The cast of Today Is History, from left: Kris Ratliff ’13, Kristen Ballard ’12, Bethany Finley ’15, Skyler Slone ’15, Tony Del Grosso ’14, Hillary Roser ’14, Olivia Luken ’16, Ginna Nilest ’16, Jacob Alexander ’16, Dorcas Washington ’16, Nick Spencer ’14, and Rachel Morgan ’15.
Student-led theater production compares coming-of-age issues faced by today’s 20-year-olds with those of their grandparents
by William A. Bowden
How do coming-of-age issues faced by today’s Transylvania students and their generation compare with those confronted by their grandparents in the 1950s? Are there common threads, unique challenges, or a mixture of both?
Exploring those questions was the theme of Today Is History, an innovative play that originated in theater professor Michael Dixon’s special topics winter term class by the same name. It was presented in three performances in April in the Lucille C. Little Theater.
The play was created and produced almost entirely by students. In addition to the five students in the class, 28 others from classes in directing, acting, lighting design, and playwriting were involved.
Today Is History consisted of 23 short monologues or scenes, each of which took on a certain aspect of coming-of-age issues, punctuated by three ensemble scenes. Topics fell into personal or societal categories that sometimes overlapped and included the tribulations of youthful romance, agonizing over the abortion question, gay and lesbian sexual orientation, the value of a college education, 1950s paranoia over the threat of nuclear war, anguish over 9/11, and many others.
To prepare for the play, students studied the work of Edgar Lee Masters in his Spoon River Anthology, a collection of short poems describing life in the fictional town of Spoon River, and playwright and actor Anna Deavere Smith’s style in her documentary theater pieces such as Fires in the Mirror that are based solely on interviews.
The play was presented in promenade theater style whereby the audience stands throughout the performance and moves around as a group to different areas of an essentially open and empty space. Minimal props consisted of stairs, a swing, table and chairs, doorways, and so on. A white maze on the black floor symbolized the search for a pathway to understanding.
The play’s subtitle—“Coming of Age: Our struggle to overcome challenges in the world and ourselves and in that process we become who we are”—captures the mood and purpose of the production and was the measuring stick for the evenings’ performances.
To arrive at insights into their own coming-of-age issues and prepare for their scenes, the students were required to learn about their grandparents’ era.
“We started with the idea of two periods we would look at—20-year-olds today and grandparents when they were 20, basically the early 1950s,” Dixon said. “Part of the assignment for the students was to talk with their grandparents and get them to share the challenges when they were 20.”
An example of this is seen in “School These Days,” written by senior Kris Ratliff.
“My grandmother introduced me to a friend of hers who was in college in the 1950s and was treated very poorly,” Ratliff said. “She said she was picked on for being a woman and made to feel she didn’t belong there. Even though we are past that now, we still are not fully where we need to be in women’s rights.”
An effective comparison between past and present is seen in “Are We Ready for This?,” a scene involving an interracial couple from the 1950s and a gay couple from the present. Sophomore Skyler Slone portrayed one of the two gay high school boys from the present.
“These two couples form a very neat parallel,” Slone said. “The scene is not only about people growing up and taking risks, it also shows the difference in acceptance in the past and today. With the interracial couple, you can look at that and see how far we’ve come. With the gay couple, it shows what we’re dealing with today and that many people don’t accept that. In some ways, the gay rights issue is our generation’s equivalent of the civil rights movement of the past.”
Slone also believes that the geopolitical issues made manifest in the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon are an important part of his generation’s coming-of-age experience. This theme was featured in the monologue “9/11,” written by first-year student Olivia Luken.
“I feel like my generation was forced into the political spectrum earlier than some others because we experienced 9/11 at a young age,” Slone said. “As a result, we may be discussing world politics at the lunch table.”
For first-year student Dorcas Washington, gaining a certain amount of independence from parents is an important coming-of-age issue. She acted in “Living Today” by junior Tony Del Grosso, “Are We Ready for This?” by junior Hilary Roser, and the ensembles.
“You have to learn to take care of things for yourself in college,” Washington said, mentioning everyday things like medical needs and auto insurance. “It’s understanding what it means to be an adult and taking responsibility for yourself.”
Luken said she drew upon her own experiences for everything she wrote for the play, especially the difficult choices young people must make about their education and careers.
“There’s such a push now to decide your entire life in one fell swoop,” she said. “It comes from our parents and our peers. My parents have been super supportive of my decision to be a theater major, but some students have a hard time with declaring a certain major primarily because of the money involved in that career as opposed to wanting to major in something they really enjoy doing.”
Sophomore Rachel Morgan said her research into the 1950s and her family gave her an appreciation for the people and issues that are now more than half a century in the past.
“One of the best things about taking part in this play is that I got to hear from my grandparents all these stories I would never have heard otherwise, like how they met in college and courted one another,” she said. “It’s amazing how alike their experiences were to mine, even in their differences. I think people should realize that those stories are important and not just blow it off, like, ‘Grandma’s just telling another story.’ They faced a lot of what we do, just in a different fashion.”
The personal side of coming-of-age issues is what junior Hilary Roser found most compelling.
“There is a battle we all have within, asking ourselves if we’re good enough for this or that. Who am I, who am I becoming, who do I want to be?”
First-year student Jacob Alexander summed up the feeling of many students who took part in Today Is History: “I look at the show now that it’s over and say, ‘We did something, we came together and made this play, and now it’s over, but we put a message out there.’ That feeling of accomplishment is what determines how good the experience was for us. I think it wound up great.”
See junior Hunter Kissel's art installation for Today is History.
Watch a short video highlighting the production.
Read about a few of the scenes in Today is History.