“Can we get someone to boo?” freshman actor Dylan Nir asked the director, sophomore Jesse Itskowitz, in all seriousness. “Is that a goal, getting someone in the audience to boo?”
Two weeks into their month of rehearsals, the director and lead actor were wracking their brains to perfect the ending for Ubu Roi, and the first production of Beg to Differ, a student theatre board for non-theatre majors only. Nir, the actor who plays the lead role of Papa Ubu, sat across from the director and spoke in a thunderous voice as he recited a couple of lines. For a brief two seconds, Nir seemed puzzled. Then he burst out into laughter.
“How are we supposed to do this?” he asked Itskowitz.
“I don’t totally know what’s going to happen in this scene,” Itskowitz said, smiling. For the past two weeks, he had been carefully putting each scene together, working individually with the actors and polishing every detail. “It’s going to be against anything I’ve learned or anything I’ve tried. It’s out of my comfort zone.”
Itskowitz began explaining what the first production of Ubu Roi was really like. According to Itskowitz, the twisted parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet was officially performed only once. Before what would be the first and last performance, Alfred Jarry, the playwright, climbed onstage and presented a “bizarre, rambling speech that just threw everyone off.” Once the show began, profane words and absurd events flooded the play. The audience was furious.
“But we have got to get someone in the crowd to boo,” Itskowitz agreed, “because this will probably be the most experimental play I’ll be directing for a while.”
Marie Peeples, the producer of Ubu Roi and a sophomore English major, is one of the founding members of Beg to Differ. She started it when she was part of a freshman seminar last year for the Kaplan Humanities Scholars Program when the class participated in a 24-Hour Play Festival. Students were given 24 hours to write and plan a performance with their team of students and an expert from the field who came in to assist and collaborate with them.
“We enjoyed doing theatre,” Peeples said. “But it’s so hard for non-majors to be involved because StuCo (Student Theatre Coalition) is so intense—which isn’t a bad thing, because if you’re a theatre major, that’s going to be your career.”
“The end of winter quarter was when we had the idea,” said Jessica Zawadzki, the board’s public relations director. A Weinberg sophomore double majoring in political science and psychology, Zawadzki was involved in musical theatre in high school. At Northwestern, she found ways to stay involved by doing hair and makeup for the Dolphin Show.
“At the end of [the Festival],” Zawadzki explained, “we asked each other, ‘Would you be interested in working on a theater for non-majors type of thing?’ Since then, we kind of defined our mission statement, what we were really about. We wanted to serve as a group for people who, like, a lot of us, had done theater before and wanted to continue, and people who weren’t involved in theater before that just want to try something new. We chose our show, we chose what we wanted to do and who we wanted to be on campus.”
Ubu Roi became that production. Costs weren’t completely irrelevant when the board first chose the show. According to Peeples, the board was looking for a work that was in public domain so that they wouldn’t have to pay for extra copyrights. The cast could be neither too small nor too big. They all read and discussed Ubu Roi, and the late 19th century absurdist play, a show that would require thinking out of the box, became Beg to Differ’s debut project.
Since then, Peeples has been actively fundraising and figuring out ways to support the production. Last quarter, the board held a bake sale. Zawadzki has been in charge of the board’s public efforts, from making flyers to opening a Facebook page.
“The strength that we have is that our experiences are diverse,” said Zawadzki. “We’re all from different majors, and it’s great to have such a diverse exec board.”
In the meantime, the board brought in Itskowitz, also from the Kaplan Humanities Scholars Program, as director.
“Jesse is a really great director,” Zawadzki said. “We trust his vision. We all discussed with him what his vision was of the show this summer.”
The board has let Itskowitz work creatively with the show, meeting with him occasionally to find out how the production is going. In rehearsals, it becomes more obvious that Itskowitz is the creative force behind Ubu Roi – his ideas shape how a surreal play from the 19th century will safely make its way onto a 21st century stage while maintaining the abrupt and absurd surprises.
A Communications sophomore studying film, Itskowitz isn’t an authoritative director with a booming voice. In rehearsal, he sat in a chair, but never in one position for too long. He was sitting backwards, kneeling on the chair and hugging the back of the chair. He leaned back, with legs stretched forward and perched on another chair that he had dragged close, his script on his lap. He swiveled back and forth in his chair, his eyes focused on his actors the whole time.
“Hold,” Itskowitz said, and the actors immediately stopped and looked up.
Itskowitz asked big questions like “Who are you?” and “Why are you here?” He made the actors explain themselves and justify their actions. Sometimes he explained the situation himself. But he never once told them how they should sound or act. He only explained the flow of emotion he wanted to build up in the scene.
“What I’m really interested in is character,” Itskowitz said, “like the little things that people do that reveal something about them. The way they behave in a certain context.”
Itskowitz said he had worked with people who have little experience in theatre. You tend to get people who have a lot of intellect, he said, who have experience in something other than theatre that they can bring in. The combination of these talents is what crafts interesting performances.
“It takes a while to get there and it can be a painful process, but when you get there, you get wonderful, wonderful results,” Itskowitz said.
It was also Itskowitz that introduced Medill sophomore Katherine Stein to the world of theatre. Stein, who had no experience with theatre, is one of two stage managers for the show. In every rehearsal that I went to, Stein sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor, the script, notepad, scheduler and laptop all open around her. She took rehearsal notes to be sent out via email after every rehearsal.
The rehearsal typically ran four hours each day except Friday, with the actors arriving and leaving after an hour or two of working on a scene with Itskowitz. Stein was there the whole time, typing emails, scheduling rehearsals, sorting out schedule conflicts, and occasionally piping up to correct the actors’ pronunciations of “Wenceslas” and “Bougrelas.”
“I had no experience in theater whatsoever. But I always wanted to try,” Stein said. “Then Jesse told me all I needed to do was be organized. I thought, I can do that.”
Zawadzki uses the word “inclusive” when characterizing Beg to Differ.
“It’s not stuffy, it’s not entirely classical, it’s not exactly Shakespeare,” Zawadzki explained. “But it’s not so modernized that people who don’t like the new kind of theater wouldn’t see it. We wanted it to be as inclusive as possible and appeal to a large number of students.”
“We don’t want to make one type of play our thing,” Peeples said. “Anything is possible. Our biggest goal is to use this production as a springboard to become an ASG-approved organization. Hopefully, when people hear about this show and come to this show, especially non-majors, they can think, ‘Oh, that’s something I might want to be involved in.’”
Ubu Roi is set to go onstage at the Jones Great Room on Friday, Feb. 7 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., and on Saturday, Feb. 8 at 2 p.m. and 11 p.m. The crew is building its own stage, creating a world of Ubu Roi within the room.