Basement Arts is wasting no time starting off its fall season. In a small collaborative theater project this summer, three School of Music, Theatre & Dance undergrads discovered the nuances of “A Life in the Theatre,” a David Mamet play to open on Broadway this fall. They are bringing their spin on this character-driven work to Studio One this weekend.

A Life in the Theatre

Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Walgreen Drama Center

“A Life in the Theatre” tells the story of two men: a mentor and his student who act together in a season of repertory theater, played by School of Music, Theatre & Dance seniors Yuriy Sardarov and Paul Koch. As time goes on, their relationship evolves while the theater begins to have distressing effects on their lives.

Koch and Sardarov are big players in campus theater. Koch appeared in “Orpheus Descending,” which was directed by Kacie Smith, a senior in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, as well as “Our Town.” Smith is directing Koch again for “A Life in the Theatre.” Sardarov appeared last year in Basement Arts performances “After Ashley” and “Twelve Angry Men,” as well as films like “The Double,” which stars Richard Gere, Topher Grace and Martin Sheen.

Compared to a traditional audition process, this production of “A Life in the Theatre” has different roots — Sardarov and Koch presented the idea as an acting project to Smith.

“We said that we wanted a collaborative nature for the play. We are constantly bouncing ideas off of each other and giving each other our input,” Smith said. “We found this project together, and it’s a much more fleshed out and complex show than I would have been able to accomplish on my own.”

Accustomed to directing plays with large casts, Smith had some reservations about a two-man show.

“I’ve been a fan of bigger casts — I like the dynamic of a lot of people in the room and I like staging for more people. I was a little worried coming into this that I would not be stimulated only working with two actors,” Smith explained. “I’m so pleased to say that I was completely wrong. It’s been very fulfilling because we’ve been able to delve deeply into the characters and actors in a way I haven’t been able to do in past productions.”

Smith took a brief hiatus in August to go to New York City, leaving her assistant director Neal Kelley, School of Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore, to take the reins in her absence. Coming back, Smith had a new perspective on the work.

“Part of the challenge as a director is, once you get so familiar with a work, it’s hard to critique it from an audience point of view,” Smith said. “Now I’m able to see and reinterpret things that I didn’t necessarily see before.”

Smith is relying less on the visual aspects of theater and more on the script for “A Life in the Theatre.”

“We have basically done our own costume and set design, there are a lot of hats,” Smith said. “It’s not a design-heavy show, we are focusing more on the acting. I tend to do spectacle shows, and doing something that’s so low-tech and just telling the story without the spectacle has not been a challenge, but a wonderful experience.”

The play is just under an hour long, with quick transitions between multiple scenes. The show takes you everywhere from the dressing room to the different productions in which the two characters act over a period of time.

“It’s really impressive from an acting perspective because you watch them transform repeatedly. One second they’re two marooned sailors, the next they’re in their dressing room, and the next they’re two World War II soldiers,” Smith explained. “It’s interesting because we think Mamet is playing off major genres. It’s taking these genres and stretching the style to make it really obvious that the play is in that style.”

“A Life in the Theatre” is comedic and witty, but it also has serious messages that outline the tolls of being an actor.

“It’s a very tragic view of the theater working him over, using his life, chewing him up and spitting him out,” Smith said. “It’s also about generations, the younger outstripping the old and whether that’s something to be proud of or if it’s something to envy.”

Finding these themes is harder than it sounds; the play requires an audience member to really examine the characters’ relationship in each scene.

“The show is not in your face at all; it gives you a minimum amount of information,” Smith said. “We have noticed that as characters, their relationship evolves while their relationship backstage is also evolving. It’s not as clear cut as you may want it to be.”

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