations. She emphasized that her students’ thirst for knowledge, her fellow faculty members’ research and musical choices, and the new and unknown composers she has discovered excite her on a daily basis.

She also talked about the importance of communication in music, saying “To me, singing has always been about communication, but also finding out why the song was written. That is kind of why I’m inspired.”  This truth can be seen in so many works, and is incredibly important to the success of Ordinary Days.

Ordinary Days is a virtual event and tickets are free. Go here to learn more.

Instrumental Decision-Making

To perform at a high level in nearly any field requires outstanding talent and training, and for many the equipment is also crucial.

The talent is intrinsic — you either have it, or you don’t.  The training requires dedication and even passion — a commitment to devoting thousands of hours to pursuing mastery even while recognizing that there’s always more to learn.

But how does someone on that path — say, a professional musician — choose when the equipment not only matters but nearly becomes an extension of oneself?  Not what should someone use, but what does the journey look like?

Earlier this year, flautist Dr. Gabe Southard of the Hope music faculty became one of just 64 musicians around the world to be named a Pearl Flute Artist by Pearl Musical Instrument Company, a global manufacturer of flutes based in Yachiyo, Japan.  The recognition reflects his high caliber as a performer and educator, but it also follows his recent decision to switch to a Pearl flute after using another instrument for nearly his entire career.  So The Arts At Hope blog asked him to share a bit about his process.

First, congratulations on being named a Pearl Flute Artist.  What does it involve?

The main aspects are, of course, upholding a high level of performance and educating as a flutist and using Pearl flutes.  In addition, I will be posting performances on social media regularly. I have some cool ideas about this, including a series designed to help high school students learn music for Michigan’s Solo and Ensemble concerts; attending conferences, especially the National Flute Association conferences as an attendee and performer; and maintaining a national stature.  In return, Pearl endorses me and provides support for clinics I will present.

You traveled to the company’s U.S. factory Tennessee to select your new flute and have one custom made.  Is a visit like that typical for musicians at a professional level?

It is fairly typical, although my first step was to try a couple flutes from Flute World in Farmington Hills, Michigan.  The people there were incredibly helpful and sent me flutes to try at home.  Once I had narrowed the field down a bit, I wanted to visit the main Pearl site since they had a huge variety of flutes and headjoints to choose from.

We’ll talk about your new instrument in a minute, but in general what do you look for in a flute?  How do you know an instrument’s right for you?

That’s a good question and I think it is a little different for each flutist!  Like some other wind instruments, there are really two parts of the instrument to consider when trying flutes out: the body and the headjoint.  When I was trying flutes from Flute World and when I was in Tennessee, I first focussed on the body of the flute – things like: how is the response of the keys; how does the flute resonate when I am playing it; is it comfortable? 

Once I decided on a body (about which I still had a few choices to make), I then tried somewhere between 15-20 headjoints on it.  Headjoints have several different features that appeal differently to each flutist, mostly due to lip shape, breath capacity, etc.  I tend to like a more free blowing headjoint with a square cut embouchure hole.  Once I settled on the headjoint, in this case a “forte” style one from Pearl, I was able to make the final decisions, which included any extra keys that I wanted to my flute — for example I requested a C-sharp trill key and a split-E mechanism among other things — and the material I wanted the flute to be made of.  I have always preferred a solid silver flute, so that is what I ended up getting (with a .997 purity level) but other flutists will play on gold or even platinum flutes.

What prompted you to change flutes this past year?  It seems like it wouldn’t be an easy decision.

I had been playing on my old flute for about 30 years and decided it was time to see what else was out there as far as professional flutes.  For some time I have had the feeling that my previous flute had been holding me back in its technical action and in sound production.  Plus, my style of playing has changed significantly as I have become more experienced and in some ways, outgrew the ability of the flute to catch up.  That feeling was confirmed when I tried different flutes, especially the Pearl ones.

How did you connect with the Pearl company specifically?

I tried several brands and it was clear very quickly that Pearl had the highest quality and the flutes matched my playing style to a tee.  Pearl had been in contact with me about becoming a Pearl artist based on performances I had given at the 2016 NFA convention in San Diego, so this seemed like a natural match.  [Editor’s Note:  He was a semifinalist in the convention’s Piccolo Artist Competition and won the Convention Performers Competition.]

What goes into having a flute custom made?

When I was trying out the flutes at Pearl, I kept track of the various options that I liked in each of the flutes — like silver content in the flute itself, soldered or rolled tone holes, various key additions like C-sharp trill and split E keys — and then put that all together in my order. 

The crafting required several months, and in the interim I played on another flute from the Maesta series, also a beautiful instrument that is now my back-up flute.  I liked it so much that I fully expected to be blown away — pun intended! — by the custom-made flute when it arrived.  I received the new flute in early March, and have already used it in a recital I presented on campus and for recording sessions for a CD, and if anything it’s even exceeded my expectations.

Spotlight on Detroit ’67

Dominique Morriseau’s Detroit ‘67 is set to stream from the Knickerbocker on February 26-28 and March 4-6. This piece was originally presented as a staged reading for the inaugural season of the Many Voices Project and will now be a fully-realized production.  Co-sponsored by the Theatre Department and the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, the Many Voices Project seeks to expand the repertoire of voices heard on the stages of Hope College.  By transferring Detroit  ’67 to a main stage production, the Theatre Department is amplifying its intent of bringing these voices to the forefront and marking a new intentional wave of inclusion of underrepresented voices at Hope College.

Tia Hockenhull rehearses

As anticipated from its title, this play is set in 1967 in Detroit against the backdrop of the Detroit Riot, also known as The Great Rebellion. Motown music runs through the veins of the characters whom Tia Hockenhull ‘23, Ka’niya Houston ‘23, Rubben Jerome ‘23, Alex Johnson ‘22,  and Elayna Sitzman ‘23 bring to life. The music is a binding force when siblings Chelle (Hockenhull) and Lank (Johnson) come into contact with the outsider Caroline (Sitzman). As racial tensions run high around them, the siblings must find ways to balance their individual desires with the community and time they live in.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Alex Johnson and the stage manager Lydia Konings ‘24 about their experiences and thoughts surrounding this important production.

Tia Hockenhull and Alex Johnson

Johnson is no stranger to the Theatre Department’s main stage, previously appearing in Into the Woods and The Shakers of Mt Lebanon will Hold a Peace Conference This Month. However, Johnson confessed: “I don’t think I have ever been as connected to a character as I have for this show. There are so many parallels between Lank and me, especially the way he approaches music.”

This link to his character comes from Johnson being a musician at Hope. He is also excited that “the whole cast from the reading is the cast for this show, and it has been so cool to see us grow from the reading to now, especially in the physicalization of characters.” However, there is no need to worry if you watched the staged reading because this upcoming production is a completely new experience. Alex ensures that “being without a script is so different from the staged reading and helped us actors make new choices and made everything more dynamic and organic.”

Lydia Konings

Making her Hope College debut as a stage manager, Konings describes her experience as a “whirlwind to be SMing in Covid-times that has been a good learning experience.” She describes her journey with stage management as “Bob Ross’ happy little trees” — an accident that now seems like it was always supposed to happen. She is especially excited to call the light and sound cues for a live-streamed production.

Additionally, she has found herself engaged in the fact that “everyone involved feels the weight and responsibility of the message this play is putting out into the world. I think the Hope Theatre Department is working towards producing more diverse playwrights which I appreciate as a person of color.”

Both Konings and Johnson stressed how this is a must-watch production. The former honed in on the fact that “the ramifications of what happened in 1967 are still very real, especially with everything that’s happened this past year. It’s been really exciting and also a little scary to tackle a production of this nature.”

Johnson reciprocated her views as he highlighted the fact that “[Detroit ‘67] is a fictional story, yet it is so realistic in the context of that time and also the context of this time. When you look at the rebellion and protests that happened in Detroit and other cities during the late ’60s, there are a lot of parallels between them and the protests happening this summer. Obviously, there are different circumstances, but unfortunately, a lot of the same stuff is going on.”

So, listen to these talented members of the cast and crew and mark your calendars and register for free tickets for Detroit ‘67 at tickets.hope.edu.

Reflections on a Virtual Theatre Festival

Attending the Region III Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival is a long-standing January tradition in the Theatre Department at Hope College. The department participates in the festival’s initiatives throughout the year, faculty members regularly serve as respondents to productions within our five-state region, two of our faculty members have previously served as the region’s chair, and Michelle Bombe, chair of the Hope Theatre Department, is currently serving as the national chair of the entire organization. 

In January, Region III is always the first of eight regions to hold its festival, often in the midst of a snow storm. Though there was no snow storm, this year’s festival, scheduled to occur at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, shifted to a virtual one due to the pandemic.

All previous regional festivals have meant a “road trip” for students, staff, and faculty members to the five-day event. The festival offers a host of activities, including five to eight invited productions from the region’s colleges and universities, exhibitions and awards in the various specialty areas of theatre (acting, arts management, design, directing, dramaturgy, playwriting, stage management, theatre criticism), workshops, and guest speakers. 

“It has been an incredibly difficult time for everyone and this is also true for theatre makers,” said Bombe. “As the national chair for KCACTF, I have been involved in the planning for the festival year. We had to make the difficult decision last summer that all eight regional festivals would not be in person but held virtually. We knew that creativity would still find a way to exist, and we wanted to make sure to offer a platform to celebrate that work. 

“So, we asked the question, in this time of pause, could we offer programming that would allow our industry to return stronger and more equitable?  Thanks to generous dedication and funding from the Kennedy Center, we were able to offer national programming to all eight regions and it was so delightful to see it launch at Region 3, which initiates an 8-week cycle of festivals across the country.”

Assistant professor Richard Perez described the impact of this adjustment to a virtual festival, held January 5-9, 2021:

“For many of us, the yearly KCACTF Region III Festival signals an opportunity to kick off the new year by reconnecting with peers, hearing great speakers, seeing exciting theatrical works and being inspired by the young talent in our region. While some of those components were missing this year because of the move to an online platform, there was a different kind of excitement present — the excitement of an art form that can continue to inspire even in the face of a world pandemic. Because we participate in a craft that is contingent upon our abilities to adapt, the courageous women and men who lead Region III did just that.” 

For Hope’s Theatre Department, this meant an invitation to present its November 2020 production of The Thanksgiving Play at the festival.  Despite the fact that all invited productions had to be shared via pre-recorded performances, Perez, the director of The Thanksgiving Play, found the experience rewarding:  

“Especially during this time of heightened awareness around racial (in)equity, it was an honor to bring a play that encourages us to be better allies to those who need it most.” 

Grant McKenzie, left, and Adam Chamness, right, in The Thanksgiving Play

Cast member Grant McKenzie ’24 echoed these sentiments:

“The response to The Thanksgiving Play, as well as the opportunity to have it screened on such a level, was such an extreme honor, and a reminder to me of the reason why we keep creating even in difficult times and under strange new circumstances. As cliche as it is, KCACTF made me feel more invigorated and inspired as an artist, and I’m excited to hopefully attend in person someday.” 

Assistant professor Eric Van Tassell was the production’s scenic and lighting designer.  He too was enthusiastic about the video presentation of the play:

“The highlight of this year’s festival for me was getting to revisit our production of The Thanksgiving Play and sharing it with the wider community of our region. The respondents from the festival who provide reflections and feedback to all participating productions had some lofty praise for our work. They were particularly impressed with not only our ability to navigate new technological challenges and safety limitations brought on by doing theatre in the midst of a pandemic, but also by how our actors and director didn’t let any of those new obstacles stand in the way of a quality performance that was entertaining and heartfelt. Hope College has a lot to be proud of regarding this production and how we represent ourselves within our region.” 

Indeed, the production received the Golden Keyboard Award (shared with the University of Toledo), recognizing the technical and digital proficiency of the production as well as its creative adherence to safe COVID protocols.  (This was a new award, temporarily replacing the usual Golden Handtruck award, which recognizes the safe and efficient load-in and load-out of invited productions at their respective venues during in-person festivals.)

Department chair Bombe summarized:

“I deeply appreciate celebrating student achievements at the festival.  For me personally, however, the regional festival is always a time to be inspired by talented artists and recharge my batteries and return to my campus with renewed enthusiasm to work with the students.  And though it was disappointing not to gather in person, I still felt that the festival captured a way to celebrate our student artists and gave me so much hope for our industry as we move to come back stronger and more equitable.   I am thrilled that we were able to share our work on The Thanksgiving Play, which I think echoes the mantra I like to describe about our work at Hope: Theatre that makes a difference!”

Madison Meeron ’21 is pictured giving her online, solo performance of “When I Look at You” from the “Scarlet “Pimpernel.”

The Theatre Department was honored by individual student accomplishments at the festival as well.  Nominated for her performance in the department’s February 2020 production of Doubt, Hope graduate Katie Joachim ’20 advanced to the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship semi-final round, and a number of other nominated Hope students participated in this event. Madison Meeron ’21 was a finalist in the Musical Theatre Intensive, which culminated in pre-recorded Zoom performances by all thirteen finalists at the January 9 closing of the festival. 

Madison shared these thoughts:

“It was a riveting experience to be selected as a Musical Theatre finalist. I had a blast getting to workshop my song with guest artists Farah Alvin and James Gray. They were delightful individuals and really pushed me to look at my song’s text in ways I hadn’t before. I’m eager to use the skills learned through the MT Intensive in my future auditions/endeavors, and I would like to encourage future students to audition for this program. You won’t regret it!”

Valerie Dien’22 recently served as the stage manager for the Theatre Department’s outdoor production of Twelfth Night in October.  Her festival attendance included building upon her interest in stage management:

“I enjoyed the festival immensely and wish I had attended in years before. With well-known names in every area of theatre, I was able to learn and make connections with some of the best talent in the theatre/performance world. A highlight for me was attending a stage management workshop led by Cody Renard Richard, who has stage managed for Broadway, Cirque du Soleil, and recently, for the 2020 VMAs (virtual music awards). This workshop was fantastic because it allowed me to personally ask Cody a few questions and discuss stage management techniques with other rising stage managers. It also made me note that my stage management instruction at Hope is incredibly well-rounded, which made me feel capable of holding my own in discussion and the way I thought about stage management as compared to what was discussed in the workshop.”

(As a side note, it is fun to know that Cody Richard spent two seasons with the Hope Summer Repertory Theatre, first as a stage management intern and then as the assistant production stage manager, in 2007 and 2008.  We theatre folk always say it is a small world!)

Of particular significance is KCACTF’s growing commitment to confronting issues of access, racism, and inclusivity.  Several regional and national initiatives are working to increase the voices of under-represented populations within the organization and discipline. 

The Region III Festival had a clear focus on these timely matters, as articulated by Bombe:

“Personally, I was inspired by the national keynote addresses and workshops in Anti-Racist Theatre Training with Nicole Brewer, the Theatrical Intimacy Education, and the We See You White American Theatre Panel and follow-up discussion.  Our department has dedicated thoughtful time and energy to the demands of the manifesto that has been shared nationally and is titled, ‘We See You White American Theatre,’ so the conversations and resources shared were highly relevant to the work we are doing on our campus.”

The 2022 Region III KCACTF festival is again scheduled to occur at Ball State next January.  The Theatre Department at Hope looks forward to re-joining its regional colleagues and friends in-person to celebrate the creative achievements of our students.

Necessary Viewing: The Thanksgiving Play

In 1990 at the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, the discussion of replacing October 12’s Columbus Day with Native American Day or Indigenous Peoples Day began. This year, three decades later, Michigan and 12 other states do not celebrate Columbus Day. However, our state has not followed in the footsteps of states like South Dakota as far as officially declaring the day a holiday to celebrate Native Americans. 

In the realm of the arts, theatre specifically, we still have a long way to go as well in the fight for Indigenous equity and equality. MacArthur Grant recipient and Lakota playwright Larissa FastHorse wrote Hope College Theatre’s upcoming production, The Thanksgiving Play as a satirical response to the racism and prejudice she has experienced within show business

With its script-required all-white cast (Adam Chamness, Cecelia Casper, Grant McKenzie, and myself) and director Rich Perez, The Thanksgiving Play is set to premiere via live stream on October 30th, four weeks before the holiday itself. 

Video captures the Pilgrim puppet voiced by Cecelia Casper

The Thanksgiving Play follows Logan, an ex-actress and rising high school theatre director as she tries to create the ultimate, politically correct elementary school Thanksgiving play. With a cast consisting of a modern-day hippie, a playwriting-obsessed history teacher, and a ditzy LA actress, Logan has a harder time than she ever imagined. 

A play that addresses topics such as political correctness, misogyny, and racism towards Indigenous people inside and out of the entertainment industry will surely foster many interesting discussions. 

I personally am so honored to be working on a play that feels so necessary today, tomorrow, and in the long, foreseeable future. What better way to make people approach a sensitive topic with an open mind than satire? Comedy pulls our walls down and makes us get comfortable in our seats. FastHorse’s brilliant writing uses humor to engage us and make us receptive to her social critique. 

If the audience views this play as I understand it, it should feel both the joy of laughter and the discomfort of an honest look at Native American representation in theatre and mainstream media. It should grab you and make you confront your own racial biases, as well as entertain you with an hour’s worth of genuinely hilarious comedy. It’s a strange mix of emotions, sure. But it’s also an effective one. 

Comedy comes naturally to me. Things like comedic timing and bringing a joke to life almost feel like a part of my DNA at this point. My favorite part of comedic performance has always been the energy a good joke derives from an audience. 

Grant Mackenzie rehearses, play puppet in hand

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all performances of The Thanksgiving Play will be live-streamed with an empty house. It feels daunting, but also obviously necessary. At first, rehearsals felt totally stunted by the fact that we couldn’t touch or get within six feet of each other. 

The cast is made up of two freshmen (Casper and McKenzie) as well as my fellow Smokefall alumnus (Chamness). I thought it was going to be impossible to create authentic chemistry, since getting to know one another inside of rehearsal and out is so difficult. It wasn’t until four or five weeks into rehearsal that we even realized we’d never seen each other’s entire face. 

However, the rehearsal process has been one of the most fun and rewarding processes I’ve ever experienced. Each one has felt like more fun than work. I find myself totally engaged and ever searching for different ways to make my character, Alicia, come to life. 

So, add The Thanksgiving Play to your list of upcoming events. There are eight shows overall: Oct. 30, Nov. 5 and 6 at 7 p.m. and Oct 31, Nov. 1 and 7 at both 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Have a (COVID-safe) watch party! Or, watch it alone as a break from your busy week. This is how you should rake in the holiday season.

Heather Cornell’s Dance Story Now Housed at NYC Public Library, Continues at Hope College

Heather Cornell is literally and metaphorically a mover and a shaker in the world of dance. She has been an ensemble founder and a sought-after solo artist. She is a choreographer, director and producer. She has learned from and performed with giants of the tap dance genre.

Heather Cornell, assistant professor of dance instruction

In a career that has spanned four decades, Cornell has left an indelible mark on dance stages all over the world. And now, because of it, she has landed in two educational places:

In the New York City Library Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and at Hope College.

New to the Hope dance faculty this year as an assistant professor of dance instruction, Cornell is a world-renowned tap dancer and educator. (Go ahead, Google her and marvel at the volume of videos in which she’s teaching or performing.)

First arriving in New York in the early 1980s as a modern dancer from Ontario, Canada, Cornell gravitated to tap dance quite quickly.  She worked with tap greats like Buster Brown, Cookie Cook, Chuck Green, Eddie Brown and Steve Condos and was mentored by the jazz great, Ray Brown.  She eventually co-founded Manhattan Tap, a leading American tap ensemble which would go on to garner international acclaim. For close to 20 years, Cornell served as the group’s choreographer, director, and, of course, dancer, before striking out on her own for a successful solo career for another 20 years.

When the NYC Public Library for the Performing Arts sent out a survey in 2017 to ask those in the dance world, “Who has made a big impact in the international world of tap?”, it was Cornell whose name got mentioned most. Nine other living tap dancers joined her on a list that the library would use to expand its digital oral history offerings on tap dance. In a dance field that is large but underrepresented in library settings, it was Cornell who rose to the top of the list for whom to talk to first.

“This is a huge honor for Heather, as it was the Library who approached her for this recording,” said Matt Farmer, associate professor and chairperson of the dance department.

For the oral history series curated by dance oral history archivist Cassie Mey, Cornell sat down with mentee Anthony Morigerato, an acclaimed artist in his own right, as her interviewer. For 30 hours, they conducted preliminary interviews, run-ups to the final recordings when the two sat down for their final eight hours in the Lincoln Center Library recording studio in 2018. 

“Because tap (history) has such an oral history — it’s encapsulated in very few books that are not that comprehensive — this was a really important project,” Cornell says of the oral history series. “There was a small group of us who were considered the women of the Tap Dance Renaissance. That’s because we had companies in the 1980s and 1990s and sort of helped to revive the art form on the concert stage.”

She talks about all that history, and more, in the nine tracks available now through the NYC Public Library catalog.

“Honestly, I love this age, or this moment in a young artist’s life when they are wanting to open up who they are as human beings. It’s just something special to be around.”

Cornell calls herself a physical percussionist — someone whose rhythmic, precise foot movement adds to or creates the musicality of a piece — and she dances using different textures of sound, like wood, leather and sand. And always, she dances only to live music, never music that is “canned.”

“That was a commitment (dancing to live music) that I made to myself early on,” she says. “And what I love about Hope is that that’s not a liability for me here, whereas at other institutions it’s been difficult because there hasn’t been such an integration and an openness between the disciplines.”

“For me, that’s my dream: to be at an institution where there are no boundaries between the departments,” she continues. “Everything that I do in my life and in my career has been collaborative. That’s the most important element of what I do. From my experience here at Hope, just in the first six weeks, I feel like that’s one of the things that’s really nurtured here. And it’s great.”

Now that she has traded frequent-flyer-mile accumulation to teach and create in Holland, Michigan, Cornell feels she has found a fine artistic home away from New York City. At Hope, she plans to give back to young artists as her tap mentors once gave fully to her.

“The fact that Hope considers tap dancing as a very serious art form is huge for me,” she says. “The fact that there’s an openness in this environment that I haven’t experienced in other post-secondary environments is huge for me. And the fact that there’s a willingness here to allow for people to nurture who they are and get bigger in the process is also huge. Honestly, I love this age, or this moment in a young artist’s life when they are wanting to open up who they are as human beings. It’s just something special to be around.”

Personal Reflections on Twelfth Night in a Pandemic

Covid-19 has put a full stop to the arts industry. Actors, musicians, technicians, arts administrators, and so many other people are in a state of limbo. Hope College is among the lucky few places that have implemented safety protocols that allow student and faculty artists to come together in these trying times to put on something magical. One of these spectacles will be the Theatre Department’s outdoor and socially-distant production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Sebastian (Lili Fraser-Shade), left, and Viola (Emi Herman), right

I think it is a common misconception that theatre just happens. One day a group of actors show up to a performance and magically know all their lines and movements. A silver lining to the new Covid-19 restrictions is that we can showcase our work from start to finish to the Hope College community. This means students and faculty passing the entrance of the DeWitt Center have witnessed every stumble and every triumph in the rehearsal process. Yet another silver lining is that this play will be live-streamed! Not only can people watch it safely from their homes, but we can reach an even greater audience than ever before. 

As an actor in this production, it has been a wonderful rollercoaster to get to this point. I started my journey to become Viola last semester under the direction of Johamy Morales and was over the moon about being able to continue into this semester. I was skeptical at first about acting with the restrictions of being outdoors and with masks on, but I soon remembered that both of those are traditions of theatre. I also realized that connection can still happen at a six-foot radius, and being closer to a scene partner now makes me feel like I must kiss or fight the person. What may have seemed like disadvantages have also turned into helpful tools because we had our set on day one and the audience not being able to see our facial expressions makes us actors use our physicality in ways we never have before. 

From left to right: Clown (Madison Meeron), Antonio (Abby Doonan), Olivia (Sofia Muñoz), Malvolio (Riley Wilson), and Orsino (Mackenzie Hester)

However, working outside the DeWitt entrance is definitely more nerve-wracking than any other rehearsal process I’ve been a part of. I feel like I must be performing through every rehearsal as if it were the final product. My peers can see me crash and burn from 5 to 8 pm four days a week with a special matinee on the weekends. Of course, these higher stakes in real life only add to the process because Shakespeare only wrote his characters in high-stakes situations. The public rehearsals have also forced me to trust my choices as an actor more than ever. I want to turn the heads of the people walking to their dorms. If they don’t, am I doing my job? Will I be able to keep our future audience engaged? 

I am so thankful that we are able to continue Twelfth Night in person and that Hope College has been safe during this unprecedented situation. Working on a Shakespeare play is a beast, and I am so fortunate to get the opportunity to play Viola and tackle this beautiful play in a way that very few people get to experience. 

For more information about viewing Twelfth Night in person or online, click here.

Photo credits: Leslie Olivarez

In the top featured photo: From left to right: Sir Andrew (Lisbeth Franzon), Antonio (Abby Doonan), Fabian (Emily Mann), First Officer (Jack Slevin), Viola (Emi Herman)

The Inauguration of the Many Voices Project

The Many Voices Project is a play-reading series that Assistant Professor of Theatre Richard Perez and the Hope College Theatre Department have launched in cooperation with the Center for Diversity and Inclusion.  Over the course of this academic year, four plays representing culturally diverse characters and concerns will be presented as concert readings:  Fade by Tanya Saracho on September 25, Detroit ’67 by Dominique Morisseau on October 16, Smart People by Lydia R. Diamond on March 5, 2021, and Exit Strategy by Ike Holler on April 9, 2021.

Professor Perez answered a number of questions about the project through an email exchange with Dr. Daina Robins, Director of Theatre. 

Dr. Daina Robins, left; Professor Richard Perez, right

What is the Many Voices Project?

It is a concert play-reading series inspired by a need – a need to expand the repertoire of stories told on our American stages. While Hope College’s Theatre Department has always strived to be an inclusive body, we feel the time has come to be even more intentional in our efforts to support underrepresented voices. Those voices include but are not limited to — African American, Latinx, American Indian, Asian American, persons with disabilities, women, and the LGBTQ communities. If we are to become the just and equitable society that so many of us long for, then we feel we must create space for every voice to be heard and honored. 

What led you to initiate this project?

My colleagues have long known of my professional associations with theatres of color and organizations committed to advocacy for underrepresented artists. While having a conversation last semester with Theatre Department Chair Michelle Bombe, she mentioned that I might consider starting a reading series highlighting more diverse playwrights here on campus. Coincidentally, I had already been working with a local theatre company committed to this kind of work, so it seemed like a natural progression to bring more of that work to Hope.

What do you hope to accomplish with it?

  1. Broaden the appeal of the Theatre Department to students who don’t presently feel represented by our season selections. 
  2. Attract more students of color and underrepresented populations on campus to audition for productions at Hope. 
  3. Introduce our community to more diverse stories and world views.

What will be the biggest challenges you anticipate in producing these play readings?

I think initially casting may be a challenge. Traditionally, getting actors of color to audition for Theatre Department productions has been tough. But then again, I have heard from those very students that they are not interested in plays that don’t really represent their experiences. So, it will be important for us to look outside the traditional ways of casting.

The hope is that as we establish a reputation for being more inclusive, the interest in the department will increase. But the onus has to be on us to make sure that we are not only offering this reading series but begin programming fully staged productions with more diverse roles. 

Like any new theatrical venture, I also think finding our audience will take time. Being that these readings will initially be online, adds to the challenge. But I’m confident that once word spreads about the nature of the work and the diversity of the material, our audience will grow exponentially. 

What do you most look forward to regarding these readings?

I’m looking forward to introducing our audience to a new generation of extraordinary playwrights. Their creative voices are as diverse as their cultural backgrounds and the themes they are writing about couldn’t be more relevant. 

I am also excited about making theatre more accessible to a wider audience. I think some people feel theatre is elitist. I want to dismantle that assumption and make this art form accessible to everyone.

The plays you have chosen at times contain quite explicit language, language that we use carefully, sparingly when we produce full theatre productions in the department.  Why is this language necessary, crucial, vital to these plays?

We deliberately chose stories representing a wide range of characters from different socio-economic backgrounds. While some of these characters may at times use explicit language, it is authentic to that community’s experience. If we were to portray only the segments of society that speak in an eloquent and agreeable vernacular, it would undermine the very mission of the Many Voices Project, which is to expand the stories we see on American stages.

“I am also excited about making theatre more accessible to a wider audience. I think some people feel theatre is elitist. I want to dismantle that assumption and make this art form accessible to everyone.”

Who will the readers be — and how might someone interested in participating as a reader join the project?

The readers will be our students, faculty, and actors who are appropriate for the roles. I am absolutely committed to making sure that the characters of every role are filled with an appropriate body.

If someone on campus wants to get involved with the project, I encourage them to contact me at perez@hope.edu. No experience necessary.

How will audiences view these readings?  In person — or via Zoom?  How will they find out how to “attend” the readings?  Will you charge admission or require pre-registration for audience members? 

Because of Covid-19 the initial reading will be online via Zoom.  The readings will be free of charge but pre-registration will be necessary.  A QR link for registration will be included on posters and social media.  Below is the registration link for Fade, the first play-reading in the series. . 

Will you hold post-reading discussions with the audience after these readings?  If so, how will these be structured? 

I will moderate the post-performance discussions. After each reading, we will open up questions to our audience who can post their inquiries in the chat function of the platform. Depending on the number of audience members, we may be able at times to use the “raise your hand” feature on the platform and begin conversations that way as well. Ultimately, I look forward to lively conversations and audience reactions to these compelling plays.

Don’t miss the first reading — Fade by Tanya Saracho, Friday, September 25, 2020, 7 p.m.

The script publisher describes the play’s action:  “When Lucia, a Mexican-born novelist, gets her first TV writing job, she feels a bit out of place on the white male-dominated set.  Lucia quickly becomes friends with the only other Latino around, a janitor named Abel.  As Abel shares his stories with Lucia, similar plots begin to find their way into the TV scripts that Lucia writes.”

Register for the link to Fade

#BLM at the KAM

A new exhibit in the Kruizenga Art Museum, Black Lives Matter, Black Culture Matters, features fifty works of art that address a variety of topics in African American history and culture from the end of the Civil War to the present. The exhibition attempts to provide some historical context for the current Black Lives Matter protests against systemic racism in criminal justice, education, jobs, health care and housing. It is additionally a celebration of Black culture and the many ways that Black culture has enriched American life over the past two centuries. The exhibition does not pretend to be comprehensive, but is offered in the hope that it will lead to contemplation, conversation and ultimately change.

Here are just a few highlights from the exhibition.

Emancipation. Thomas Nast (American, 1840-1902), 1863. Electrotype engraving. Purchased with funds donated by Roberta VanGilder ’53 Kaye, 2020.52.1

This print was published in Harper’s Weekly magazine on January 24, 1863, just three weeks after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, outlawing slavery in the ten states of the Confederacy. The left side of the print features three scenes depicting some of the horrors of slavery, including images of slave catchers, a slave auction, and enslaved people being whipped and branded. The right side of the print features scenes depicting the happier conditions that the artist imagines will prevail after slavery is abolished, including images of a free Black farmstead, a free Black mother sending her children to school, and free Black men and women receiving fair wages for their work. The central image in the print portrays the ultimate goal of emancipation: an intact, multi-generational, prosperous Black family enjoying life together in a comfortably furnished home. This image is one of the first in American art to portray African Americans in a positive light without resorting to stereotypes of them as either a brutish or a brutalized people.

Country Road, Missouri. Henry Bannarn (American, 1910-1965), 1941. Watercolor and graphite on paper. Purchased with funds donated by Judith Kingma ‘56 Hazelton, 2019.81.1

Between 1915 and 1970, more than six million African Americans left the rural South and moved to industrial cities in the Northeast, Midwest and West in search of better lives. Known as the Great Migration, this mass exodus created new economic, political and social opportunities for many Black people, but also led to increases in racial tensions and violence as White Americans struggled to adapt to the realities of a more geographically dispersed Black population. African American artist Henry Bannarn experienced the effects of the Great  Migration as a child when his family moved from Oklahoma to Minnesota. He grew up in Minneapolis and studied at the Minneapolis School of Arts before moving to New York City in the 1930s, where he was hired to teach at the Harlem Art Workshop. Known primarily as a sculptor and painter, Bannarn was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance art world. This painting of a modest house along a country road in Missouri reflects the nostalgia felt by many African Americans for the simpler, rustic life they left behind as a result of the Great Migration.

Missippi. Milton Derr (American, born 1932), 1965. Ink and wash on paper. Hope College Collection, 2018.20.2

Along with desegregation and criminal justice reform, the restoration of voting rights to African Americans was a central goal of the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 60s. This dark, emotive drawing portrays the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three Civil Rights workers who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi while campaigning to register African American voters during the so-called Freedom Summer of 1964. The bodies of the three activists were buried in an earthen dam and remained hidden for two months before their remains were finally discovered. Public outrage over the murders fueled support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When Mississippi state officials refused to prosecute the killers, they were tried in federal court for Civil Rights violations and seven defendants were found guilty. However, because the federal Civil Rights charges carried lighter sentences than state murder charges, none of the convicted killers served more than six years for their crime. The title of the drawing is deliberately misspelled to approximate the vernacular pronunciation of Mississippi in that state.

John Brown Praying. Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917-2000), 1977. Screen print. Purchased with funds donated by Ronald ’62 and Gerri Vander Molen, 2020.63

In 1941, artist Jacob Lawrence created a series of 22 gouache paintings illustrating the exploits of abolitionist John Brown, who in 1859 tried unsuccessfully to start an insurrection that he hoped would bring an end to the institution of slavery in the United States. Unfortunately, the paints Lawrence used for this series were highly unstable and the condition of the works quickly deteriorated. By 1977, the paintings were too fragile to be publicly displayed, so the Detroit Institute of Arts, which owns the paintings, commissioned Lawrence to recreate the images as silkscreen prints. This print is number 21 from the 1977 Legend of John Brown series. It depicts Brown sitting with his head hung down and holding a cross as he awaits execution for the crimes of treason and murder. Although we cannot see Brown’s face, the dynamic forms and bold colors convey his passionate character, while the image of the cross reminds us that Brown was a martyr whose commitment to racial justice was rooted in his strong Christian faith.

Gossip. Elizabeth Catlett (American, 1915-2012), 2005. Photolithograph and giclée. Gift of Arthur and Kristine Rossof, 2016.64.19

After earning an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1940 and struggling for several years to establish herself as a professional artist, Elizabeth Catlett moved to Mexico in 1946 and joined a left-wing artists’ collective called the People’s Graphic Workshop (Taller de Gráfica Popular). Catlett’s participation in that workshop attracted scrutiny from the United States government, which considered the workshop to be a communist organization. When Catlett attempted to return to the United States in 1961 to visit her dying mother, the government refused to let her enter the country and declared her to be an “undesirable alien.” In protest, Catlett renounced her American citizenship in 1962 and became a Mexican citizen. Although Catlett no longer lived in the United States, she remained closely connected to the Civil Rights movement and created numerous artworks that were inspired by African American history and culture. This image of two women talking was created near the end of Catlett’s career and reminds us about the importance of friendship and the crucial role that women in particular play in African American family and community life.    

Black Lives Matter, Black Culture Matters is on display at the Kruizenga Art Museum through November 21, 2020. It is currently open only to visitors with a Hope College ID, Tuesdays-Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Beginning on Thursday, September 17, though, it is open to visitors without a Hope ID on Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A Theatre Student’s Last Day of Class

Friday, April 24, 2020, the last day of classes for students here at Hope College. The “here” for most of these students is more varied these days — a handful remain in Holland, Michigan, while the rest of the 3,057 enrolled find themselves back home scattered throughout the country. Some, like myself, are fortunate enough to wake up in the same time zone their virtual classes were now held. Others were getting up one or two hours earlier to be on time. Many international students were staying up until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. — if not later. 

Living in extraordinary times like these, it can be easy slip into anxiety and despair, and motivation can be hard to find, but theatre allows us to see the familiar in the alien and the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Zachary Pickle

On Friday, my alarm woke me up at 8:00am. I promptly shut it off and lay in bed until 8:30, catching up on the news for the day. Mostly I just scroll, letting the words, ads and images fly past my half-open eyes. This has become my daily ritual. Once I feel caught up on the happenings of the previous day — it seems protestors have begun picketing the Michigan capitol, demanding her to ease up restrictions on the stay-at-home order — I get out of bed to dress for my 9:00 a.m. class. 

Though going to class now means dealing with bad connections on my end, poor audio on the other end, and stilted conversation all around, I am grateful to still have classes to attend. 

I wake my brother, who is sleeping soundly across the chilly room. This has been an interesting transition for him as well, since he has graciously agreed to stay out of the room when I have classes and meetings. After grabbing a cup of coffee, briefly greeting my siblings, pets and mother, I head back to my room, open my computer and click the link to my last first class of the day. The class goes well even though the guest speaker my professors have invited has a bad wifi connection so his speech keeps breaking up. The story he tells is interesting, and the professors do their best to accommodate — an overall fulfilling end to a fulfilling class. Though going to class now means dealing with bad connections on my end, poor audio on the other end, and stilted conversation all around, I am grateful to still have classes to attend. 

Routine has been grounding, and while the smiling faces of my mentors and peers are pixelated, it is uplifting to see them every day. My next class is bittersweet — it is the last class that Jean Bahle will teach at Hope College, as she is retiring after 26 years of pouring into students. Like every other professor navigating this extraordinary time, she is adapting to new teaching strategies and learning new technologies. Rather than shy away from this challenge, she is open and intentional, actively searching for ways to make the class accessible and engaging — and asking for help when she needs it. She, like the rest of my theatre professors, has also made sure to check in with students, leaving room in her 50 minute time slot for us to express small frustrations and relish small triumphs. This is something that I think observing and creating theatre allows us to do — practice perspective. 

Rather than shy away from this challenge, Prof. Bahle is open and intentional, actively searching for ways to make the class accessible and engaging — and asking for help when she needs it.

Living in extraordinary times like these, it can be easy slip into anxiety and despair, and motivation can be hard to find, but theatre allows us to see the familiar in the alien and the extraordinary in the ordinary. Opportunities made outside of class have done much to energize my spirit. Michelle Bombe and the theatre department has set up a series of virtual play readings for students who were desperate to reconnect, recognizing now more than ever the value of each other’s company. 

On our last day of classes, the stay-at-home order was extended another two weeks in Michigan. While the future is uncertain, our roles as artists remain the same. We continue to practice and present perspective to others, as we have always done.