On a recent September evening, as the sun set over College Hill and students settled in for an evening of quiet study, Leeds Theatre in Lyman Hall was buzzing with activity. Twenty-five students were scattered across the stage animatedly belting out the last few measures of the opening number of the musical Sweeney Todd, the Sock & Buskin production that runs through Oct. 5.
Sitting in the front row, where a member of the theater faculty can often be found directing one of the group’s many shows throughout the year, was Curt Columbus, artistic director for the Tony Award-winning Trinity Repertory Company, which sits just a short jaunt down the hill in the center of Providence. As the song wound down, Columbus stood to give notes.
“The song starts out warm and enticing, but it’s scary at the end,” Columbus said, instructing the actors on the tone they should take.
Similar directives were doled out for the first hour of that evening’s rehearsal, as Columbus went page by page through the script, suggesting improvements to be made to the previous night’s run-through.
“Patrick, that reaction was genius,” Columbus said to Patrick Madden, a senior who is playing the show’s title character.
To female lead Natalie McDonald, Columbus suggested, “Really let [that part of the song] land and then the next section can slow down. But keep that same level of passion and intensity.”
The rest of the hour continued with much of the same: Columbus tapping into decades of theater experience to offer edits on body position or delivery that were constructive but always included affirmations of what was done well.
The opportunity to get such critiques from a professional director is not lost on Madden or McDonald, who spent much of that first hour furiously scribbling Columbus’ notes down on paper for later reference.
“This is such a huge show, and we’re learning the components that go into such a massive operation in a very short time. Curt’s really helping us coordinate all those moving parts,” Madden said.
Playing the deranged characters in the production is challenging physically, emotionally, and vocally, but “Curt really trusts us and lets us try things out in a really safe space,” senior McDonald said.
That admiration and the excitement of working together is mutual, said Columbus, who first approached Sock & Buskin last spring, at the urging of Erik Ehn, chair of the Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies, to pitch the idea of staging Sweeney Todd at Brown.
“The reason I wanted to do this is because this is such an incredibly talented group of young people and I wanted to give them an opportunity where they could work on something as an ensemble and all be co-authors of its creation,” Columbus said. “I wanted to give them something where they could see that musicals didn’t have to just be shiny, bright, pretty, but that they could have a heft to them. I wanted to do something that they would shine with and do well.”
Columbus last directed a play at Brown during the 2006-07 season with Merrily We Roll Along. He’s also an adjunct lecturer in the Brown/Trinity M.F.A. program.
For the current production, Columbus has reimagined Sweeney Todd through the lens of the Occupy movement. The script and music don’t stray from the original, but the actors will be presented as political protesters using street performance to tell the Industrial Age tale of a murdering barber in London.
“When you’re given the challenge of working with undergraduates on a play that has a lot of older people in it, you can’t deny the fact that they are who they are. So we just created a frame so that people could logically read why these young people are doing a play about older people,” Columbus said. “They’re a bunch of protesters, and we watch them put on costume pieces and enter the story and that’s what we see.”
From the moment Columbus came in to share his ideas with the Sock & Buskin board there was a lot of excitement about his participation, according to senior Alanna Hoffman, one of the play’s two executive producers.
“There’s a lot of respect among all of us for everything that goes on at Trinity. Everyone was really excited for Curt to come up the hill and give a sense of what he’s like as a director. He has a lot to give the students.”
Auditions for the play took place in May, and the students have been hard at work since the end of August, rehearsing in recent weeks as much as six days a week for several hours a day.
“It’s been extraordinary,” said Columbus of the experience so far. “When you work with professionals, sometimes they forget why they’re all in the room trying to make something happen. Not always but sometimes. These kids, they work so hard. How could I be anything but in love with that passion?”
Jamie Meader, a sophomore who’s part of the ensemble cast, said the hard work is well worth it.
“It’s kind of the nature of the beast, especially with a show with such intricate music. We put the hours in to honor it. It’s a labor of love and I can’t wait to see the finished product.”
Meader said Columbus’ participation will only improve the quality of that finished product.
“Curt is attuned to every nuance of the show and he puts what we do on a whole new level. He’s an elevator. We’ve all learned so much,” Meader said.
True to the nature of college theater, the learning doesn’t stop when Columbus yells “Cut!” As the evening rolled along, Columbus took two students to the stage to work on a duet, giving the rest of the cast a short break. Meader, along with a handful of the other actors, settled onto the Leeds Theatre lobby floor with his laptop. As music trickled in through the theatre doors, he finished some homework and waited to get called back to the stage.
Tickets and information
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through Oct. 5, 2014, in Leeds Theatre, Lyman Hall, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.
For ticket sales and more information, call 401-863-2838, visit the Box Office in the Leeds Theatre Lobby, 83 Waterman St, Providence, Tuesday through Friday from noon to 4 p.m., or email [email protected]. To book online, visit brown.edu/tickets.