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Bringing the stage online

Senior acting ensemble mounts production of Brian Friel's "Translations" from quarantine.

By
Sarah Pruitt ’95
July 31, 2020
Program from Translations

Back in late February, cast and crew members met at The David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Theater and Dance to start planning for the spring term’s Senior Acting Ensemble production of Irish playwright Brian Friel’s celebrated 1980 work “Translations.”

Set in a fictional Irish-speaking village in northwest Ireland’s County Donegal in 1833, just a few years before the potato famine, the play centers on the drama that ensues when a pair of British military officers arrive to map the area for Ireland’s first Ordnance Survey, and translate the Gaelic place names into English. In addition to the central theme of language — from its ties to cultural identity to its role in communication — “Translations” delves into a wide range of issues, including colonization, Irish immigration to the United States, and the role of women in Irish society. 

“I’m really interested, especially these days, about what connects and divides us, not only within communities but across boundaries and barriers,” says Sarah Ream ’75; P’09, P’11, instructor in theater and dance and the ensemble’s director. “So [‘Translations’] felt timely to me.”

In March, the spread of the new coronavirus created barriers of different sorts for the cast and crew, as the Academy transitioned to distance learning and they found themselves without a stage on which to perform. 

I’m really interested, especially these days, about what connects and divides us, not only within communities but across boundaries and barriers."
Instructor Sarah Ream '75

The student thespians met via Zoom three times a week for rehearsal and collectively began to study the rich history and culture behind the play. “[Research] helped us better understand our characters and frame our acting,” explains Suan Lee ’20, who served as the play’s dramaturg and took on the character of Bridget, one of the Irish-speaking villagers. 

As not everyone had access to the same technology for video recording, the group decided to turn their full production into a podcast. An audio-only format would not only allow people to experience the play differently, but also posed new and welcome challenges for the actors. “It really forced us to make our voices the character,” says Ervin Williams ’20, who plays Hugh, the hedge school’s hard-drinking headmaster. 

The stage crew faced their own challenges, including navigating how to produce and edit the material into a podcast format. Caitlin Sibthorpe ’20, the play’s stage manager and assistant director, believes these obstacles only made for a better learning experience. “In theater,” she says, “you’re going to be in a lot of different situations and you have to learn to adapt.”

To accompany the podcast, the cast also recorded a dress rehearsal on video, and both versions were streamed for the Exeter community in late May, with a run time of nearly two hours. 

Opening curtain

The production opens with the strains of Celtic guitar and a voice-over by Director of Global Initiatives and English Instructor Eimer Page, who hails from Northern Ireland and has relatives from the region where “Translations” is set. In the video version, as Page narrates the stage directions, the actors materialize in their respective Zoom windows, which appear and disappear as they enter or exit the virtual stage. Dressed in black or dark clothing, they sit against plain backgrounds — white walls, a draped sheet — with barely a picture frame or edge of a window sill peeking out behind them. Their movements and facial expressions are also spare, making their voices the central feature of the viewing, or listening, experience.

From the play’s first scene, the actors tackle its complex central theme of language, as Manus, the son of the hedge schoolmaster (played by Colin Vernet ’21, one of several uppers involved in the production), patiently teaches Sarah (Grace Ferguson ’20), a student with a serious speech impediment, to say her own name. Meanwhile, during their lesson, the older villager Jimmie Jack (Emmanuel Vasquez ’20) intones phrases from Homer in ancient Greek. 

The actors playing villagers relied on Page to help hone their Irish accents, while Classics Instructor Sally Morris contributed by coaching the cast on the pronunciations of the play’s Latin and Greek phrases. Having taught Friel’s play often in her English classes, Page developed a new perspective on it when the cast asked her to act as narrator for the virtual production, in which all the stage directions must be read. 

She particularly remembers recording one key scene: a rendezvous between one of the British officers, the earnest Lieutenant Yolland (Paul Rogers ’21), and a village girl, Maire (Ella Fishman ’20), that Page calls the “emotional high point of the play.” In that scene, which closes Act 2, soft guitar music plays in the background as the couple exchanges a torrent of romantic declarations. While both of them are speaking English, in the world of Friel’s play, Maire (like all the villagers) is actually understood to be speaking Irish, of which Yolland knows only a few words. As the scene continues, the two characters grow closer and closer — even as they completely fail to understand what the other is saying. 

“I was so moved, even as I was attempting to be a neutral narrator,” Page recalls of the scene, marveling at the actors’ ability to “play off one another in their tiny moon screens.” 

The cast and crew found some much needed unity and creative expression in the virtual production process. “Given the state of the world right now, it’s been hard to keep creativity a part of my day-to-day life,” Fishman says. “This production allowed me to focus on art, which I don’t really think that I would have done a whole lot of otherwise.” 

Twenty-five years from now, we’re going to say, ‘Remember that time when the whole world ended, but we still had a play?’”
Colin Vernet ’21

Ream shares Fishman’s view about the value of art for its ability to sustain people in hard times. “I take a huge amount of comfort in the idea that theater prevails across time and culture no matter what’s going on,” she says. “They kept it going during the Peloponnesian Wars, and I think that says something good about humanity.” 

To Vernet, the podcast version of "Translations" promises to remain memorable in a way unlike any production on Exeter’s mainstage. “Twenty-five years from now,” he predicts, “we’re going to say, ‘Remember that time when the whole world ended, but we still had a play?’”

Enjoy the play

See the full production below:

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the summer 2020 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.