Hollins’ Dance M.F.A. Program Moves European Study to Bulgaria’s Cultural Capital

Hollins University’s M.F.A. in dance program is relocating its European Study component to a new home.

Beginning in the summer of 2022, students will travel to Plovdiv, Bulgaria, which is considered by many to be the nation’s cultural hub and in 2019 was named a European Capital of Culture.

“We will have the opportunity to access festivals and arts programming,” said Jeffery Bullock, professor and chair of Hollins’ dance program. “I am excited for our new journey.”

Boyan Manchev
Boyan Manchev

European Study will be organized and curated by Boyan Manchev and Ani Vaseva. Manchev has been a part of the European Study component since it began in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2014, teaching Dance History, Theory, and Criticism. He is a philosopher and professor at New Bulgarian University in Sofia and at Berlin’s HZT – UdK. He has lectured widely at European, North American, and Japanese universities and cultural institutions, and is the author of seven books, including The Body – Metamorphosis (2007), which deals extensively with contemporary art, performance, and dance.

Ani Vaseva
Ani Vaseva

 

 

Vaseva is a theatre director, a playwright, an author of critical and theoretical texts on dance and theatre, and holds a Ph.D. in performance studies from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Her 2017 book, What Is Contemporary Dance, explores the complex processes and conflictual ideologies that stand behind the concept of contemporary dance. Between 2015 and 2018, she taught history and theory of theatre and literature at New Bulgarian University and the Luben Groys Theatre College.

 

 

“We will be in great hands with Boyan and Ani,” Bullock said. “They are both amazing artists and radical thinkers.”

Hollins’ M.F.A. in dance is an innovative program in which students immerse themselves for five weeks during the summer in the intimate learning atmosphere on the Hollins campus, followed by three weeks of international study and immersion in Plovdiv. The program provides students with a wide range of opportunities, mentorships, and exposure to others in the international dance field, and features three tracks: Year Residency, Low Residency – Two Summer, and Low Residency – Three Summer. M.F.A. students and faculty establish a unique community of committed artists/scholars who range in ages and experiences and are working to sustain their careers and deepen their relationship to dance.


Playwright Wendy-Marie Martin M.F.A. ’14 Returns to Hollins as Theatre Department Chair

Talk about a homecoming! Wendy-Marie Martin, who earned both an M.F.A. (2014) and a Certificate in Directing New Work (2017) from the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University, returned to her alma mater earlier this year to become chair of Hollins’ theatre department.

“I love this place—I was very excited to come back,” said Martin, a successful playwright, educator, and current Ph.D. candidate in interdisciplinary arts/theatre at Ohio University. “The students at Hollins are great,” Martin said. “They’re interested in things that aren’t necessarily mainstream, which aligns really well with my aesthetic.”

Martin took over for Ernie Zulia, who stepped down last spring after helming the department for 17 years. She recalled that one of the big takeaways from her time as a Hollins grad student was the program’s  encouragement to try new things and learn from failure. “We live in a very perfectionist society,” said Martin. “It’s difficult to give yourself permission to go outside of what you know will be right or successful. We’re in the process of adopting the same attitude in the undergraduate program so that process is seen as equally important to product/performance because we can’t know what’s possible until we give it a shot, and there’s always risk involved.”

Although Martin officially became the new chair this fall, she guest taught a couple of classes in the spring as a part of a gradual transition into her new role. Because of this, Martin had the opportunity to meet with students one-on-one and hear what they were hoping to get out of their time in the program. “One of the things that came up often was more demand for women playwrights,” said Martin. “They also wanted more contemporary work, which is great. That’s right up my alley.”

Martin isn’t exaggerating, either. In her doctoral work at Ohio University, she is focusing on feminist theatre and 20th and 21st century women playwrights, and all theatre productions at Hollins this year will be by non-binary or female-identifying writers.

Speaking of those plays, this semester’s season kicked off back in September with a staged reading of The Orphan Sea by Cardid Svich, which was directed by undergraduate resident professional teaching artist Michelle LoRicco. The next performance to catch will be The Skriker, which will be performed on Hollins Theatre’s Main Stage October 21-24. This 1994 play by Caryl Churchill, which tells the story of the titular fairy Skriker, begins with several pages of nonsensical language. “I was very concerned that the students weren’t going to get through the first three pages because it’s challenging,” said Martin. “But they were all ridiculously excited about it. The students have just been on top of it with offers and ideas on what they want to suggest for the play, which is really exciting.”

Looking even further ahead, Martin’s hoping to expand the theatre program in two different areas. First, she wants to develop a scholarship arm of the department, i.e., getting students to write analytical/critical papers that can be potentially published or presented at conferences for financial aid or scholarships. Second, Martin is seeking to embrace more original work. She plans on doing this by commissioning a play from the Playwright’s Lab and developing it with undergraduates over the course of two years all the way to live production. “That’s one thing that we’re going to try to start doing next year: developing new work over a long period of time,” said Martin. “We have the structure here to do something ambitious like that.”

Martin’s also heavily focused on diversifying the theatre department. That means more diversity training and inclusion as well as an eclectic lineup of guest artists to expand the cultural perspective of the program and better serve its students of color. “Right now that’s where most of my energy is,” said Martin. “It’s a very exciting group of students here who are willing to try new things, and I love that.”

Jeff Dingler is a graduate assistant in Hollins’ marketing and communications department. He is pursuing his M.F.A. in creative writing at the university.

 


New Wilson Museum Exhibition Celebrates Dignity of Individuals with Alzheimer’s and Their Caregivers

 

Through September 19, the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins University is honoring the courage and fortitude of persons living with Alzheimer’s disease, and those who care for them, with the exhibition DIGNIFIED: Individuals with Alzheimer’s and Their Caregivers/Photographs by Patterson Lawson.

 

Dignified: Individuals with Alzheimer's and Their Caregivers
Patterson Lawson, “Marian.” Photograph.

 

 

In 2019, Lawson, a Richmond-based photographer, discovered an interest in documenting individuals and families whose lives were and are affected by Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive disorder that degrades memory and vital brain functions. He found that, unlike other diseases where individuals are family members actively engage the medical community and devote time, energy, and attention to getting well, many assume a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s means the end of a meaningful life. Lawson writes, “These portraits contradict such perceptions. While the losses are real, people with Alzheimer’s are not empty shells….The subjects’ direct gazes reveal their dignity.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than six million Americans today are living with the disease.

The Wilson Museum is open by appointment.

 

 


Faith Herrington ’22 Awarded Internship with Maryland’s Washington County Museum of Fine Arts

The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland, has named Faith Herrington ’22 as this year’s recipient of the Jean Cushwa College Internship.

The internship is a paid position awarded to one college student who is earning a degree in fine arts, art history, art education, museum studies, or a similar field. Herrington, who is majoring in art history and earning a certificate in arts management at Hollins, will assist the museum’s Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., with curatorial research, exhibition installation, and more, specifically with the summer exhibition Bernini and the Roman Baroque: Masterpieces from Palazzo Chigi in Ariccia.

Herrington describes herself as “a passionate lover of art history” who plans to pursue a career working in art museums. Her past experience includes interning at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, where she researched the museum’s founder, digitized materials, and installed exhibitions. She has traveled to Greece and Italy to conduct art historical research and says the experiences helped her to “appreciate the value of an arts education as a means to explore any subject, time period, philosophy, and culture.” Genevieve Hendricks, associate professor of art history at Hollins, says Herrington is “enthusiastic, inquisitive, and an inspiration for students.”

Founded in 1931, the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts is the legacy of Hagerstown native Anna Brugh Singer and her husband, Pittsburgh-born artist William Henry Singer, Jr. Featuring a collection of more than 6,000 objects, the museum has important holdings of American painting, Old Masters, decorative arts, and sculpture. The Jean Cushwa College Internship is graciously funded by an endowment from former Singer Society member Jean Cushwa, which allows the museum to participate in the important work of fostering the next generation of arts leadership.


Anna Johnson ’21 Wins National Kennedy Center Award for Excellence in Sound Design

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has announced that Anna Johnson ’21 is among the national awardees for 2021 of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF).

Johnson received the Kennedy Center Award for Excellence in Sound Design for her work on Hollins Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which was presented virtually in October 2020. She and other student artists were selected for outstanding achievement in a range of disciplines from eight virtual regional festivals that were held in January and February of this year. Johnson’s sound design for Curious Incident won first place honors from the KCACTF Region IV, which includes colleges and universities from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Virginia.

Kennedy Center first-place awards for excellence in scenic, costume, lighting, and sound design each come with a $1,000 cash prize.

“This has been a remarkable year that forced students to adapt, and in doing so these students found new ways of working that have expanded their toolkits in ways that will make them stronger artists and change-makers in the field,” said KCACTF Artistic Director Gregg Henry.

A theatre major, Johnson graduated from Hollins in May and will be pursuing an M.F.A. in sound design at the University of Memphis this fall. Read her recent profile, “‘I Know What I Want Things to Sound Like.'” 

KCACTF encourages and celebrates the finest and most diverse theatrical productions from colleges and universities. Through regional and national festivals, KCACTF celebrates the achievements of theatre programs, individual students, and faculty of colleges and universities throughout the United States. Since its establishment 52 years ago, KCACTF has reached millions of theatregoers and made important contributions to the professional development of countless college and university theatre students nationwide.

 


With Stage Work Plus Regional and National Singing Competitions as Her Foundation, Claire Cook ’21 Preps for a Theatre Career

During her sophomore year, Claire Cook ’21 and other talented vocalists from throughout Virginia took part in the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) statewide competition at Shenandoah University. Contending in the musical theatre category, and working closely with Professor of Music Judith Cline to prepare, she qualified for the NATS Mid-Atlantic Regional competition, encompassing Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Ultimately, she would reach the national semifinals in Minnesota that year, ranking among the top 14 performers in her grouping.

This spring, once again with Cline’s guidance, the theatre major returned to NATS competition at the Virginia Chapter level. But, she wasn’t able to perform live before three judges in a practice room at a host school, as she did as a sophomore. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s contest presented a whole new set of challenges. The competition was held virtually and participants could not sing live and in person before the judges: Auditions had to be taped and submitted in advance.

“There is the potential for so many variables that could go wrong, so I would say it was a lot more difficult,” Cook explained. “I was home on break as the submission deadline for the statewide competition approached. So, I had to record the numbers at home by myself at night in my dining room, right below my dad’s bedroom. I didn’t have the best equipment, either. I had to stand just four feet away from the camera, and because I was so close, my breaths were really loud.” Since she was now a senior, Cook was moved up to a higher musical theatre category; instead of singing three numbers as she did as a sophomore, she had to audition with four new contrasting pieces.

Nevertheless, Cook impressed the judges so much that she was selected as a Virginia honors recipient, and once again went on to compete at the NATS Mid-Atlantic Regional Competition. Regionals were also held remotely, but fortunately Cook could prepare for the event after she returned to campus for spring term. For this competition, she used the more spacious and acoustically dynamic Talmadge Recital Hall to rerecord her musical selections.

When Cook enrolled at Hollins, she was already a seasoned theatre veteran, having performed as a lead or supporting actor in a number of shows in her hometown of Winchester, Virginia. She launched her undergraduate career in a production of Chicago as a part of the vocal ensemble, and then earned her first understudy experience in the Spring 2019 staging of the musical Fun Home. “When you’re an understudy you have to learn everything that the principal actor does because you have to be prepared to go on at any given moment. There’s no guarantee you’ll go on, but you have to be there for most of the rehearsals, you get fitted for a costume, you do everything.”

As “Mrs. Alexander” in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Cook was not intimidated by the fact that the pandemic had necessitated the play be staged via Zoom. “A lot of it is just remembering to turn your audio on and off,” she laughed, but quickly added, “the main thing we missed with the Zoom production was the connections you make with the audience.”

The absence of interaction was addressed in her next virtual production, the drama Decision Height, where she played “Mrs. Deaton,” the den mother. “We allowed the audience to come on camera at the end of the show. That was an upside because I got to see every individual person instead of looking out over a sea of people as you normally would with a live staging.”

Cook’s stage work represents just some of the opportunities she’s taken advantage of as a theatre major. A job fair sponsored by the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) connected her with a variety of employers. “I met a lot of great people and I actually got a job through SETC this year for the summer.” Through the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF), she auditioned for the KCACTF Region IV Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship, which supports student actors across the nation. She got to see live shows such as Mamma Mia and West Side Story at Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Theatre (a Hollins Theatre partner) and attended productions at the renowned American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. And, she interned with Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C.

Cook also praises her professors for encouraging her acting pursuits and igniting her interest in other aspects of theatre production such as scenic design. “You really get to know the professors in the theatre department,” she said. “Theatre just has really nice people to come in and through. The theatre’s student community is also tight-knit. I met my best friend there.”

Hollins’ study abroad program was one of the biggest draws for Cook as a prospective student, and she blended her passion for international experience with her field of study by participating in the London Theatre Semester during fall term of her junior year. Taking the London Stage class immersed her in all of what London has to offer theatrically. “I saw so many shows. I went to Shakespeare’s Globe and to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare Company. I lived with a host family in East Finchley (an area in North London). That was really nice, and it was such a sweet little neighborhood, so pretty.”

Through her SETC networking, Cook will work this summer as a photographer/counselor at Stagedoor Manor, a prestigious performing arts camp in New York State whose alumni include Mandy Moore, Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Robert Downey Jr., and Bryce Howard. Then, “I’m going to be applying for apprenticeships for administrative theatre jobs and auditioning for whatever I can. I want to go to graduate school in theatre, but there’s a lot competition there, especially from industry professionals and those who have done national tours. I definitely need to have that experience.”

 


Art History Senior Symposium and Tribute to Professor Kathleen Nolan, April 24

Hollins will observe the 25th anniversary of the Art History Senior Symposium and pay tribute to retiring Professor of Art History Kathleen Nolan during two virtual events on Saturday, April 24.

The annual Art History Senior Symposium, the capstone experience for art history majors, will take place from 10 a.m. – noon EDT. Four members of the class of 2021 will present their original research through a series of 20-minute talks. Email knolan@hollins.edu for the Zoom link and more details.

From 1 – 3 p.m. EDT, art history alumnae will come together for a reunion to honor Nolan and her distinguished 35-year academic career at Hollins. Nolan shaped the art history department into a multi-faceted program and taught majors, minors, and non-majors the skills to perceptively and thoughtfully interpret images from the past and present alike. She has taught medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art history, and her scholarly interests include the history of women in the Middle Ages, and the works of art commissioned by women to tell their stories. She co-edited Arts of the Medieval Cathedrals: Studies on Architecture, Stained Glass and Sculpture in Honor of Anne Prache. Her book, Queens in Stone and Silver: The Creation of a Visual Identity of Queenship in Capetian France (Palgrave 2009), looked at queens’ personal seals and effigy tombs. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Art Bulletin, the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Studies in Iconography, and Gesta.

Christine Holt Fix ’97, Zirwat Chowdhury ’05, Gwen Fernandez ’06, Sarita Herman ’08, and Rory Keeley ’17 will deliver brief reflections on how their experiences studying with Nolan shaped their career paths. Through short videos, many other alumnae will also offer greetings and share their recollections. The celebration will also include opportunities to catch up with classmates, provide updates, and make new connections. Preregister for the Zoom link, or contact Amy Torbert ’05 at amy.torbert@gmail.com to learn more about the reunion event or to contribute your own memories.


“Decision Height” Revival Celebrates Ten Years of the Award-Winning Drama

“Oh my God, what am I going to write?”

This was the question nagging then-junior Meredith Dayna Levy ’12, M.F.A. ’18 while she was studying abroad in London during the spring of 2011. For her senior honors thesis, the theatre major knew she wanted to write a play, one with an all-female cast that would allow her “to practically use the actors I knew on campus and also speak to my experience as a college student.” What she didn’t know was, what exactly was the play going to be about?

“I was beating myself up about it,” Levy recalls.

All that changed when Levy learned that in 2009, President Barack Obama had signed into law a bill awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the group known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the first women ever to fly American military aircraft. Created in World War II to fly noncombat military missions in the United States so that male pilots could take on combat missions in Europe and Asia, the WASP program logged more than 60 million miles and flew virtually every kind of aircraft operated by the Army Air Force.

Levy was astounded. She had never heard of the WASP program and was determined to learn more. She found a newspaper article about one of the pilots after she had flown her first solo flight. “All of her friends had dumped her into this wishing well per tradition. I thought, ‘This is something Hollins students are going to understand. We’re all about wacky traditions.’” But on a more profound level, Levy’s initial research told her that “even though I knew nothing at all about planes, the military, or physics, I decided this was an environment and a community that I could understand, and more importantly, my audience of students could understand.”Decision Height Flyer

Thus began Levy’s work on what would become the play Decision Height. The drama would have its Hollins Theatre Main Stage premiere in the fall of 2012, subsequently capture honors from the prestigious Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, and go on to be produced at high schools, colleges, and community theatres around the country. Hollins Theatre is now giving Decision Height its first revival in a virtual staging April 1-3 at 7:30 p.m.; April 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m.; and April 11 at 2 p.m. (Admission is free and open to the public, but tickets are required; visit Brown Paper Tickets to request the Zoom link.)

Decision Height follows six women upon their arrival at a base in Sweetwater, Texas, for nine months of training before moving on to active duty. “We witness how their relationships develop and the ways in which they learn new things about themselves and each other, what motivates them and what gives them purpose and strength,” Levy explains. “By the end of the play, every character is sort of on a different path, but we know they’re united forever in friendship.”

Artistic Director and Chair of the Hollins Theatre Department Ernie Zulia, who was Levy’s advisor when she was an undergraduate, remembers when she first approached him prior to the 2011-12 academic year about writing a play as her honors thesis. “An honors thesis is a yearlong process, and I figured, ‘Terrific, that’s enough to occupy any new playwright for a year.’ But then she added, ‘I would like to design, produce, and direct the play.’ And I thought, ‘Sure, if anyone can take on that kind of effort, Meredith can.’ Not only was it sitting down and creating characters and dialogue, it also required intense research in order to do it authentically.”

WASPs Awarded Congressional Gold Medal
Deanie Parrish accepts the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of her fellow WASPs at the Capitol March 10, 2010. More than 200 WASPs attended the event, many of them wearing their World War II-era uniforms. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski)

Levy devoured every piece of background information she could find. A crucial discovery was an online collection of primary research materials compiled by Nancy Parrish, whose mother, Odean “Deanie” Bishop Parrish, was part of the WASP program. “Nancy has made it her life’s mission to document WASP, and I spent the entirety of the summer after I came back from London just eating this stuff up. I even got to talk to Nancy and Deanie. So many of the events in the play came out of that research and brought those stories to life. It can be intimidating when you’re faced with so many real people. How do you fictionalize it? You want to get every detail right and memorialize it perfectly.”

So, Levy devoted the fall of 2011 to “doing draft after draft after draft.” Friends took part in readings of the play “just trying to get the words out so that I could hear the play and determine what was missing or confusing. With each draft I was able to take a further step away from the history and lean more on my own lived experience, my friendships, and putting my own emotional truth into the play and amongst all the historical framework.”

Levy eventually invited Zulia and Todd Ristau, director of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins, to attend those readings and offer feedback. “It needed more work, but it was a beautiful script,” Zulia says. “When you get a play to that point, it’s important to get it up on its feet so the playwright can see the play they’ve written.”

In February 2012, Decision Height went into rehearsals for its production that spring in the Upstairs Studio Theatre at Hollins, a venue designed for trying out new works. The staging “was received with such enthusiasm,” Zulia says. “People were in tears and talking about what an impact this play had on them. I’d seen plays through many incarnations and I knew some of the problems she’d need to fix as she continued to work on it, but I heard it loud and clear from the audience that something in this play was profoundly moving.”

After graduating in the spring of 2012, Levy moved into Hollins’ M.F.A. in Playwriting program. Zulia offered her a deal: If she spent that summer working on rewrites, he would put Decision Height on Hollins Theatre’s Main Stage. She continued adding new elements to the play with support from Zulia, Ristau, and Bob Moss, a member of the Playwright’s Lab faculty who has been called a “living legend of Off-Off Broadway.”

For Decision Height’s Main Stage production that October, Zulia invited representatives from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) Region IV, a program dedicated to improving the quality of college theatre in the United States. “The feedback we got was phenomenal,” Zulia notes, and in January 2013, KCACTF’s Region IV awarded its top playwriting honor to Levy.

A year later, Hollins and Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Theatre hosted the 2014 Region IV KCATCF and featured Decision Height as the opening event. “There were spontaneous standing ovations, people were so impressed by the work Meredith and the whole company had created,” Zulia says. “It definitely told us something good was happening. At this festival, national representatives from across the country for the Kennedy Center were in attendance. They selected Decision Height as the top new play of the year, and the top production of a play that season.”

Subsequently published by Samuel French, one of the world’s leading publishers and licensors of plays and musicals, Decision Height over the past seven years has reached broader audiences regionally and nationally. Levy got special satisfaction from seeing it staged at colleges and universities. “I’m always amazed when I go to a school and see students do the show. If it’s a single-sex environment, the actors are so excited – ‘This play feels like our school. This is me and my friends, this is our community.’ I expected that, but I’m also so delighted when I go to big state schools and the women say, ‘There are so few parts for us in so many of the main stage productions. I’ve never viewed any of my peers as friends when we’re competing for the same five parts. To do an all-female production, I feel like I’ve built a new family.’ Hearing these students talk about how they had discovered this whole new way of being in community with women, that it didn’t have to be adversarial or competitive, was huge. I didn’t set out to write a play that would do that, but it was gratifying to know the play was having such an impact.”

Decision Height Stage Scene
A scene from the original production of “Decision Height” on Hollins Theatre’s Main Stage in October 2012.

Zulia sees the Decision Height revival as a logical continuation of Hollins Theatre’s Legacy Series, which began a decade ago as a way to bring literary pieces by Hollins writers to the stage. Beginning with the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown ‘32, the Legacy Series has included A Woman of Independent Means (Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey ’60), Belloq’s Ophelia (Natasha Trethewey M.A. ’91), Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Annie Dillard ’67, M.A. ’68), and Good Ol’ Girls (Lee Smith ’67 and Jill McCorkle M.A. ’81).

“Along comes Decision Height, and we thought, ‘Our playwriting program is a big part of our legacy along with our creative writing program,’” Zulia explains. “Some students came to me last year and asked, ‘When do we get to perform Decision Height?’, and it seemed like a good idea – let’s bring this play back and give our current students the opportunity to be a part of it. Its historical setting and themes are timeless.”

Levy believes Decision Height is the perfect title for the play and underscores why it continues to resonate with audiences of all ages, particularly the college demographic. “‘Decision Height’ is the flight term that was used for the critical moment where you have to decide if you’re going to land the plane or keep going. I thought that was such a great metaphor for what it feels like to graduate college and be at this point where you have to decide, what path you’re going to take with your life.

“Looking back after ten years, there’s no decision that you can’t change. But as a senior, I thought whatever I do next is going to define my life. It felt so huge, and this metaphor was really helpful to me to put my hands around that feeling and fear.”

 

 


“I Know What I Want Things to Sound Like”: Hollins Senior Earns Design Honors From Prestigious Theatre Conferences

[Update June 4, 2021] Anna Johnson wins National Kennedy Center Award for Excellence in Sound Design. More accolades for Anna 

When theatre audiences immerse themselves in a live drama, musical, or comedy, they delight in the playwright’s words and the director’s vision coming to life through a talented cast of actors. They marvel at the visual look and quality of the sets. Yet there’s one crucial aspect of a stage production where curiously enough, the better it’s executed, the less it’s noticed.

“People usually only notice the sound design when it’s bad,” laughs Anna Johnson ’21. “You can’t do it for the praise.”

Nevertheless, the senior from Asheville, North Carolina, “just fell in love immediately” with sound design when she served as the audio board operator for a production during Fall Term of her first year at Hollins. “Getting to see the impact theatre had on both the cast and the campus was just really incredible.” Johnson had enrolled at Hollins intending to study chemistry, but “from that moment I knew that I was going to be a theatre major.”

From the Black Box Theatre and new works from Hollins playwrights to Main Stage productions, Johnson has honed her craft through 26 shows. She recently earned coveted recognition from two of the nation’s premier college theatre conferences: The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) Region IV and the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) both honored her with first place awards for her sound design work on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, presented virtually by Hollins Theatre in October 2020.

“It has this beautiful, natural rhythm,” Johnson says of the Tony Award-winning drama. “I was trying to honor that by breathing life into it, which especially in a static environment such as Zoom was really important.”

Johnson got to lead sound design on a production shortly after her initial experience as a board operator. Wanting to learn more about sound, she worked closely with Hollins Theatre Technical Director John Forsman and a senior who trained her in QLab, a sound design software program. At the end of Fall Term her first year, Johnson was approached by Todd Ristau, director of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins, who was planning for the annual Hollins-Mill Mountain Winter Festival of New Works.

“Todd said, ‘Our sound designer can’t be here for Winter Festival, do you want to come design?’ I had never designed a play before, but he had full faith in me.” Johnson wasn’t exactly pleased with her debut design (“It sucked. It was not good.”). Still, she recognized she was building a foundation for subsequent success. “I formed relationships with my peers and the faculty, and I was willing to give it my all, even if I wasn’t very talented at that point.”

Despite the challenging start, the Winter Festival of New Works would ultimately become “my favorite thing that Hollins does,” Johnson says. “I’ve done seven shows with Winter Festival and I’ve gotten to know a lot of the playwrights. They’re truly incredible and it’s been fun to form those connections.”

Johnson discovered that she was especially passionate about working on new plays. “You get to be one of the collaborators in the room trying to bring the show to life, and that first production of a show is so important. Letting the playwright see their work on stage, fully produced for the first time, really informs them of how they want to proceed with their next draft.”

Johnson says sound design is unique from other areas of theatre design because “there’s not really a vocabulary for it. I’ve had directors say, ‘Oh, I want it to sound purple.’ That really doesn’t mean anything, so design is certainly a process.”

The sound designer’s work starts coming into focus even before the first production meeting. “Sound design is a lot of paperwork, so I create these cue sheets for my initial meeting with the director. It has every possible sound cue we could have in the show,” Johnson explains. “You come in with a statement for what you think the design is going to be for the show, and what’s going to help it. From there, you start collecting sound files and meeting weekly with the director.”

Preparations for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time began early in 2020 as the show was scheduled to be Hollins Theatre’s Main Stage spring production. All of Johnson’s work had been completed for what she describes as “one of the most technically complicated shows you can do” when Hollins announced in March that students would be sent home and all campus activities and events canceled because of the threat from the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnson was hopeful her plans could still be put into action for a fall production, but the public health crisis was ongoing and large gatherings remained off-limits. With an actual stage production of Curious Incident on hold indefinitely, the decision was made to present the show virtually last fall via Zoom livestream. That meant the production company members, none of whom had ever done a Zoom show before, had to start from scratch.

“It was kind of wild. We only had a month and a half to put Curious Incident up for the fall and we had no idea what we were doing.” Johnson says it was initially heartbreaking to realize most of the original technical planning had to be cut, “but I just had to keep in mind that everybody was dealing with it. With this production, somebody was in Missouri, somebody was in California, somebody was in Pennsylvania. John Forsman and Kiah Kayser (McDonnell Visiting Faculty with the theatre department and video designer for Curious Incident) had to send every actor a box with costumes, props, and a green screen, which many people ended up duct taping to their living room walls.”

Working closely with Kayser, Johnson often put in 17-hour days. The show’s original stage manager graduated from Hollins in the spring of 2020, which necessitated Johnson and Kayser calling their own cues during the tech rehearsals and performances. “Usually you have maybe 30 sound cues, but our Zoom show had 200 official cues and over 1,100 internal cues, which doesn’t include the video cues. You have to gain a rhythm in order for it to be seamless. I would go to Kiah’s office every day and we would sit there and talk about the cues for hours: ‘This needs to coordinate here, this is how we should do this.’ You don’t always have the opportunity to do that in theatre, to collaborate with somebody that closely.”

Johnson cites one act of Curious Incident as an example of how their work came to fruition successfully. Christopher, the play’s main character, is a teenager on the autism spectrum who spends the entire second act of the play on a journey to London via his first trip on a train, even though he hates loud noises. “It’s beautifully written how he experiences things for the first time and you get to see him live those moments through. I had to create the entire world through soundscapes because in Zoom, you don’t have the benefit of a set. You don’t have a clear idea of where the actors are. Kiah’s video design really helped with that.”

The recognition from KCACTF and SETC has been gratifying for Johnson, but the enduring benefit she sees from her “incredible experience” working on Curious Incident has been the ability to step back and see the ways she has grown as a designer, paving the way for her to pursue an M.F.A. in sound design at the University of Memphis this fall. “As a sound designer, I know I have weaknesses, but I have a fairly clear artistic voice and I know what I want things to sound like,” she says. She’s incredibly busy this spring, submitting her work to festivals to build her portfolio, sound designing and acting in Hollins Theatre’s virtual production of Decision Height in April, sound designing another show, and writing a musical for her honors thesis, all while holding down a full-time job at a local Staples.

Over the past four years, she also believes she has grown profoundly on a personal level, thanks in large part to the support she’s received from the entire theatre department. “I suffer from bipolar disorder, and the theatre faculty have helped me through some difficult times in my life. I can take control of some things in ways I didn’t realize I could. Todd Ristau, Ernie Zulia, Kiah Kayser, John Forsman, Lauren Ellis, Anna Goodwin, Susie Young, and Rachel Nelson all saw potential in me when I didn’t see potential in me.”

Johnson holds dear Zulia’s description of Hollins Theatre not as just an academic department but as an artistic home where alumnae are always cherished. “Alumnae have gone out into the world and done incredible work, and then they get to come back and bring that love of Hollins and love of theatre. For students, that truly has an impact. I hope one day they’ll bring me back as a sound designer.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


London Calling: Through an Internship Abroad, a Senior “Storyteller” Furthers Her Growth as a Writer and Film Student

When a high school English teacher who also happens to be an alumna of a university nationally recognized for creative writing realizes that one of her students has a passion and talent for the craft, the mission she undertakes isn’t surprising.

“She was always asking me, ‘Have you checked out Hollins?’,” Carly Lewis ’21 recalled, laughing. “She got me the Hollins Creative Writing Scholarship as sort of a final ‘Please look at Hollins’ creative writing program, it’s really good.’”

So, the native of Richmond, Virginia, did just that. “Since I liked going to an all-women’s high school, attending a historically women’s college sounded right up my alley. But I mostly wanted to come here because I found that the writing program was indeed very good. I’m a big storyteller, a storyteller in all regards, and I wanted to become a better writer and learn with other like-minded writers.”

From the beginning, Lewis thrived. The first class she took “was with a phenomenal graduate assistant who tossed a lot of rules out of the window. In high school, I was already breaking the rules of writing a little bit. But then I got to Hollins and that graduate student told me, ‘Just write what you want and do what you want. It’ll all come together in the end and we’ll help you.’ Having that freedom right off the bat was such a gift. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of what I could write and how to hone my craft before I even knew what honing my craft meant.”

Three members of Hollins’ English and creative writing faculty subsequently had a profound impact on Lewis. Professor of English and Creative Writing T.J. Anderson III showed her she could blend music with writing and it could be “heartbreaking and lovely and moving,” she said.

Lewis remembers feeling both excitement and trepidation when she enrolled in her first advanced creative writing workshop, which was taught by her advisor, Professor of English and Creative Writing Cathryn Hankla. “I was scared to read something from one of our random writing exercises during class because I thought it wasn’t going to be good. She told me, ‘No first draft is good. Just read it and you can fix it later. It’s not meant to be good at first.’ That’s always stuck with me. Even if you think it’s good, there’s always work to do. She’s always encouraged me to have confidence and trust in my writing.”

This semester, Lewis is taking her fourth and final advanced writing workshop, and her second with Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing Jessie van Eerden, who is “always cheering me on. She’s a comforting good source of critique and support.”

While Lewis came to Hollins to study creative writing, she also considered herself a visual person (one of her hobbies is photography) and enjoyed an interest in film. “I don’t know why, but it wasn’t something I’d entertained in studying until I had the opportunity to take an Introduction to Film class. I realized it’s not unlike analyzing or critiquing a book. So I thought, ‘A writer who can talk about movies, too. It’s a good pairing,’ and I ended up adding a film major.”

Lewis said the film classes that she has particularly loved are the ones she’s taken with Professor of English and Creative Writing R.H.W. Dillard. “He’s a great film critic. I’m in my third of his Film as a Narrative Art classes. He does a great job of connecting the filmmakers to their work and getting to know them, their techniques, and the history of the time when the film was made that might have impacted it.”

Another of Lewis’ aspirations when she came to Hollins was international study. Trips to Italy and Spain during high school sparked her interest in spending a semester abroad, so during one of her visits to Hollins as a prospective student, she attended a meeting about the Hollins Abroad – London program.

“I was immediately hooked. Going to London became a big part of why I wanted to come here. You take classes, but the most important thing is that you actually get to immerse yourself in life in another country.”

Carly Lewis '21 WMA
Lewis (left) at London’s Weller Media Agency. “I loved my internship and being around a bunch of crazy creatives every day.”

As Lewis prepared to travel to London to spend the 2019 fall term, she decided that completing an internship there would enrich her experience. Hollins’ Office of International Programs works through CAPA to provide international internship opportunities for students based on their areas of interest, and Lewis was placed with Weller Media Agency (WMA), a global digital creative and marketing company specializing in promoting talent in the music and entertainment industries, especially up-and-coming artists.

“It was a dream come true, it was like they read my mind almost about what I wanted to do,” Lewis said. “I’ve always been a big music person but I’d never done anything before in the music industry. I loved my internship and being around a bunch of crazy creatives all day, every day. They were just so nice and encouraging.”

Lewis did everything from graphic design and social media content to writing for Spindle (a magazine affiliated with WMA), engaging in public relations activities, and assisting with film and photography production. “It was fun because everyone is working in the same room and all I had to do was walk from one table to the next to see if there was anything they needed. They were very gracious and excited to have me help out on a bunch of projects such as shooting music videos and meeting and interviewing talent. Interacting with the artists I listened to or wrote about was really cool.”

Carly Lewis '21 Arlette House London
“Going to London became a big part of why I wanted to come [to Hollins]. You get to immerse yourself in life in another country.”
The Hollins senior believes her WMA internship has opened a door for her. “I never really entertained the thought of working in the music industry in terms of film and photography or even as a writer, but this showed me I could do it and how it could happen. And Weller was such a great place for networking.”

The WMA experience mirrored what Lewis encountered throughout her semester in London. “The people are so kind and giving, and so imaginative,” she said. One of her favorite parts of the city is Brick Lane, located in the East End. “There are loads of little thrift shops and it’s really artistic. They do graffiti tours down there so there’s always artists spray painting the walls with these giant murals. I really liked their music scene, too. I went to a lot of concerts there.”

Carly Lewis '21 Brick Lane Graffiti Tour
Lewis was captivated by Brick Lane on London’s East End with its graffiti tours, thrift shops, and vibrant music scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lewis praises the host family with whom she lived. “I loved them so much. My host mom was interested in what was doing, very supportive, and recommended what to see and where to eat. She made sure I knew how to get to those places, too, whether it was on the Tube or taking a bus. She was always looking out for me, and it was nice to have someone who was already living there be a guide. I can’t recommend enough living with a host family.”

Carly Lewis '21 Stratford Upon Avon
A jaunt through Stratford-Upon-Avon in the county of Warwickshire, England.

Lewis’ final semester is a busy one. She’s wrapping up her third year as a CA (Community Assistant), a position that has offered her the chance to draw upon her experience as the oldest sister in her own family to mentor first-year students. “I get to watch them when they first come to college and see how they change. It’s crazy how much they grow into themselves, even in the first semester. It’s just great to be a part of that.”

But perhaps the most ambitious project on Lewis’ plate at the moment is her first novel, which she began a couple of years ago and draws upon her study abroad experience. “It’s realistic fiction and it involves music, it’s about a band, and it’s set in London,” she explained. “It’s combining all of my favorite things and in the genre that I think is the most ‘me.’ It’s very hard but it is fun.” She noted that Hankla and van Eerden have both been very supportive, reading parts of the novel and offering suggestions as the work progresses.

Carly Lewis '21 Hampstead Heath
Lewis at London’s Hampstead Heath: “Eventually I think I will go back. I felt like I was leaving behind a home, and one day it will be time to go back home.”

 

 

 

 

Following graduation this spring, Lewis hopes to secure a music editorial internship with NPR. She’s also been in touch with Hollins alumnae in Richmond about possible opportunities within the area’s robust film production industry. “I also want to look at music studios to intern or just come in and see what they are all about, partly because I’m interested in getting to know the music industry better, but also to gather research for my novel.”

Even though her future plans are still coming together, Lewis has little doubt a particular city will figure prominently whatever she pursues. “After I returned here following my London experience, it seemed like I should be back there. Eventually I think I will go back, possibly for grad school in a couple of years. I felt like I was leaving behind a home,
and one day it will be time to go back home.”