Student-run production 'White Nights' gets personal

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By Kathleen Davis, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 25, 2014

Just off West Huron street — a few blocks from campus — lies a small wooden building painted a cheery shade of yellow that looks better suited for rural Mid-Michigan than downtown Ann Arbor. Inside this space appropriately named The Yellow Barn, a handful of University students have been tirelessly perfecting the original play “Doing White Nights,” which is preparing for its debut this weekend.

“Doing White Nights”

Friday 10:30 pm, Saturday 9 pm, Sunday 9 pm
The Yellow Barn

What sets “Doing White Nights” apart from the myriad of shows that grace Ann Arbor each year is that from beginning to end, the play has been completely student run and organized. “Doing White Nights” is the collaborative final college project between long-time working partners Music Theatre and Dance senior Ellie Sachs, who directed the play, and LSA senior Jacob Axelrad, a former Michigan Daily arts contributor, who wrote it.

“Doing White Nights” is first and foremost a story of the friendship between two best friends, Mike and Aaron, both UM seniors taking a cross-country road trip. However, trouble strikes when their car breaks down in a deserted Ohio cornfield outside of civilization. To make matters worse, Mike, who has recently been released from a mental hospital , has run out of his medication. The pair must survive the battle against cold, hunger and Mike’s inner-demons as their friendship takes the ultimate test.

Axelrad and Sachs started conceptualizing the play last summer. The script was finished by January and the casting complete by early February.

“This is probably (the play) based most on my own experiences because I’ve never written about people who are directly my age or anything so personal,” Axelrad said. “Seeing everyone come together with different skills and expertise to make this vision that was originally an idea I had on paper is pretty awesome.”

Many of the students working on the show have previously collaborated with Sachs and Axelrad. Because of limited funding by the University, the play has been significantly funded by a Kickstarter project.

“Jacob and I were really committed to doing the show on our own and doing it within the city of Ann Arbor, much like we would be if we were trying to do our own work in New York, Chicago or LA,” Sachs said. “You’ve got to do it yourself, you’ve got to find the venue, you’ve got to find the people and you’ve got to make it work.”

“It’s been a challenge but so rewarding when the pieces come together, and you’ve got be a go-getter,” Sachs added. “You’ve got to go out and get it done, and I think it’s good practice for what the future might look like for us.”

As a venue, The Yellow Barn adds a perfect ambiance to the setting of the story. The barn’s raw and rustic, yet cozy interior allows for significant creative liberty from the show’s art director, Music, Theatre and Dance and LSA senior Madalyn Hochendoner, while also letting the audience use their imaginations.

“This is a wonderful space to have, and you’ve got to be self-motivated. As much as Ellen is a good motivator, there’s only so many times she can tell you to do something,” Hochendoner said. “You’ve got to be willing to collaborate and go out on your own and be the one to do the research bring the stuff and get excited about it.”

Hochendoner previously worked with Sachs in various classes during their time at the University. Being from Ohio, the cornfield setting appealed to her and drew her to the project. Hochendoner has also dealt with mental illness personally through family members with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and took that experience into the shaping of her work. The decorative cornstalks that are present on the set throughout the play differ aesthetically based on Mike’s state of mind, and Hochendoner incorporated pill bottles and other trinkets where she thought tasteful.

The play's small cast and crew has allowed the group to become close knit and supportive of each other’s artistic talents. An actress in the production, LSA freshman Anna Garcia, was discovered by Sachs after an improvisational comedy show in February. Although she’s done theater for most of her life, this is her first theatrical production at the University.

“Ellie is so talented when it comes to directing, she has such a clear vision,” Garcia said. “The show is going to be great and a lot of that is due to her.”

Garcia is playing the role of Alicia, the deceased sister of the character Mike who appears during the character’s hallucinations. Alicia’s entrances bridge moments of reality and reconstructed memory with tap-dancing interludes from the 1980s film “White Nights”, the play’s namesake. The various artistic mediums and subtleties with which the play takes the audience between the inner landscape of Mike’s mind and the realities of the cornfield, showcase the distinct creative talents behind the play.

“Just being a part of (Doing White Nights), I feel cool just to be involved,” Garcia said. “I’m surrounded by all these people with these great visions who just exude talent. I’m just proud to be here for the ride.”