Arianne Jacques pondered the graphs projected on the screen and listened intently to Professor Ken Krane’s explanations – Newton’s First Law of Physics, Chaos Theory. She filled her notebook with scribbles about thermodynamics, algorithms, fractals and cosines.
But at “iterative process,” the 21-year-old junior exclaimed, “I don’t get it!” and tossed down her pen. She giggled as she looked around at Daniel Mueller and other friends in the lecture hall near Withycombe Theatre’s backstage. Their return glances displayed concentration, confidence or consternation.
It wasn’t that Jacques and the others needed to master facts for an exam. Their only test would be whether they understood enough to act as if they thoroughly comprehended the math and physics concepts.
Fortunately, acting is what Jacques does “get.” She and her friends had landed roles in the University Theatre‘s winter production of Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. This was their first week of preparation. A veteran of the stage, Jacques is adept at drawing upon personal experiences; in her audition for teenage Thomasina, she used facial expressions, body language and voice to be playful, witty and flirtatious.
But, facing a complex role, Jacques said with a smile, “Thomasina is a genius, and I am not! I’m good at memorization, but I need to grasp how I’m going to say things before I get the words down. If I don’t know what I’m meaning, there’s no point; it’ll sound flat.”
That’s why director Elizabeth Helman had arranged for this special lecture with emeritus physics professor Krane. And why, as Jacques grabbed her pencil again and persevered, later studying her notes and Googling physics Web sites, she gained confidence in the science.
Working intensely for weeks leading up to opening night, Jacques became Thomasina the precocious protégée, convincingly rattling off insightful lines to her tutor, Mueller’s character Septimus, such as, “If there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose? Do we believe nature is written in numbers?”
Science and Art
Set in an English country house during two time periods, the early 19th and late 20th centuries, Arcadia offers nuanced and challenging roles for students, says Helman. Characters explore the nature of truth, contrasting science with art and poetry, and investigate a mystery about the English poet Lord Byron.
“Stoppard reveals the science in the art and the art in the math,” adds Helman, a visiting instructor in OSU’s Theatre Arts Program. The play addresses history, landscape design, English literature, botany, gender bias, even sexual mores. With characters separated by centuries, yet juxtaposed at one table, the plot is intricate. It’s a romance and a tragedy, a farce sprinkled with hilarious lines.
“Arcadia is about the search for knowledge, the human condition. Big ideas about everything, brilliantly. It’s perfect for the university,” Helman says.
It was also perfect for an interdisciplinary cast. Mueller studies anthropology, and among the other leads, Matt Holland is an English major. Kimberly Holling is in both theater and apparel design and helped sew the costumes.
Mueller appreciated the play’s relevance to his academic program. “I study gender inequality, and this play deals with that, in the 1800s and in modern times. And cultural issues like class,” he says. “Being inside a character is a different way of examining anthropology and philosophy (his minor). I gain perspective from experiencing my role and the reactions of other characters to mine – also from how other actors react to the script.”
As a business major, junior Heather Hewlett has worked in some capacity on every theater production since coming to OSU. For Arcadia, she was assistant stage manager. “Theater helps with professionalism, like honoring your commitments. I’ve called actors when they were late to rehearsals and made sure everyone walked on stage at the right time and had their props. I’ve made sure lines were right. House managing, I’ve interacted out front too, greeting audience, taking tickets, handing out programs. Customer service helps me overcome my shyness.”
Doubling as Arcadia‘s choreographer and dance instructor nurtured Hewlett’s career plan to open a dance studio. Teaching students to waltz on stage, she found, could be complicated: The actor Mueller had never waltzed, yet his character must dance smoothly enough to teach and lead Thomasina.
Holling, in contrast, enjoys advanced ballroom dancing, yet her character must waltz poorly and reluctantly. She told Hewlett, “It’s OK. I can act like a bad dancer!”
Romance on Stage
Once Jacques learned how to act like a math whiz, she had to master the portrayal of romantic passion. Through working together on previous productions, she and Mueller had a comfortable friendship. Yet as their Arcadia characters matured beyond flirting, Act 2 brought them to not only the waltz, but also to their first stage kiss. After much joking (and teeth brushing), they made their initial, tentative attempts.
“You’re kissing like he’s your brother!” Helman called out. “It’s cold and uncooked, like sushi! We need hot and spicy. Think Thai food!” Day after day, with the rest of the cast and crew wise-cracking and cheering, Helman coached the couple on arm placement, eye contact, breath, angle and timing.
Helman notes that kissing scenes must be treated like any other choreography in the show, “or else it gets weird for actors. A production is a series of moments and each moment needs to be worked and given attention to get the timing and the mood right,” she says.
As dedicated students of the theater, Jacques and Mueller worked so diligently that by the final curtain, the star-crossed lovers and the whole production company had swept the audience off their feet to passionate applause.
For news about OSU’s Theatre Arts Program:
OSU Professor Awarded Kennedy Center Gold Medallion, March 3, 2009
OSU to Present Play by Former NEA Chairman; Noted Actor Stiers Joins Cast, April 22, 2008
Support Theatre Arts through the OSU Foundation