By Cassidy Keenan

Two weeks ago, the blackbox theater I am standing in was completely empty. It was nothing more than four gray walls, a blank space ready to be filled.

Now, though, I suddenly find myself between two enormous wooden boats. There are three pirates learning how to sword-fight with the assistant director to my left. To my right, the rehearsal pianist is calling over the noise trying to find out how many mermaids are ready to learn the second chorus of the big musical number. I am standing in the middle of it all, a cat puppet on my arm, while my director tries to demonstrate how I need to make it fly.

Needless to say, a very organized chaos currently reigns in Arena Theater.

This crazy magical pandemonium is the result of the theater’s newest season. Every member of Arena’s company has been in full swing for nearly four weeks now, busily preparing for the upcoming production of Peter and the Starcatcher. The production, a Broadway prequel to Peter Pan, opens at Arena on November 1. Directed by Wheaton professor Michael Stauffer, the lively production explores methods of world-building, stimulates the imagination, and asks hard-hitting questions about what it truly means to grow up.

Who better to ask such questions than the company of college students, who are trying to find meaning during one of the most transitive times of their lives?

Hands-on Rigor & Creativity

The process of theater-making at Wheaton College is a task both daunting and fulfilling. There are three main elements of the theater program at Wheaton; the mission statement on their informational website reads, “The combination of rigorous classes, the opportunity to work on various crews for each production, and our core ensemble create a truly unique theater education that emphasizes artistic growth and communal creation.”

This couldn’t be more true. Productions at Wheaton would not be possible without the student theater-makers committing to all these things. Our Peter Pan may be in rehearsal every night battling pirates and learning to fly, but during crew hours he can be found with a drill in his hand, building the set. The fearsome pirate Black Stache is a crew head in the costume shop, creating sailor outfits and vests for the island natives.

I myself am a mermaid by night, but by day I’m up in the catwalks with a wrench, hanging spotlights. And we accomplish all this with the skills we have learned in our various classes, whether it be Theater Survey, Acting, Scenography, Directing, or an elective class.

Although crews and classes are fundamental pieces of the puzzle, the heart and soul of Arena Theater comes in the form of the core ensemble called Workout. The company was originally founded in 1972 by Jim Young. We meet twice a week as an ensemble in order to play games, perform acting exercises, and work on elements of our craft such as physicality and emotion. It is a way to get in better tune with ourselves and with one another as colleagues and artists.

In a brief history of Workout, alumni J. Randall Peterson writes, “The intense interaction of the Workout group…build[s] strong bonds. Breathing, speaking, moving, responding, listening, risk-taking—all these valuable stage skills matured in this incubator…the people of the Workout Group [are] connecting at various levels all at once, sinews and synapses, trauma and trust.”

Jim Young, before his death in 2012, recorded a video recounting the history of Workout and the long road that led to where we are now. Young says, “And I had…this idea that I really wanted to work with a group of people who are committed to more than being in a play. And so people would come in never having thought about being in the theater until that time. And I said, we’ll work with that.”

This philosophy has continued to this day. Workout is about creative, collaborative art. Its members have a wide range of majors, vocations, and previous theater experience.

Young also talks about our humble beginnings in the basement of the Fischer dormitories. The space served as Arena’s theatrical performance space for 11 years. This presented its own unique set of challenges—for instance, hoping that the flushing of toilets in the bathroom next door would not occur during a dramatic pause in a performance. They were relieved when the administration made a bid on Jenks Hall during an auction in 1983. Young describes the touching process of moving out of their old performance space.

“Here was the space in which so many prayers had been offered, you know?” Young says in the video, recounting the memory with visible emotion. “So we all put our hands on all of the walls, and we all took the prayers of the people off the walls onto our hands…and we could walk with our hands open into the new space, into the current theater…and so, all of the prayers of all of the hosts of the saints, are in that space now.”

Sacred Space

It is astounding to consider how far our small theater has come since those first days in the Fischer basement. Not only do we continue the annual three-show seasons, but we have new opportunities for creating art. For example, the Shakespeare in the Park summer program, or students who direct and produce their own senior projects. We also have a much bigger media presence, including several articles published about our work in the Chicago Tribune.

However, strides still need to be made. Wheaton still does not have an official theater major. Coordination between the arts is still near-impossible, as our very few music students can attest. And far too many students on campus still have no idea that Jenks Hall even exists. So many have come before us, and yet as I look down the other side of that unending line, there is still so far to go.

Regardless, as a current Workout member who has prayed several of my own prayers into the walls, it brings me a sense of community and joy to know that this space has been a sacred one for generations. No matter what the show, no matter what my role is in it, I know that I am in a long line of theater makers. All the artists who came before me, and all those who will come after I am gone.

As Lord Aster says in the final scene of Peter and the Starcatcher, “The thing you did, against impossible odds—it’s what…you will always have.”

Arena Theater is an institution like no other; I couldn’t imagine my collegiate life without it. The work we do is invaluable, and it is our pleasure to share it with anyone who wants to witness. And as I reflect on the history of the space, I know that though all shows come to an end. But their aftereffects will stay with both the actors and the audiences no matter where we go next in life, no matter who comes after us.

Peter and the Starcatcher opens on Nov 1 and runs until Nov 9 at Arena Theater (Jenks Hall) on Wheaton College’s campus. Tickets are on sale, available online here.

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Cassidy Keenan is a student journalist and a member of the core ensemble at Wheaton College (Illinois).