This year's winter play, "The Dining Room," will premiere as a filmed production on Friday, Feb. 19. A link to view the show will be available to our student, faculty, staff and parent community.
This year, Western Reserve Academy presents A.R. Gurney's Pulitzer Prize-nominated play "The Dining Room" as its winter theater performance. Keeping in COVID fashion, Director Donalee Ong and Technical Theater Director Brandon Davies pivoted from a live performance to a filmed production, following the lead of their fall series "All I Want is a Fair View," the winter dance showcase "Across the Divide, Act II" and most recently WRA's Lunar New Year concert.
In a two-camera setup, "The Dining Room" will run through the whole show without pause, linking multiple performances that jump from different camera angles — a wider shot that captures the whole stage and a close up perspective.
Film continues to be the answer to the question of how WRA's talented students can perform safely in COVID times, but notably, this compromise does not compromise quality. Each has been a new experience, negotiating safety precautions and artistry to produce shows that have been spectacular to watch and watch again. This success is due in large part not only to wonderful performances but to the directors who took on the formidable challenge of film directing and video editing.
"The Dining Room" is two-act play consisting of 18 separate scenes that examine the changing culture of upper-middle class America. The narrative is nonlinear, jumping fluidly between seven decades, and features a cast of 50+ characters from 18 different households whose conversations, celebrations and confrontations all occur in the same place: the dining room. The setting never changes even as time passes (apart from a swapped prop or two), and the room becomes a kind of time capsule and lens through which we observe the erosion and adaptation of upper-middle class traditions, culture and values.
It's been about 20 years since WRA put on "The Dining Room," and it was chosen by Ong for great reason.
"I picked it for a lot of reasons, but one important one is that I thought it would work really well during COVID," she shared. "Because the scenes are vignettes, there are only a few moments where the whole cast is on stage at the same time. I felt that I could block it, keeping everyone six feet apart, for the majority of the play."
There are 15 cast members and 55 characters in total, so each cast member is playing upwards of three different roles. There are no main characters, giving the cast members equal spotlight, and the multiple roles mean students must nimbly shift characters from scene to scene, something that the cast has enjoyed observing and exploring.
"I think they've liked seeing all of the characters and seeing each other do something different and showing themselves in different ways," said Ong. "There's this birthday party scene, and Gunnar and Keshav play little boys, and we have them in little short outfits with suspenders and bow ties. Elba and Sammie play little girls, and we have them in party dresses with big flouncy skirts. The scene takes place in the 1950s, and the whole thing is a lot of fun. I think it's fun for everyone to see each other play so many different characters."
When you have 55 different characters from different timelines, moving in and out of scenes, which all take place in the same setting, there's a lot to consider. How do you play these characters in contrast to each other, so no one disappears and no story is overlooked? How do you show the passing of time when you never leave the same room?
A lot of this is answered through costume! Ong and fellow Fine & Performing Arts Department faculty member Carol Parker Mittal put a great deal of work into the costume design, and together, they laid out a plan that would include 147 garments, 10 wigs, nine hats and 42 different pairs of shoes.
Costume adds further dimension to the story, said Ong. One scene, for instance, takes place in the 1960s, and you see a father wearing a smoking jacket and ascot while his daughter is wearing bell bottoms and embracing the new fashion. Through costume, you see that one is caught in the past and one is embracing the present, and it heightens the tension and conflict of generational differences.
"It was really fun to work with Carol on this," said Ong. "We spent many, many hours up in the costume shop, sewing and sewing with the help of Miranda Namiotka '20, who is home from college. We were so lucky to have her. We taught her how to cut out patterns, ripping out seams, things like that. It was really nice to spend time with them and especially to get to know Carol. She's so creative and talented."
Now approaching the finish line, Ong reflects on the wholly unique experience of directing a production like this, which dealt with new obstacles, such as rehearsals where performers wore masks up until tech week.
"As a teacher, it was so difficult at first, just from an articulation and projection standpoint," she shared. "And the closer we came to a final product and as everything began to get really polished up, I had a panicked moment where I thought to myself, 'Oh no, I don't even know what they're doing under that mask. Are they expressive? Are they smiling?' Of course, once they did take them off, all those fears went away because they were amazing! And honestly, it was just so beautiful and such a pleasure to see everyone's faces after all of these months of not really seeing everyone on campus. It really was just a wonderful way to feel reconnected."
Since we cannot applaud in person the way we could in a live performance, we are tasked with finding new ways to express our awe, appreciation and kudos to the well-deserving cast and crew of "The Dining Room." We look forward to the challenge! Congratulations, Pioneers.
The cast of "The Dining Room:" Landon Allis '23, Griffin Arnold '22, Brooke Ashley '21, Carter Frato-Sweeney '22, Gunnar Gray '22, Elba Heddesheimer '23, Dominic Jocas '21, David King '22, Sammie Kolencik '23, Sarah London '22, Keshav Mody '22, Nora Namiotka '23, Alex Newman '24, Rachel Ott '23 and Ellie Polyak '21.