Being a student is hard enough at the end of the semester, but imagine directing a main-stage play at the same time. Last weekend, “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” and “Smoking Lessons” were performed at the Harmon Fine Arts Center. Both shows were fully produced by two different Drake University students.
Abigail Kaufman and Kelsey Hirth are both senior directing majors. As part of their senior capstone, they each took on the challenge of directing a full-length show as part of Drake’s main-stage season.
Last spring, each woman proposed three show options to the theater faculty who ultimately chose the shows based on what would work best with the other shows for the season. After the selection last May, the two began their journeys to find a concept for their shows.
Kaufman was the director of “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” written by the well-known playwright Neil Simon.
The show concerns a New York couple whose apartment gets robbed after the husband is fired from his job. Together, they strive to keep their spirits up, but there is little hope between the two, and comedy ensues.
“I knew I wanted to do a comedy because that is my favorite thing,” Kaufman said. “Theater should be a fun experience, not a sad one. I picked Simon because he is a technique of his own, and I wanted a bit of a challenge.”
Directing a show as a student can pose many challenges; however, Kaufman’s approach to directing her peers worked well for the cast. Although she is in class with many of her cast members, Kaufman believes that separating rehearsals from school is really important, especially when working with her peers.
Senior acting major Monica Lani plays the role of Edna in Kaufman’s play. She has worked with many directors in the past, but has loved working with Kaufman on this show.
“It’s always different working with a student director when you go from your day where you’re just friends, to rehearsal where they are the person in charge,” Lani said. “That shift is always a bit jarring, but Abigail made it very easy. She’s been able to joke with us, while maintaining that dynamic where she is still in control of the rehearsal.”
Directing her peers wasn’t Kaufman’s only challenge. In addition to directing this show, she is a full-time student taking 18 credit hours and she works at Starbucks and Famous Dave’s between 25 and 30 hours each week.
“It is kind of stressful not getting much sleep between rehearsal and work, but since I get free coffee during work, it’s not bad at all,” Kaufman said.
After graduation, Kaufman plans on moving to Minneapolis where she will audition for shows in the area.
The other show performed over the weekend was “Smoking Lessons,” di¬rected by Hirth. She has directed five shows in the past including three stu¬dent theater productions at Drake.
“Smoking Lessons” centers on three 15-year-old girls and an attractive older man the girls meet by chance. It is a play about relationships and misconceptions.
“I chose this show because I like the dynamics between the characters, especially the girls,” Hirth said. “They have been friends for so long, but they are at a point where they have to work through the friendship.”
The process has been rewarding for Hirth. She loved watching the actors grow over the rehearsal process.
The girls especially, have made so much progress, Hirth said.
Being a student director isn’t easy, however. Hirth faced many challenges while directing this show.
“Mostly it is just a different dynamic directing your peers, especially because I am in class with one of my actors,” Hirth said. “When you are directing your peers you have to earn the cast and crew’s respect which is different from the professors who already have it.”
Despite Hirth’s challenges with the show, her actors felt as though she did a good job as a student director.
“It is really different, but getting to know Kelsey as my director has been really great,” said Becca Rabideaux, a first-year biochemistry, cell and molec¬ular biology major and musical theater minor who plays the role of Mary Kate in the show. “Respecting her is easy. She is authoritative and fun at the same time.”
Having a show worked on entirely by students created a more collaborative environment for the cast and crew.
“Theater is a collaborative art and this show has given us the opportunity to work with students, directors and de¬signers that are all our own peers,” said Abraham Swee, a senior musical theater and broadcast news double-major.
The two shows, which closed on Sunday, were done in rotation on the same stage. Sharing the performance space, while challenging, gave the performers and directors a different kind of experience that will help them in the professional world.
“I think it’s a good learning experience because in the real world, we are always competing for a space and time,” Swee said. “It forces us to be very efficient, but most of all it gives us more opportunities. While it adds chal¬lenges, it opens doors.”
Photo: Connor McCourtney