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Theatre and Dance

Dancing to Explore Relationships

The “open exchange of ideas” described in Grinnell’s mission statement does not end at the edge of campus.

Susan Sanning, director of service learning and civic engagement, facilitated a curricular service learning collaboration — a workshop for medical students at Des Moines University at which Lauren Sheely ’14 performed a work-in-process dance that explores her relationship with both dance and Crohn’s disease. The mutually beneficial workshop was part of Lauren’s Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) in advanced choreography. Celeste Miller, the associate professor of theatre who organized the workshop, also led the students in a series of movement exercises.

Dance and Discussion

Lauren has been dancing since the age of four. Before Grinnell, she danced formally — mostly ballet, a style that prizes poise and form over all. After arriving at Grinnell, she met Celeste, who introduced her to a more personal form of dance that prioritizes expressing emotion over pure technique. Working in this form of dance inspired Lauren to explore the relationship between her history with dance and living with Crohn’s disease, a diagnosis she received in fourth grade.

Most of the DMU students had some background in the arts — an undergraduate major in creative writing, a minor in trumpet performance. Some just had an appreciation for art and an enthusiasm for the places art and science intersect. Dr. Norma Hirsch, assistant professor of behavioral medicine, medical humanities, and bioethics, went so far as to say, “medicine is an art informed by science.”

The dances that Lauren performed left the medical students with many questions about form, content, and how they were devised. Due, in part, to the vulnerability Lauren displayed in her performance, the DMU students didn’t hold back with their questions. One med student was surprised that she didn’t see more frustration or resentment in Lauren’s performance. Others asked what Lauren learned as she was creating these pieces. Dr. Gary Hoff asked “Why dance?” “Because of the undeniability of the body,” Lauren said.

Movement and Metaphor

The movement exercises that followed further examined the undeniability of the body and its usefulness in helping the students understand the doctor-patient relationship through embodiment and metaphor. Celeste led the med students through a number of exercises centered around trust — leading a partner whose eyes were closed around the room, switching partners, and sculpting the partner’s body position.

The responses to these activities were telling, and forced the medical students to operate on the level of metaphor rather than restricting themselves to the physical. One student commented on the anxiety experienced when a partner left them somewhere in the room with their eyes closed, and they waited for another unknown partner. This helped the students empathize with a patient who has been referred to a specialist. Another noted the two types of sculptors—some people placed the partner’s body how they wanted it to be, and others suggested.

The medical students attested to the fact that the movement exercises made concrete what they had already learned about patient care. The physical exercises illustrated dependence and uncertainty and went a long way toward putting them in their future patients’ shoes. Lauren incorporated the DMU students’ reactions to her program into her final performance on May 6 in the Flanagan Studio Theatre. She shared the spotlight with Celeste’s other MAP students, Ana Novak ’14 and Benjamin Zeledon ’14.



Lauren Sheely discussing her work

Teaching Science through Dance

Ana NovakAna Novak ’14 loves science. She also loves dance. Through independent work and a yearlong Mentored Advanced Project (MAP), she combined her passions to both teach and learn.

Dancing DNA

When Novak was a second-year, Celeste Miller, associate professor of theatre and dance, introduced her to Dance Your Ph.D. In the competition, scientists use choreography to answer the question, “What is your Ph.D. about?”

“It’s not dissimilar to using models and diagrams to make concepts more understandable. The difference,” Novak says, “is that in dancing a scientific text, you make it a more personal learning experience and take ownership of the material for yourself.”

Her third year, Novak worked with some members of the College’s dance ensemble to create a performance based on DNA. “I would come in with different pictures of DNA, and we looked at how it was represented in texts,” she says.

Her visual aides included:

  • a three-dimensional model of a double helix;
  • pages filled with the letters C, A, T, and G;
  • X-ray crystallography; and
  • the lines of DNA gel electrophoresis (a way to separate fragments of DNA for analysis).

Kinesthetic Kids

Her senior year, Novak worked with Miller on a two-part MAP.

The first semester, she worked with elementary school students at the Galaxy youth center to examine the efficacy of kinesthetic learning.

She presented the children with a concept that they wouldn’t learn about in school for a decade, a formal definition of DNA:

Deoxyribonucleic acid is a nucleic acid that contains the instructions used to aid in the development and growth of all known living organisms.

“That’s quite a punch as a definition,” Novak says.

The kids worked from the vocabulary that they were able to relate to, embodying concepts such as “contain” and “growth.”

“Hopefully, when they learn the science later in life,” says Novak, “they’ll relate the words to the reality of DNA.”

Solo Show

Jackie Brown, a biology professor, shares Novak’s interest in the intersection of science and art — particularly dance. He offered her the use of a research proposal developed with Idelle Cooper ’01 on the evolution of color in Hawaiian damselflies.

She based her performance, “Performative Reflections on an Evolutionary, Ecological Research Proposal,” on the language from the proposal’s introduction.

Novak says that the dance can be analyzed based on her specific interpretations from Brown and Cooper’s proposal. But there’s nothing wrong with simply appreciating the beauty that science can inspire.

Novak took the MCAT this summer and is working as a medical scribe for a year before entering medical school. She hopes to do more work kinesthetic learning with children in classroom settings.

Ana Novak dancing


In honor of the upcoming 450th celebration of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564, Grinnell’s Theatre and Dance Department presents Hamlet. In its time, the play was the most popular of the revenge tragedies or “tragedies of blood,” in vogue from the 1590s through 1620.

Evening: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 22, Bucksbaum Center Roberts Theatre
Evening: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, Bucksbaum Center Roberts Theatre
Matinee: 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 24, Bucksbaum Center Roberts Theatre

This production is based on the 1623 Folio edition of Hamlet, newly co-edited by Eric Rasmussen ’82 and Jonathan Bate as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works of Shakespeare series, with some elements from the Second Quarto version.

Many in the ensemble of sixteen are doubling roles as Shakespeare’s troupe would have done at the Globe Theatre in London.

The production features Matt Steege ’17 as Hamlet.  Steege, a first-year from Racine, Wis., has performed Hal in Henry IV Part I and Posthumus Leonatus in Cymbeline and has trained at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

Other players include students in Renaissance Hamlet, a dramaturgy seminar with Ellen Mease, the director. Economics professor Mark Montgomery plays the Ghost, Hamlet’s father.

Professional guest artists include scenic designer Erica Zaffarano and composer/sound designer Michael Croswell from the Twin Cities, fight director Casey Kaleba from Washington D.C., and Chicago-based lighting designer Carolyn Voss ’07. Erin Howell-Gritsch designed the costumes. 

Tickets are required for this free public performance. You can pick up tickets at the Bucksbaum Center box office beginning Monday, Nov. 18, noon to 5 p.m., or call the box office (641-269-4444) during business hours. Tickets will also be available at the door. A limited number of tickets are also available at the Pioneer Bookshop in downtown Grinnell.

No tickets are required for open dress rehearsal at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21.

A Secret for a Secret

Theatre professor Craig Quintero directed four Grinnell students in Taiwan this summer. For this Mentored Advanced Project (MAP), Teddy Hoffman ’14, Alex Hsieh ’14, Quinnita Bellows ’15, and Emma Sinai-Yunker ’15 helped develop “A Secret for a Secret: Performing the Poetry of Hsia Yu” and performed it at Taiwan’s National Experimental Theatre.

The four Grinnellians and several professional Taiwanese actors came to the first rehearsal at Quintero’s Riverbed Theatre Company with no script and not much of a set. This devised performance grew out of an interaction between the performers and the poetry of Hsia Yu, one of Taiwan’s most renowned contemporary poets. Initially, the Grinnell students constructed their own performances in response to the poems, and the Taiwanese performers discussed their first exposure to Yu’s poems and set some of them to music.

Over the next five weeks, the students contributed to every part of the production, from set construction to performance. They were encouraged to collaborate and offer suggestions on how to improve the production. Having prominent roles in constructing the set and creating the performances allowed the students a sense of ownership and authorship. Although Quintero was the director, the show belonged to all of them.

Hsia Yu attended two of the performances and praised both the overall production and the student actors. The performance was also favorably reviewed in the Taipei Times.

The four Grinnellians took much more away from the experience than a good review, though. “One of the most significant things I walked away with was experiencing the universality of theatrical expression,” said Hoffman. Though most of the Taiwanese cast members could speak English, at times language seemed superfluous. Said Hoffman: “The idea that we could connect, create, and communicate together despite any language barrier was remarkable and moving.”

Based on feedback from the students, the Taiwanese actors, and the community, Quintero said he would like to offer this opportunity to other students. “It was great to see them grow up as artists,” he said. Quintero also stressed the importance of taking performance out of an academic setting and providing the students with an international experience. In addition to introducing these four students to Taiwan, this experience showed them the universality of performance that can transcend language and culture.


Wit Comes to Flanagan Theatre

Performances: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10–12 &  2 p.m. Oct. 13, Flanagan Theatre

Wit, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson, explores the manner in which a professor of English, Vivian Bearing, faces her losing battle with ovarian cancer.

“In the play,” says director Craig Quintero, assistant professor of theatre, “we witness Vivian as she battles to retain her intellectual rigor, grace, humor, and humanity, while painfully shifting roles from scholar to the subject of study in an experimental chemotherapy program. This is a play about the poetic beauty of life and the manner in which we face death.”

We invite audience members to participate in a short post-performance discussion with the cast and medical professionals.

Performances are open to the public, and free tickets are available from the box office.

Renaissance Hamlet

The most popular dramatic form of the periods of Elizabeth and James I, revenge tragedy reflects an age of skepticism and lost direction.

It was expressive of the intellectual ferment and spiritual upheaval brought on by:

  • The dissolution of the medieval belief in an ordered cosmos,
  • the rise of urban economies,
  • the articulation of pragmatic approaches to the problems of political rule,
  • religious and political conflict in the English Renaissance, and
  • the emergence of competing ideas on the nature of the cosmos, the natural world and especially the character of humanity, its potential and its limitations.

In Hamlet Shakespeare takes up again his great theme, the killing of a king, deliberated as the duty, the burden, and the temptation of a prince bound to avenge.

Students in Ellen Mease’s advanced seminar, Renaissance Hamlet, will study Hamlet and its historical, social, and cultural contexts

Students will explore selections from Renaissance ethical and political philosophy, including Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, Machiavelli's Prince, and Montaigne, and sources such as Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy and the Frenchman Belleforest's retelling of the old tale (Hystorie of Hamblet). 

The close reading of Hamlet will complement the Theatre Department's November production of the play. Seminar members are invited but not required to participate in the production as actors, dramaturgs, rehearsal assistants, , management, or crew. 

Rocky’s Light(en)ing


Benjamin Doehr ’15 spent his summer lighting up Frank N. Furter, Magenta, Brad, and Janet.

Associate Professor of Theatre and Dance Justin Thomas is a professional lighting and scenic designer. This summer, he was contracted by the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. to design the lighting for their production of The Rocky Horror Show, and invited Doehr to participate through a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP).

An economics and chemistry double major with a concentration in policy studies, Doehr may seem an odd choice for a theatre design project.  He’s not.  Doehr has been working in technical theatre since he was in the ninth grade.

Thomas says, “Ben came to Grinnell with a lot of lighting experience, and this project gave Ben the opportunity to experience the production process at one of the country’s strongest regional theatres. Ben has been involved in every bit of the process from script analysis, visual and contextual research, conceptual framework, turning the conceptual ideas into architectural implementation drawings, hanging and focusing the lighting instruments, and programming the light board. He also wrote about 20% of the light looks.”

Doehr says, “There’s that classic trope, ‘An actor without tech is naked in the dark and no one can hear him on stage.’ Part of our job is to help make their world.”

“My favorite part is the 110 hours plus we worked during tech week,” says Doehr. “It’s when we put the actors together with all the design elements to see what works and what doesn’t. It gives you the chance to say, ‘how do we make this look good? How do we sculpt it? How do we shape it? How do we make this more evocative — or more provocative, as the show is Rocky Horror.”

The Rocky Horror Show had some interesting challenges, says Doehr. The minimal set, inspired by works by Christo, relied heavily on lighting for mood.  It was two stories high, wrapped in white plastic, and contained a large second story platform.   Doehr and Thomas spent a great deal of time planning and then reinventing how to get light underneath the platform while also toning the walls so they could reflect the world of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s laboratory without pulling focus away from the action on stage.

Doehr plans to present to the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) at their conference in March.

Roberts Theatre

The Roberts Theatre semi-thrust stage, seating 450, was renovated and restored under the design of Cesar Pelli and Associates (New Haven, CT). The project was completed in 2000.

For more information about the Roberts Theatre please call the Technical Director at 641-269-3130.