Shenandoah Conservatory partners with The Farm Theater to present a Facebook live stream performance of “The Hierarchy of Fish,” a new play written by Judith Leora, at 7 p.m. on Sunday, April 19. Attendees are invited to participate in a Q&A after the free live event.
When a prominent professor at a liberal arts college refuses to use a student’s preferred pronoun, it unleashes an intense battle over political correctness. A slur is painted on a door, a slushie is hurled into a professor’s face and the students struggle to find the line between freedom of speech and the freedom to be their authentic selves.
The play is directed by Director of Acting and Associate Professor of Theatre Scott Hudson, M.F.A. The performance will be live streamed from The Farm Theater’s Facebook page and shared on Shenandoah Conservatory’s Facebook page as well. There is no intermission during the approximately 2-hour event.
Last year, Shenandoah Conservatory’s Theatre Division began collaborating with The Farm Theater, a New York City-based nonprofit whose mission is to “cultivate early career artists through workshops, productions, and mentoring.” The Farm Theater runs College Collaboration, a special program dedicated to collaborating with three schools to commission and produce work throughout the academic year.
The Farm Theater was founded by Visiting Guest Artist and Adjunct Associate Professor of Theatre Padraic Lillis, B.A., who is a huge baseball fan. The organization’s name is based on the process used by baseball players to move from minor to major league baseball, called “the farm system.” Lillis also has years of experience with education programs and working with young artists.
In its College Collaboration program, The Farm Theater seeks playwrights who have an interest in education and works with them to determine a subject for the new play that is especially meaningful. Selected playwrights must create a work with a minimum of five characters that are more suitable for actors under the age of 30.
The Farm Theater then partners with three colleges each year to collaborate with the commissioned playwright. Each school has the opportunity to work directly with the playwright for a few days. Lillis and the playwright attend at least one of the showings at each school. Ultimately, it is a win-win for the participating students and the playwright as they work on a project being developed for them in time while the playwright gets to further refine work with each production.
Shenandoah Conservatory began working with Leora in February 2019. Her topic of interest is free speech/hate speech on college campuses. Shenandoah students shared their thoughts with her, and she discussed the topic with students at other colleges as well. She submitted her first draft of the script in August 2019. That month, a small group of theatre students traveled to New York City to participate in a workshopping of the first draft. The participants engaged in the development of the new work by reading stage directions, asking questions in a Q&A session, and providing additional feedback through various conversations with the playwright.
From there, the play was presented at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida in November. The second participating college unfortunately had to withdraw from the process. Shenandoah Conservatory’s participating students and faculty decided to continue despite the restrictions placed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will present the work during the live stream event on Sunday, April 19.
Following this performance, the play will undergo further rewrites and a final workshop to be presented at a public reading in New York City (pending further COVID-19 restrictions). Selected actors and creative developers from each of the schools will be invited to participate in the performance produced by The Farm Theater. The play is then open to other early career theatre companies, producers or other entities who may want to take it to its very first professional development and world premiere.
“This process is unique in that we collaborate with a professional organization and a select playwright to participate in a process that goes from conception to stage. We develop conversations and have opportunities to move forward in positive ways, especially given the difficult and challenging subject matter,” said Hudson.
The work, which is written as a comedy, carefully explores the human need to dominate and impose the personal belief of, “I am right and there is an absolute wrong,” asking what is the ultimate cost of this mindset. In her work, Leora turns political views on their head and challenges audiences to ask, “at what cost would I stop my sense of honesty and compassion to myself and others?”
When Shenandoah was challenged with moving the work online, students and faculty eagerly jumped into the new process. They started the rehearsal process online immediately following Shenandoah’s spring break and the onset of the pandemic’s restrictions. The theatre students have already worked through two drafts in this virtual environment, providing helpful feedback to the playwright by questioning and challenging the material. Students are personally invested in the work and empowered by their unique contributions.
“We’re learning to work in Zoom,” said Hudson. “It’s exciting and we’re always playing off of each other’s ideas, choosing not to dwell on what we know isn’t accessible at this time.”
Thirteen students are in the company for “The Hierarchy of Fish,” with eight characters played by Shenandoah Conservatory students. The company also features guest artist Sidney Williams, a New York City-based professional actor playing the role of Professor Kingsley. Hudson felt that it was such a distinct character that needed to be played by someone older, and the students have had a great experience working with and learning from him. Two understudies are also helping with stage directions. Three students are serving as the crew for the project: one stage manager and two assistant stage managers are on deck to help with prompting, lines and given host ability within Zoom to help with cues.
Laurel Hinton ’22 (Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting) serves as the assistant director for the production. She helps keep the continuity of the frame and holds breakout sessions in Zoom to address specific needs, holding the other students accountable for their work.
Cast members Mason Blaine Ferguson ’23 (Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre) and Max Sherman ’23 (Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre) are collaborating with additional theatre students — Nick Villacorte ’23 (Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting) and Maxwell Castellano ’23 (Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting) — to create the “Freedom Band.”
As Shenandoah Conservatory’s Theatre Up Close production for the 2019/20 Conservatory Performs season, “The Hierarchy of Fish” features minimal production elements. Costumes, props, lighting, backdrops, etc., are created and managed by the students.