Northwestern students cause drama with cell phones
    Director Maria Benson looks up from Shanley
    lighting plans. Photo by author.

    Spectrum will premiere its first play of the season, Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, this week and they secretly want your cell phones to ring. Well, probably not, but it would make a point.

    “A big theme in the show is how life is interpreted by cell phones,” show producer Megan Feibusch, a Bienen sophomore, said.  “You’re never really alone when you have a cell phone and you’re expected to always be there.”

    Sitting in on a rehearsal proved why Northwestern has produced three of Ruhl’s plays in the past three years. Ruhl, a MacArthur fellowship recipient and Pulitzer Prize finalist, focuses on the small oddities in life we take for granted. Her themes are mature and thoughtful, without losing comic relief.  “I like to see people speaking ordinary words in strange places, or people speaking extraordinary words in ordinary places,” she told the New Yorker in 2008. Ruhl seems a perfect fit for Spectrum, a group that focuses on non-traditional and politically minded theatre.

    This year, Spectrum will focus on the question “what is truth?” during their 2010-2011 season.  Their shows will explore who creates truth and how each person has their own idea of the truth. Director Maria Benson and the rest of the cast seem to like this best about her writing. “She’s interested not so much in psychological realism or the psychological arch of the character but in the little moments in life,” Benson said.  “A lot of plays will try to distill things down to a very ordered emotional arch and Ruhl is saying that’s not how life really is.”

    Feibusch said the play fit with Spectrum’s theme not only because of the script but because of the actors as well. “You can really tell the actors are trying to find the truth in the show,” she said of the cast.

    With only half the cast and production members sitting in Ryan Auditorium less than a week before the premiere, the room was filled with noise and activity. But don’t worry; they were being productive.

    Benson, a School of Communication senior, was on a mission to “bring the reality of the character into the actor and find what the truth is for them.” Dancing around the stage in sweat pants, talking candidly on topics that bug them or make them down right angry, the cast resembles a group of friends hanging out around campus. Yet at the end of an impassioned rant, Benson quickly asked the actors to focus that energy on the scene.

    “It’s about bringing a little bit more of the inside stuff and a little bit more of the tension about the outside stuff into the acting,” Benson said about the exercises the cast uses in rehearsal. She spoke about the main character in Dead Man’s Cell Phone and how she “develops her idea of what the truth is and gradually we find out what the truth really is and she has to change her picture of it.”

    Her directing style, part guerrilla tactics, part self-exploration, is what promises to make Dead Man’s Cell Phone such an interesting performance. As she interrupts her actors and asks them to rant about something in their own lives for a few minutes instead, they later enter into the realm of the play with renewed passion.

    Stage manager  and Weinberg freshman Kayleigh Madjer said she’s learned a lot from group’s collaborative energy.

    “It’s interesting to see the different ideas people have after being involved in something like this for so long. It’s cool hearing their ideas. Having a production team work together as opposed to the director doing everything and seeing their process is really interesting,” Madjer said. “But I really hope a cell phone goes off during the show. That would be really funny.”

    Spectrum’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone plays from Thursday through Saturday in Shanley. Tickets are $5 for students.


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