Directing is a course offered by the department of Theatre, housed in Zoellner Arts Center. The four-credit class fuses instruction and practical experience in theater discussion. (Hallie Fuchs/B&W Staff)

Setting the Stage: theater students direct upcoming ‘Familiar but Strange’ production

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Toward the end of his fourth and final year at Lehigh, Matthew Schonberg, ’18, checked a book out of the library for the first time.

Schonberg, a management major, found himself in the stacks, tasked with selecting a play to direct for his theatre course.

Schonberg said he checked out and read several playbooks, narrowed down his options and worked with theatre professor Pam Pepper to hone in on his final selection.

Directing — a four-credit class with three students — will culminate in performances of “Familiar but Strange” this semester. The production is comprised of three one-act plays about change and will run from May 4-6 in the Black Box Theatre with free admission.

Each student from the course directs one act: Jake Blecher, ’18, is directing “The Zombies of Montrose” by James Morrow, Schonberg is directing “How to Speak Man” by Sharyn Rothstein, and Marco Biaggio, ’20, is directing “For the Living” by Chie-Hoon Lee.

In addition to the three directors, the show requires a host of designers and each act has casts of multiple actors.

Pepper said the cast and crew “Familiar but Strange” is composed of 13 actors, a lighting designer, a set designer, three costume designers, technicians, a stage manager, and painting and prop students.

With so many people involved, Schonberg said scheduling can be the most challenging aspect of directing a play. The director must work with a group of actors and designers who are already busy with other classes and commitments.

Biaggio said he often struggles with finding the correct words to use while he is directing.

“(The directors) have to learn how to find the right words to lead someone where they would like to lead them, but still give them room to explore and discover,” Pepper said. “It’s a lot harder than they let on.”

Pepper said students must convey their understandings of the plays without forcing their viewpoints on the actors and designers.

Blecher has been involved in theater as an actor for as long as he can remember, but he didn’t try his hand at directing until he came to Lehigh. He said his acting experience informs his directing style, as he often draws on experiences he had working with other directors as an actor.

“Working as a director has helped me split my focus and understand how all of the elements of (a production) come together in one composition,” Blecher said.

Collaboration is key for the course.

Pepper said she wants her students to read each other’s plays, see each other’s plays and support each other in any way they can.

“My approach to (the class) is an all-for-one and one-for-all,” she said.

Likewise, the final “Familiar but Strange” performance is to function as a single play with three acts. Pepper said the students studied their plays and found that a common theme of change unified them, inspiring the title “Familiar but Strange.”

Blecher, Biaggio and Schonberg chose their plays before spring break and held auditions the week after spring break.

“We admittedly took a bit of risk since, historically, we have fewer men audition than women,” Schonberg said. “Our shows, in total, called for more men than women, but we were really glad to see so many fantastic actors and actresses come out.”

Since casting, the directors have held design conferences with the different designers and run at least three rehearsals each week.

Pepper said she limits what sets and costumes the directors have at their disposal because boundaries incite creativity. For example, costumes for “Familiar but Strange” are pulled from the department’s costume stock. The costumes can be altered, but the costume designers didn’t make anything from scratch for the plays.

“Their job becomes really one of leading a lot of people and communicating with a lot of people about what works best for their productions,” she said.

Prior to working on the one-act plays, the students practiced directing with alternative exercises.

Blecher, Biaggio and Schonberg wrote scenes to be performed by other actors, and sometimes Pepper, in class. Schonberg said that many of the scenes, called the “silent seven,” were done without dialogue and addressed specific topics.

“The first (scenes) that we wrote didn’t have any dialogue, so it was all about conveying what we want an audience to see just through action and particular staging,” he said.

Blecher said it was a significant adjustment to go from directing the “silent seven” and other scenes with just two actors to working with six actors for “The Zombies of Montrose,” his “Familiar but Strange” play.

He said his first rehearsal for “The Zombies of Montrose” was overwhelming, but working with several different actors at once helped him learn more by absorbing more sensory information at once.

“(Pepper) told us in the beginning of the class that once we learn directing fundamentals, we’ll never be able to look at productions the same,” Blecher said. “That’s definitely true.”

Schonberg said his only regret at Lehigh is that he didn’t take more theatre courses, despite being involved with involved in plays each semester.

Blecher said he doesn’t think people realize how many opportunities the theatre department offers.

“You don’t need to be in the theatre department to be involved,” he said, “which is not the case at many other schools.”

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