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Only Theater Can Make Sense of It

Natalia Solano ’22 shares a short video of her hometown — Pittsburgh, Pa. — with her Princeton and Italian course mates. Maurizio Forgione, member of the La Fermata theater company and the course’s cultural liaison, takes seminar participants on a video tour of Gesualdo, Italy.

An e-Global Seminar explores the ways in which storytelling helps navigate traumatic experiences

By Pooja Makhijani, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies

Princeton University’s response to the pandemic has harnessed the ingenuity of its faculty and students, encouraging new lines of humanistic and artistic inquiry in these extraordinary times. The Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies’ (PIIRS) summer 2021 e-Global Seminar, “The Decameron Project: Musical Theater Storytelling in Times of Trauma,” addressed the pandemic in real time, exploring the stories we tell to allow ourselves to weather the worst.

Instructors Peter Mills ’95 and Cara Reichel ’96 of Prospect Theater Company in New York City, and Stacy Wolf, professor of theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts, originally conceived of the seminar as an immersive international experience: Students would travel to Gesualdo, Italy; study Giambattista Basile's “Tale of Tales,” considered the first collection of literary fairy tales to appear in western Europe; and collaborate with Italian theater professionals to produce a site-specific performance.

When the seminar was recast to fit the virtual format — undergraduates were prohibited from University-sponsored international travel in summer 2021 due to the pandemic — Mills, Reichel and Wolf reached for another foundational Italian text: Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century classic “The Decameron.” In it, a group of 10 young people flee Florence during the Black Plague, taking refuge in a Tuscan villa. To keep spirits up during their quarantine, they take turns telling stories; Boccaccio’s stories became a model for Italian authors of fairy tales, including Basile. “We could still look at classical literature and engage around Italian history, language and culture,” Reichel says. “Because [‘The Decameron’] is about telling stories and getting through a time of trauma, we could use that as the concept of the course.”

“All the signs pointed to ‘this is our Plan B,’” Mills said.

The centerpiece of the new course became the creation of a collection of short musical theater pieces on a variety of themes, responding to the coronavirus pandemic and exploring the fundamental human need to tell stories. Mills, who also co-leads an extracurricular writing workshop with the Princeton Triangle Club, and Reichel scaffolded this task for students by introducing various fundamentals of craft related to both storytelling in general, and musical theater specifically. “I approach the task of teaching and sharing my enthusiasm for theater with students in the same way I approach collaborating with professional artists,” Reichel says.

Wolf’s deep dive into several contemporary American musicals, such as “Into the Woods,” “Once On This Island,” and “Fun Home” among others, provided a shared vocabulary as students worked on their own projects. “I teach academic classes from the audience or interpreter’s perspective, and it was really great for me to hear Pete and Cara talk about these musicals from a creator’s perspective,” Wolf says. “I led play analysis, music analysis, dance analysis. We looked at clips and the script.” These academic classes were supplemented by guest visits with theater practitioners, including Clint Ramos, an Oscar- and Tony-award winning costume designer; George Takei, an actor best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu on “Star Trek”; and Kirsten Childs, a composer, lyricist and librettist.

Natalia Solano ’22 is concentrating in comparative literature and earning a certificate in humanistic studies. She had almost no experience in writing for musical theater prior to taking this course, and the final project was a transformative creative challenge, she says. “It was daunting at first,” she says. “But the experience of writing a 10-minute musical in one week was new to everyone. [The course] was a warm and welcoming space where I felt comfortable sharing my writing.”

Collaboration and immersion remained central to the course, even across distances. Princeton students met for several hours of language instruction per week. During week three, they also worked together — via Zoom — with members and students from the Irpinia-based theater company, La Fermata. “We knew we wanted to engage with people from the community,” Reichel says, remarking on Italy’s hefty pandemic toll. “We wanted to use this opportunity to strengthen those relationships.” As part of their engagement with the Italian participants, each Princeton student wrote a brief monologue in American English, which was exchanged with a partner from the Italian company, who wrote a monologue in Italian. Partners swapped monologues and rehearsed the text, and each individual performed a monologue in the other’s language. “Sharing our writing with each other, challenging each other to be creative in our [non-native] language — all of that really helped make it feel like I was having a cultural experience,” Solano says. Both the Princeton students and Italian participants also shared short videos of their homes. “I made a video about Pittsburgh; it felt like an exchange that way.”

Elliot Lee ’23, an English major, is currently writing a musical, “The Art of Pleasing Princes,” which will be staged by the Princeton University Players in April 2022. He used this class — and specifically guidance and feedback from Mills and Reichel — to polish three songs for that work-in-progress. “The songs [coincidentally] connected with the themes of storytelling, fairy tales and community that the course was exploring,” he says. “And because the class was over Zoom [rather than in Italy], I was able to work with my collaborator” — a fellow Princeton student — “and get those songs critiqued and workshopped in class.” Lee had been accepted into the 2020 seminar in Italy, and chose to re-enroll for 2021. He was equally enthusiastic about the virtual course given his deep interest in the subject matter and his previous studies with Wolf, he says.

 “I’m excited arts are being incorporated into the international agenda, especially musical theater,” Reichel says. “There’s so much about musical theater that’s reflective of the American experience and the American identity. International engagement allows you to consider your art form in a much deeper way. And when you’re engaging around art, you can get to the core of a feeling or emotions, even if you can’t understand the language.”

“You don’t have to be interested in the arts to get a lot out of a Global Seminar that focuses on the arts,” Wolf adds.

Aside from jazz, musical theater is the most American art form, Wolf reiterates, and she looks forward to a future where she, her co-instructors, their students and their collaborators will be in the same place. “What we can share with the Italians by making musical theater, but based on stories from that region and town, will be the coolest kind of cultural exchange I can imagine.”