Bravo! Goel Center plays leading role in winter performances

New theater's space and resources make understudy, hip hop dance productions possible.

Jennifer Wagner
February 27, 2019
Wizard of Oz performed at Phillips Exeter Academy.

Some of the cast of The Wizard of Oz perform on the Goel Center's mainstage.

When the curtain rose this February on the Department of Theater and Dance’s first winter concerts in The David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center, it was clear that the performing arts at Exeter had reached new heights.

A soaring production of "The Wizard of Oz" and two original dance performances showed off the new theater's impact and potential.

Room in the spotlight

Every facet of “Oz” — from stagecraft to performance — took advantage of what the Goel Center has to offer. The three sold-out performances featured electrifying  lightning strikes, a virtuosic 13-person orchestra, hand-sewn costumes designed in the Goel Center’s first-floor shop and large-scale and dynamic set pieces of Dorothy’s farmhouse and the Emerald City — all built, painted and stored just behind the mainstage.

“There were so many aspects of the show that were heightened and made possible because of the new building,” says Oz director and Theater and Dance Instructor Lauren Josef. “The haunted forest scenery could fly in and out thanks to our automated rigging system, and I think we utilized all of our light and sound packages.”

Perhaps the building’s biggest impact was on the performers themselves. For the first time, the Academy was able to stage a full-length understudy performance. “In the spirit of opportunity and inclusivity, we offered the understudies a chance to be on stage in front of an audience,” says Josef. “It takes so much dedication to be an understudy — they stay for all rehearsals, memorize the lines. This extra performance gave them the ability to grow as young actors.”

Adia Allison ’21, Dorothy’s understudy and member of the 70-student production, agrees. “I was so thankful for the opportunity to the play the lead! The performance felt like the hard work of all the understudies and I truly paid off. It definitely made me more enthusiastic about the idea of going for another lead role.”

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History afoot

Just a week before “The Wizard of Oz” opened, Exonian dancers made their historic debut in the Goel Center’s Dance Performance Studio. “In the dance program’s 46-year-history at Exeter, it has never rehearsed, nor performed in a space on campus specifically designed for dance,” says Dance Instructor Allison Duke. “The Goel Center is a testament to how rich and vibrant the dance curriculum and culture has become.”

With sneakers hanging from the studio rafters and club music pumping through the speakers, “Hip Hop” was a performance like none other put on by an Exeter dance class. The students enrolled in DA280 — Exeter’s first accredited hip hop dance class — delighted audiences with high-energy breaking, tutting, locking, krumping and other improvised moves they developed with newly appointed instructor of theater and dance Deo Mwano. “My process as a choreographer is always to feed off the energy of my students in order to figure out where to go with the movements,” Mwano says. “It’s the students who are driving how the movement comes to life. … It gives you a lot of freedom as a creator to know that it’s OK for you too to be vulnerable as you’re creating — you’re in it with your students — figuring it out together. That’s amazing.”

Mwano also credits the dance performance studio itself for the success of “Hip Hop.” “The space we practice and learn in is also the space that we perform in,” Mwano says. “I think we are super lucky to have a space like this where every time you walk in you are ready to go — you’re already getting inspired, you’re already comfortable.”

Having that space ready for two separate theater and dance performances — as well as the Dance Company’s winter concert, “Mental Health” — over three consecutive weekends was formerly an impossibility. “For the first time we had flexibility with our strike,” says Josef, explaining “strike” as theater parlance for dismantling and storing the set.  “We didn’t have to change the lights or put in a new floor in 12 hours, we could really prepare each separate space.”

“Hip Hop” fittingly closed each night with a rousing group cypher, or circle — inviting fellow students, staffers and faculty to bust a move.