The Lady and the Libertine

Sometimes, when I’m walking home from the library late at night or sitting on SEPTA on my way into Philly, or in any moment of in between, I begin to think about the ways I’ve changed since I’ve come to Swarthmore. And on occasion I will remember what a friend said to me before I left for college: other people, he told me, would change, but he felt sure that we two would stay static, so assured was he of our personalities being fully formed. But what he had not counted on, perhaps, was to where I was headed, and the wealth of opportunities that would shape me into someone wholly different from my high school self.

In fact, what I wonder in these moments is not if I’ve changed, but how, and which alternations or achievements would most shock my high school self if I somehow managed to travel back in time and inform her of her future. And after last month, I feel I’ve finally found the ultimate trump card of my college experience: this March, I staged my original play, The Lady and the Libertine, here at Swarthmore. The performance weekend is still a blur to me, from the audience’s laughter and warmth to the flowers that overflowed my windowsill. While the wealth of the thanks has gone to the cast and crew, I must of course credit the unsung hero that has made all of this possible: Drama Board, Swarthmore’s student funding board that supports student-run theater here on campus.

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My lovely window 🙂

 

Without Drama Board, we would not have been able to perform in the Pearson-Hall Theater, the campus’ huge performance space that boasts a higher quality of production than many professional performance spaces I’ve seen in Philadelphia. Without Drama Board, we wouldn’t have been able to pay for the construction of our set, or for our wild array of props. What is Drama Board, exactly? I’ve always described it as the fun but slightly dotty rich uncle who has enough faith in your artistic ability to spot you funds for your latest creative endeavor. In all seriousness, Drama Board does a lot more than act as benefactor, but funding student theater is its primary purpose. Got an idea? As long as it’s well-conceived and you can attach a production crew to your play, it will probably fund what you propose, even if it’s a production of Macbeth in which half of the characters only speak Klingon (you just have to be really passionate about this artistic vision and make sure your actors are cool with it). When not funding productions, Drama Board oversees actor safety by assigning a liaison to each funded show, and uses excess funding to bring in theater professionals to give workshops that are open to Swarthmore students. Full disclosure: I’m on Drama Board, though I had to recuse myself from voting when my own production proposed for funding. And yeah, I totally LOVE being the fun uncle and getting to know about all the new theater on campus.

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The final staging of The Lady and the Libertine! Photocreds to Vishnu Gupta ’18

With The Lady and the Libertine, though, I got to be on the other end of the process and propose a show as opposed to just approving it. When I proposed, I had been working on the show for months; by March, I’d been laboring on it in one way or another for over a year. So ushering my baby through the rigmarole of securing funding was way more nerve-wrecking than it should have been, because I’d fallen in love with what I was working on and hoped that I could be funded to stage it in a manner so that the audience would love it, too. The Lady and the Libertine originated as a sort of joke on the genre of restoration comedy, but came to mean so much more to me. The plays that we now characterize as restoration comedy were sexually explicit comedies of manners, popular in late 17th century England. The issue with restoration comedy, though, is that plays that were current and shocking upon original performance read differently hundreds of years later—a fate which restoration playwrights, who prided themselves on their timeliness, would surely bemoan. I wanted to rescue the genre and write a restoration comedy that investigated contemporary issues and pushed the boundaries of modern taste. In other words, for the first few months I was working on it, I told people I was writing a play about sword-fights and lesbians.

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A production photo from The Lady and the Libertine, photocreds Vishnu Gupta ’18

As I was working on it, though, it morphed into something quite different than what I had envisioned. For one thing, there’s sadly no sword fighting. More importantly, once I read plays like Etherege’s Man of Mode and Congreve’s The Way of the World, I was fascinated by how self aware the genre is, and how it internally questions the romantic ideal it ostensibly constructs. This still felt potent to me as a modern reader, as I constantly am questioning the rhetoric of romance that has developed over the course of western culture. I find that the romantic narratives that I’ve grown up with often teach us that the couple that is passionate bickers with each other, that love is more important than peace of mind, that the relationships worth pursing are the ones that burn the hottest and fastest. I must admit that I am just as seduced by these notions as anyone else, but I find that they are deeply dangerous ways to frame personal relationships. I wanted to write a romantic comedy that deconstructs the pernicious notions embedded in the seductive veneer of the narratives which have taught us how to love.

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Family portrait! Photocreds to Vishnu Gupta ’18

So, though my play was rooted in a genre with a rich history, I’d like to think it was asking some challenging contemporary questions. How do we love, which loves can break us, and how much of our romantic sensibilities are learned? There was also a great deal of silliness, of course, which made these investigations easier to sit through. And with the help of a director with an eye for both comedy and vulnerability, a cast that fit the roles perfectly, and Swarthmore’s support, I actually got to show this thing to an audience who could react and respond to my work and provide opinions on what I was trying to examine in writing the play. When I walked offstage on opening night, it was the greatest high of my life so far.

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Bows on opening, photocreds to Vishnu Gupta ’18

That moment, that exhilaration of achievement and triumph, feels like it would be the greatest surprise to my younger self. Because the confidence that the entire process of writing and staging the show required is something I’ve built up over my time here at Swarthmore. To create a show, you have to believe you have an idea worth pursing, a voice worth being heard, and a talent that will engage an audience and manage to net financial backing. Before arriving here at Swarthmore, I hadn’t had many mentors who believed in my abilities outside of the classroom. And as a woman growing up in a world where male directors and writers still dominate the entertainment industry, I never felt that I had the privilege of automatic respect and acceptance into a world that sometimes seems like a boys’ club.

When I arrived on campus, I wasn’t even sure I would keep doing theater at college. But then I auditioned for the campus Shakespeare troupe’s Night of Scenes. One production led to another, and soon I had people coming up to me who genuinely admired my talent and wanted me to join them in creating work. The community welcomed me, told me I was capable of things I’d never dreamed, and gave me the push to create that I needed. But beyond the theater community, I’d say that Swarthmore has given me the resources and will to fly. Encoded in Drama Board’s funding setup is the innate belief of this college that every one of its students is capable of greatness, if only given the opportunity to demonstrate their talents. For in the real world, most of us don’t have slightly dotty uncles who will fund our shows. But Swarthmore, for all of its belief in our independence, also believes that it should lend a hand in helping us find our footing, our calling in this world. Be it funding summer research, my crazy play, or trips to social justice conferences, Swat grants us the ability to race after our dreams, and this utter faith in our ability is perhaps one of the greatest gifts we will receive in this life.

Now when I am walking back from the library, on SEPTA, in the moments of in between, when I think of the girl I was and who I am now, when I remember that moment of applause on opening night — I remember what my friend told me and have to laugh. I am not the same, not at all. I am a woman transformed. And I wish I could tell that young girl to believe in herself, because soon she will step into her own greatness, to tell her that even when she does not believe in herself, Swarthmore always will.

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