Outstanding Creative Endeavor Award
Drew Vidal and Michael Elliott brought Dr. Frankenstein’s murderous monster to life, and for that, they received the 2015 Outstanding Creative Endeavor Award.
Elliott and Vidal created an original, movement-based production of Frankenstein over a mere eight-week period in the fall of 2013. Vidal, assistant professor of theatre, directed and edited the show while Elliott, assistant professor of theatre and dance, composed all of the music. They relied on movement to tell the story as much as possible and only used spoken words when necessary.
“I wanted it to be an original, movement-based piece—so I knew our source material had to be a story that was well-known enough that we could take whatever storytelling liberties we wanted to with it,” says Vidal. “Even the people that haven’t read the novel know the story. It’s in the ether enough that people feel like they know it. It seemed like it was ripe for retelling.”
For the story line, they dove into the original source of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s book. “Everything came from the novel …. We went through the novel and tried to identify the parts of the story that would be integral to share with the audience,” says Vidal. “We told it in a different way since we were using a visual and auditory story medium instead of a lot of text.”
A ‘structured, organic’ rehearsal process
The actors in Frankenstein had no script to memorize. “It wasn’t (written), because we were creating it as we went,” says Vidal.
Because there was no script, students had the freedom to create—a chance they don’t often get. “In traditional theatre, the actors are working as actor-interpreters of the text, and I think it was exciting for them to be actor-creators and have a hand in what the final product was actually going to look like. Getting to be in the room as they made those discoveries was exciting.”
“Everything about our production’s process demanded this level of constant collaboration,” writes the production’s dramaturg Colin Hart, instructor of theatre, in his entry for the Student Dramaturgy Award from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. “Everyone in the room had a hand in the tearing apart and putting back together of our final product. Actors came up with story ideas, (and) assistant directors made design choices.
“Akin to working with a new play, we were taking a piece of text, breaking it down through a series of workshops, and rebuilding it into a quasi-final form through rehearsal. We were not tied to one specific viewpoint or story-arc; we could work with the text and the characters to fashion any number of different narratives,” says Hart. “Our storytelling options were not limited by lines or stage directions but were as boundless as our joint imaginations.”
Joe Colajezzi, an ensemble member who portrayed various roles, learned about the importance of creativity from this experience. “Frankenstein taught me that nurturing the creative, innovative side of your brain is as important as nurturing your ‘technique’ as an artist.”
Vidal compares their production to a poem in that everyone has their own interpretation of it. “Every single audience member was going to receive this storytelling a little bit differently. There were some parts the audience got right way. There were other parts that the audience was maybe like, ‘What exactly is happening right now?’”
One part in particular probably made the audience wonder what was going on. “When the creature learns language from the peasants that he encounters in the forest, we chose to convey that by having the peasants speak all of their words backwards. They were speaking, but they had written out every word that they spoke backwards and then learned it phonetically, so they were speaking what sounded like a completely foreign language that nobody in the audience got,” says Vidal.
“As the creature spent more and more time with them, he started to figure out how to put the words right-side up—put the words back together. There were audience members who caught on to that, and there were audience members that were just utterly like, ‘What is going on?!’ And I’m fine with that.”
The music ‘became a character’
While Vidal and the students figured out how to portray the story using words and movement, Elliott composed the music for Frankenstein. He received the Outstanding Achievement in Composition award in spring 2014 from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.
Just like Frankenstein’s creature, the music came alive. “It became a character of the show. The process of writing was very fast. It was frenetic. It was problem-solving,” Elliott says. “If I ever thought of the scope of it, it would slow me down. I’d take what they’re giving me and build around it.”
Elliott has a knack for problem-solving. He studied engineering in college before switching to music. “The things I love about music, I loved about engineering—theory, how things are put together. (For Frankenstein), all I was doing was problem-solving the entire time, trying to create solutions. I had a few themes going into it during the rehearsal process …. I just started piecing things together—sewing it together, building structures that needed to be built. That was the process. I had no plans.
“A couple times I had to go, ‘Trust me, it’s going to be OK. That’s not what it’s going to sound like.’”
Elliott and Vidal drew inspiration from each other’s ideas. “We were working back and forth,” says Vidal. “Especially at the beginning, Michael had created music that we were creating storytelling to, but there were other times that worked the other way and I created storytelling. We’d film it and give it to him, and I’d say, ‘I need this to sound like this.’ Or we’d listen to something he created, and we’d talk about how it feels a little bit like this, and we need it to feel a little bit more like this. Sewing all the pieces together became a huge challenge at the end because we had lots of puzzle pieces. Ultimately we had to link them all together.”
Vidal and Elliott often worked right beside each other to create this award-winning production. “I feel very lucky to be able to work with the composer in the room with me,” says Vidal. “So often I feel like there are directors and music directors and choreographers working in compartments, so being able to spend as much time in the room together was amazingly useful.”
Tips for show biz
For any aspiring artists, Elliott and Vidal can impart some wisdom. “The single greatest sign of success is literally just grit. (A successful person is) someone who wants to do something so bad that no matter what hardships they encounter, they are going to just keep working,” says Vidal. “I feel like that is probably true in all fields but very true in theatre because there are a lot of hurdles.
“I think there are also a lot of careers in theatre that college students maybe don’t have on their radar. Everybody wants to be a performer starting out, but ultimately there are hundreds of other careers in and around the arts that maybe (don’t involve) you on stage that can be wildly rewarding.”
Elliott adds, “Success is not measured by Tony Awards. Just being a working actor—that’s successful.”
“The definition of success will continue to evolve,” says Vidal.
A hub for original work
“Our department is one of the best resources that we have—very supportive of what we all do,” says Elliott. “And the fact that they let us just go off and do this really without even knowing if it was going to be successful or not—”
“—I think it was a huge encouragement and a huge leap of faith to let us do that” says Vidal.
The Theatre and Dance Department has some big plans for more original work. “This department as a whole is really excited by—and continuing to pursue—more and more opportunities to create and present original work, which I think is becoming a really exciting part of our mission statement,” Vidal says. “That’s not just movement-based, devised stuff—it’s new musicals, new plays.
“The goal is that every single semester, we’re presenting new works and that Ball State becomes a hub for presenting new work, especially since more and more regional theatres don’t have the flexibility and/or finances to be workshopping and creating new work. So more and more, that’s shifting to the university level. That’s something I think a lot of us are really excited by.
“Go see plays! Come see shows!” says Vidal.
“And dance concerts!” Elliott says with a smile.