Navigating the Hill’s theater scene

Sadie-Favour no ghost theater

St. Olaf’s various theater organizations are just way in which the Hill is a hub for creativity and expression. As of this fall, there are around five different student theater organizations: Red Brick Theater, EMPTY Theater, Deep End, POC Ole Theater, and The Muse Project. Though, for those who aren’t familiar with the on campus theater scene, it might seem a bit excessive to have this many theater groups. However, there is a reason – each group was created to meet the different needs of students. 

Started around 2014, Red Brick Theater was, according to Jacob Thompson ‘24, a “company of friends who started their own thing.” Red Brick Theater produces their own comedic material such as “The Thirteenth Line”, a show about a group of boy scouts who were tricked into thinking that they were the last hope for humanity. Red Brick Theater is an “equal voice, equal say” group where everyone gets to contribute their thoughts and ideas, and it helps that members stay for their entire time at St. Olaf.. Therefore, Red Brick Theater is the place for students with a knack for comedy or looking to create something original. 

Not only is Thompson a member of Red Brick Theater, he also co-founded the new musical theater group, EMPTY Theater, earlier this year. “I kind of thought we’d probably have better success in producing musical theater if there was a group dedicated specifically to it,” said Thompson. EMPTY Theater’s goal is to create a place for students to learn about musical theater, build their skills, and provide them with a place to perform. Musical theater education hasn’t been seripsuly offered through the Theater Department  until the beginning of this school year with a Musical Theater concentration. EMPTY Theater hopes to bring more musical theater performance opportunities to those who are interested by putting on a musical once a year. This Spring, EMPTY Theater debuts with “Firebringer” – a comedic show about a group in the prehistoric era who studies the invention of fire. 

Another less formal theater group is Deep End. Started less than ten years ago, it is now the largest student theater organization on campus. With occasional meetings and a mixture of theater and non-theater majors, Deep End is a low commitment organization. Focused more on learning about theater via audition and dialogue prep or various theater activities, the theater group mainly produces one show a year — Fresh Faces. It’s an annual, first-year-only musical theater cabaret. “Deep End is unique because it offers opportunities for student actors/directors/theater creators that you do not see on many college campuses,” said Will McIntyre ’23, president of Deep End. “We provide so many opportunities, and it is so rewarding to see the art students on this campus create every year.” 

In a similar vein of theater organizations to those previously mentioned is POC Ole Theater. Former theater professor Dr. Michelle Gibbs created POC Ole Theater to be a safe space for BIPOC students interested in theater. “[It was] born as an initiative to provide POC a space to practice and learn theater as well as create community,” said Paulina Morera Quesada ’24, co-president of the theater group, “this is a home where everybody is accepted, every culture is accepted.” Similar to Deep End, POC Ole Theater provides opportunities via activities and rehearsals to learn more about theater. They have produced original works such as “Under the Baobab Tree” by Mary Maker ’23 and “Amazing” by Eugene Denzel. With the help of Dr. Elaigwu Peter Ameh, Assistant Professor of Theater, opportunities for POC Ole Theater have been expanding into the Northfield community. For instance, members went to the Northfield Arts Guild to participate in workshops. 

Lastly, the Muse Project is a theater group striving for queer representation. Through queer productions with a feminist slant, they give queer artists a platform. The group values flexibility, representation, and prosperity. “Muse has a model that helps students thrive,” said Brigit van Gemeren ’23, president of The Muse Project. “We reject clout. We reject “perfection”. We give our collaborators the help they ask for and the space to be independent.” The group, started in a stage direction class by English department students, mainly produces works inspired by or based on classics such as “The Fall of Daedalus” by Soren Chihart ’25 and “No Exit” by Alissa Bidwell ’22. 

Despite having these various theater organizations on campus, there has been little involvement from the Theater Department in cultivating these groups. Many leaders of the student theater groups mentioned the lack of funding for their productions. “We as students don’t have all of that to work with because of budget – you can see theater productions being performed in classrooms,” says Thompson. “The Department has the full capability to produce theater as we know it, but we as student theater have to work within our limits.” When asked about any collaboration between EMPTY Theater and the Theater Department in producing “Firebringer,” Jacob Thompson ’24 had his doubts. “….student organizations have never been given an opportunity to work with the department — I can’t imagine an overlap,” Thompson said. 

When asked in an interview about whether the theater department will support the student theater organizations, Dr. William Sonnega, head of the department, says that it is an ongoing conversation that started in the fall with a meeting of all student theater organization leaders and faculty members. “It begins a process of thinking creatively about how the St. Olaf Theater Department can support the different student theater organizations,” says Sonnega. According to Sonnega, there are many ideas being thrown around to figure out how to best support student theater. While collaboration between the department and student organizations are in the works, Sonnega has confidence in the student run theater groups. 

Beyond curating a relationship with the student theater groups, the theater department is working on being more conscious of inclusivity when it comes to piecing together the theater season. “The one thing that this department has held above all other values is that all our productions, all our classes are open to everyone,” Sonnega said.

The theater department strives to create equal opportunities for all students regardless of experience, seniority, gender, and race. However, the department face difficulties in creating opportunities for BIPOC students at a predominantly white institution. The difficulty isn’t in finding performers to tell the story, but finding someone to direct the show for better and accurate representation. “As a white male director, I don’t feel like I’m the best writer or director to produce it,” said Sonnega.

Moving forward, the theater department hopes to use the season as a way to expand representation as well as telling important, compelling stories. As Sonnega said, “the question is: what does the community need to see right now or should see or be provoked by or be entertained by?”

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