Oberlin Blogs

All the world's a stage

August 5, 2009

Prof. David Walker ’72

Prospective students quite naturally think of college as a four-year experience, but the longer I teach at Oberlin, the more aware I am that "the Oberlin family" is more than a cliché, and that attending this college can shape your values and perspective for the rest of your life. Not every graduate keeps in touch, of course, but the majority of alums I know are closely attached to their Oberlin friends--and the ease with which they connect with other graduates, sometimes of completely different generations, suggests something powerful in the shared Oberlin experience.

This was brought home to me most recently in a trip abroad: a week after commencement, I flew to London. Every other June for the past decade or so, my colleague David Young and I have taken a group of Oberlin alumni (plus their family members and friends) to London for two weeks of theatergoing. Seeing ten plays in two weeks probably sounds like either a dream or a nightmare to you. Going to the theater every night is actually a pretty demanding experience, so it's not a trip for the faint of heart, but for serious drama fans, it's a tremendous opportunity.

The summer alumni tour is not a class exactly, given that no credit is offered, but it is loosely modeled on the way I teach drama on the Oberlin-in-London Program—which is to say, by focusing on the relationship between text and performance, between the ideas embodied in the script and the way they are explored in production. We ask the participants to read some of the plays in advance, and many of them read more than the minimum. In London the group meets every morning for an hour and a half to discuss the production we saw the night before and to prepare for that evening's performance. (Afternoons are unscheduled, so that people have free time to take advantage of London's countless resources on their own.)

The first time we ran this trip, I had no idea what to expect. I had only ever taught 20-year-olds before, and I was more than a little nervous about what it would be like to lead discussion in a group that ranged in age from recent graduates to people in their 70s. I was immensely relieved to discover that Oberlin values apparently don't change much over time: the group was soon engaged in substantive conversation, easily connecting with each other and with issues of dramatic interpretation. Some members of the group were sophisticated theatergoers, while others had considerably less experience with drama, but everybody was thoughtful and good-humored and eager to learn. From the specifics of set and costume design to broad questions about character and conflict, from thinking about how an audience's experience is shaped by the nature of the theatrical space (the differences between, say, a wide amphitheater and an intimate studio) to speculation about the value of theater itself, the group was terrifically observant and imaginative--not so different, in fact, from my students back in Oberlin. By the end of the fortnight (a word I hope I can get away with, given that I'm talking about London) a lot of ground had been covered, and real friendships had been made.

That experience is repeated each time we make this trip. A number of the same people return every other summer, so that it begins to feel a little like a family reunion, though there are always enough new participants to keep things fresh. And of course the theater is always different: London is one of the world's great theater cities, so there's a tremendous variety of plays to choose from. Organizing a trip like this requires considerable preparation and planning, and in many cases we need to order tickets months before productions have actually opened; there's something of a gamble involved, but we try to choose wisely, and we've only rarely been disappointed.

This year's trip was particularly gratifying. The group was harmonious and lively, the weather was perfect (we departed London just before the late June heatwave), and the theater was almost uniformly first-rate. Some highlights:

Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart:

Two actors wearing black top hats and blazers. One has his hand resting on the other's shoulder with his chin propped up on his hand.
Photo by Sasha Gusov

Shakespeare's eccentric comedy All's Well That Ends Well, in a staging at the National Theatre that emphasized its Gothic fairytale elements:

A stage full of actors. On the floor, women in dresses are dancing with men in suits. Above on a staircase, soldiers are holding flags with a bird.
Photo by Simon Annand

Tom Stoppard's extraordinary Arcadia (maybe my favorite contemporary play):

A group of people sitting around a table, each doing their own thing. One is looking at a laptop, two are reading, and two are conversing. What is stark about this photo is that all are wearing mid 1800s clothing
Photo by Tristram Kenton

Shakespeare's late romance The Winter's Tale, with a half-British, half-American cast of wonderful actors (including Simon Russell Beale, Rebecca Hall, and Ethan Hawke) directed by Sam Mendes:

A stage full of actors. They are listening to a man sing and play guitar. They are surrounded by red, white, and blue balloons
Photo by Tristram Kenton

The same company in Anton Chekhov's tragicomedy The Cherry Orchard (the wonderful Irish actor Sinead Cusack, seen here in the red dress, came to talk with us about both productions, and she was as luminous and generous as you could hope for):

Two actors in an emotional interaction. The woman, wearing a red dress, is sitting on the ground gazing at a man who is kneeling next to her with his hand on her chin
Photo by Tristram Kenton

and a new play called War Horse, chiefly notable for its unforgettable life-sized horse puppets:

Actors tending to a hand-built horse
Photo by Simon Annand

I think I'll stop there so as not to make anyone too envious. After a very rich couple of weeks, everybody needed some time to decompress, but by now members of the group are already looking forward to 2011. Anybody else ready to sign up?

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