Every year, juniors majoring in theater can propose to work on a semester-long capstone project during their senior year at the University. These faculty-advised projects, in areas such as acting, design, and directing, are meant to aggregate the theater education and the Wesleyan experience of a student. This week, Jessica Wolinsky ’17 is sharing her capstone project by acting in “The Self,” a devised collaborative piece directed by Emma Pasarow ’18. The Argus sat down with Wolinsky and Pasarow to discuss the process of working on “The Self,” from the auditions to the stage.
The Argus: What is “The Self”?
Jessica Wolinsky: “The Self” is about a lot of ideas and feelings. Essentially, it’s a way for people to see what lies behind the surface of a person’s character. But it’s also about supporting each other in terms of your identity, finding your identity, and embracing that identity. I think that it’s really about love, relationships, family, disorder, taboo, a lot of conversations that people typically keep under the surface, and how you use theater as a medium to bring up these things that we don’t normally talk about.
A: Are there multiple storylines within the piece or is it a single story?
JW: There are actually seven storylines that are each broken up into three parts. They’re not necessarily in a chronological order, which can be confusing, but we had a semester to work on that, so we figured that out! With every character you can track them with colors, projections, where they move on set, who they interact with, and who were the characters in their lives. You get a glimpse of everyone, but the whole thing that we kept focusing on is that it’s not about knowing exactly who you are, it is about the fact that we are in process, and have a community to work with in process of finding our identities.
A: Since this is a devised collaborative piece, which includes personal stories, how was the audition process and what were you looking for in those who you wanted to work with? JW: We definitely looked for people who were eager to share about themselves. Because once you’re sharing something about yourself, you have to process it, and we wanted people who we knew could bring things to rehearsal that they wanted to talk about and were passionate about. So it’s a weird casting process, because you get experienced actors that have a lot on their minds and you could tell that there’s a lot underneath the surface of someone giving an audition. But we also wanted performers, so we got people that could stand up on stage and command the attention of an audience. Essentially, during the callback, it came down to who worked together well and who we thought would really understand what it meant to tell someone else’s story. The key part in it is the energy, support, and the important nature of being a character in someone’s life. Having a person play someone in your life is a very intimate thing, so we watched out for that, and it really paid off.
A: How was it working with the designers, and how do you think the designs helped you in telling the stories on stage?
JW: We came up with this idea of each actor having a certain color that helps define who they are. That’s why the poster is so colorful and it’s a very bright production for something that has a lot of materials that could be dark. Maia [Nelles-Sager ’17, the lighting designer] really went along with it, too, in terms of getting the lights to help match the colors. Also, the projections are something that we focused on a lot, along with the set. Nola [Werlinich ’17, the set designer] had a very frontal view in mind, so the audience could be intimate at certain times with the actors, but also far away, so it could feel theatrical and intimate at the same time, which is something that we discussed with Nola from the beginning. Projections have been really helpful in bringing a level of multimedia to the production. One of our stories about [Suyang Yang ’19], who is an international student from Shanghai, is a FaceTime with her mom, and it is really striking and beautiful, the way that Russell [Goldman ’17, projection designer], Zack [Lobel ’19, assistant projection designer], and Su designed that. I think that’s just a new thing where theater is going, and if you have autobiographical theater, you rely so heavily on media that you have to have it in there. I think we are all on the same page in terms of the simple, but theatrical nature of the show, which is cool!
A: Since this is a capstone project, how do you think it can define your theater experience at Wesleyan?
JW: There are definitely elements in this piece that I both dreamed of doing in my freshman year and I got to do throughout my time here, which is to learn how to write, edit, act, and do a stand-up piece, something that I didn’t know I was capable of doing when I got here. I also feel like it’s the cumulative piece of my Wesleyan experience, because I love working with other actors. So for me, if I was going to have a capstone in acting, I was going to work with other actors. I also think that due to the collaborative nature of this process, my directing vision kind of made it in, too, because as a group we got to shape the piece how we wanted it to be. So it kind of encompassed my love for comedy, directing, and acting, all in one, and I still get to perform it. So that’s a dream! That’s something that I was not going to let not happen before I graduated from here! I feel very lucky that I got to use those skills I learned in the theater department. It really is the growth I’ve seen in myself over the past four years, and the growth I’ve seen the school and my friends go through.
A: So if you could describe “The Self” in a few words, what would they be?
Emma Pasarow: I think if we could distill it to questions, maybe I could distill it to a few: What makes us who we are? But I think in light of everything going on in the world, and also in light of just what happens with devised theater when what you set out to do inevitably changes by the end, it is now something like: How do we talk about ourselves? How do we destigmatize our pasts? How do we learn how to listen, share, and create a dialogue? I think this play is so special to me, and to the cast, because we create this space for sharing, dialogue, and deconstructing. So what is this play about, it is about maybe creating a platform for voices that haven’t existed yet, in a lot of cases, at Wesleyan and in theater, in general.
JW: I would say that “The Self” is an extravaganza that hopefully will help you hold up a mirror to yourself in the world. There will be subject matter in “The Self” that might be triggering for some. You will be free to use the exit doors toward the rear of the house if you need to leave and take space at any time.
“The Self” runs from Thursday, Dec. 8 to Friday, Dec. 9 at the Patricelli ’92 Theater. Tickets can be purchased online or at the Box Office in the Usdan University Center.
This interview has been edited for length.