Buena Vista University Theatre Tackles “Tempest” and “Woman Wonder”


Sarah Nicholson, Staff Writer

Buena Vista University (BVU) Theatre is getting a facelift in a big way. In the past, the theatre department has focused mainly on course work and practical application for those going on to graduate school, or who may have the opportunity to direct in the future.

“It was a very traditional approach to delivering theatre content and coursework,” explained Professor of Theatre Bethany Larson.

Productions, though varied by genre, were based on prewritten works by outside sources. This model was working, but Larson and Assistant Professor of Theatre David Walker noticed that their students’ interests were expanding, and that it might be time for a change.

“Our students who do theatre are almost always involved in at least one or two other arts-related programs. So, there was no real solid reason to keep it [the theatre program] kind of its own silo-ed thing,” Walker said.

Larson and Walker spent last year redesigning the Theatre major to include courses and experiences that speak to these overlaps. They even renamed the program. It is now called Theatre and Media Performance.

This drive for new and cohesive learning in the theatre department has been partnered with the idea of doing more shows. In previous years, the program has put on three shows each academic year: fall, January and sprig. Over the summer, a student on campus approached Larson about the possibility of there being an outdoor Shakespeare performance of some kind.

“Anyone who’s ever been to one of those in a big city knows its kind of like a picnic. It’s fun, its informal, and you don’t have to pay anything to do one of Shakespeare’s plays, so you don’t have to worry about royalties. We were like, ‘Oh! That’s kind of an interesting idea. Well, lets explore that idea’,” Larson said.

She explained that it was then a matter of finding a time to do this. Iowa weather played a large part in deciding that it had to take place in the early fall. There was already a plan in place to perform another work in the fall, but in the spirit of really diving into this new model, they decided to add the extra show to the fall semester.

After some consideration, they settled on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, to be performed outside on BVU Family Weekend, October 13 and 14 at 7 PM. 

Another feature of the new program is that students will get the opportunity to contribute to the program by developing new and original works. Larson commented on the reality of rights to shows and how expensive it can be to obtain the rights to a show they may want to perform.

“The key word in the new program is collaboration. Collaboration and development of new work.  We can’t do three plays a year if the prices keep going up and up, and our budget stays pretty flat. That’s the reality of our situation, but what’s more important is our students are already cross-disciplinary.” she said.

In a way, Larson has modeled this type or work herself. She collaborated with some of her BVU faculty colleagues and spent the better part of the last two years working on an original work of their own. The group, known as the Wonder Woman Creative Collective, co-wrote Woman Wonder, which will be the second play this fall for BVU Theatre. 

Larson penned the play with Associate Professor of Digital Media Jamii Claiborne, Professor of Digital Media Andrea Frantz, Assistant Professor of Education Calle Friesen, Professor of English Annamaria Formichella-Elsden, Professor of Experimental Psychology Wind Goodfriend, and Assistant Professor of Graphic Design Miranda Pollock.

Larson says Woman Wonder is a dynamic play that looks at the lives of women and the circumstances that make them, or don’t make them “Wonder Women” and what that means in a world of balancing family and career ambitions. This is exciting for Larson on a personal level, having helped author the piece, but it’s also interesting professionally, because she gets to see how two productions in one semester can gel together to make an interesting audience and student experience.

“It works out pretty well to do Woman Wonder and The Tempest, because Woman Wonder is only women and Tempest is almost all men. We have great a balance and really good actors, male and female, so you don’t want to just leave one to languish,” said Larson. 

The response from current students in the program has been very enthusiastic, and Larson feels that the diversity in material, especially in terms of some of the challenging content in Woman Wonder, will really require the student actors to stretch their abilities and find connections. Larson has found that simply given the type of stories which deal with things like middle aged- libido, students have no reference to that and it has led to interesting conversations and approaches to rehearsals.

When asked if Larson would characterize Woman Wonder as a drama, she explained that in ways, it is.

“There’s a mix. There are very difficult experiences of women that are depicted or used as the core of a scene. I think the weight of those can sometimes lean the play more towards drama. Because those are pretty tough scenes, abuse, rape, those are hard scenes, but it has its share of humor too. It couldn’t be one thing,” said Larson.

Given the variety of content, Larson and the other writers have come to understand there might be an inclination for people who know the professors to try and figure out who wrote what but she feels that that really isn’t the point.

“Some people will try to guess who wrote what. It doesn’t matter. We all identify with it.”

She highlighted that the play is not autobiographical and is a work of fiction, though it may have been informed by circumstances the Woman Wonder Creative Collective were aware of.

Woman Wonder will be presented on November 16, 17, 18 in Anderson Auditorium, at 7:30p.m. Tickets are $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors, and free for BVU students.

“The seven of us want to know if the piece can work on the stage,” said Larson in terms of what they hope to get from presenting Woman Wonder this fall. She recognizes that the writing works in terms of literature, but the real test for the piece is the stage for which it was written.

Larson’s energy for the project and the new program is palpable, and while she is directing Woman Wonder and Walker is directing The Tempest separately, collaboration is the ultimate goal of this new endeavor.

“There is so much cross-collaboration and cross-fertilization across the fine arts on campus that the new curriculum is completely predicated on that,” Larson said. “There isn’t a boundary anymore between the arts. Everything is coming together. Not just one person in a little room writing a play, but the way a collective group of people come together and make something happen, that’s where the new work is being done.”