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'Theatre Unplugged' gives students real-world directing experience
Cast and crew prepare for dress rehearsal of the one-act shows being directed by their fellow students Dec. 1 and 2 in Grubbs Hall Studio Theatre.

'Theatre Unplugged' gives students real-world directing experience

Senior Austin VanBecelaere has been on stage for years, starring in such productions as "Frankenstein" and "Dead Man's Cell Phone."

This semester, a unique class at PSU gave him the chance to step off stage and assume a new role: A director. The experience, he said, will add weight to his portfolio that he can show to future prospective employers, and has been transformative in how he views acting and the business of theatre, he said. 

VanBecelaere is one of seven theatre students enrolled in Cynthia Allan's Comm-544 Stage Direction class who will make a directing debut this weekend with "Theatre Unplugged: Student-Directed One-Acts." Their shows will be performed in the Grubbs Hall Studio Theatre on Friday and Saturday from 7 to 9 p.m. 

Allan started the Theatre Unplugged program when she joined the faculty of the Department of Communication in 1999. 

"Previous directing classes had always done pieces of things — scenes — and they hadn't done them for the public," she said. "I felt if you were going to be graduating and heading out to a job at a school teaching theater, or anyplace else in the industry, and you still had not been put through the whole process of theater, that was a real weakness." 

Allan's class requires that students select a script, defend their choice, hold auditions, select cast and crew, organize their time, and do their own marketing and programs. 

"The one thing they can't have with this acoustic theatre is they're not meeting with set designers, costumers — it's not a fully-realized production," Allan said. "But it gives them the experience of using all of these other skills. It's not about making the stage pretty – it's creating a plan and bringing it to life from the page to the stage." 

Allan teaches her students about script analysis, theories, ground plans, and creative exercises. They learn blocking, or the movement of actors on the stage. And, they must learn the tedious business of scheduling rehearsals and production meetings 

VanBecelaere chose "The Last Yankee" by playwright Arthur Miller. It stars Alex McNay, who VanBecelaere grew up acting side by side with at Pittsburg Community Theatre, and Duke Walter, also a regular in PCT shows. 

"When I read it, it really spoke to me," said VanBecelaere of his script 

"It's really be different, being on the directing side of things. You have to shift your focus when you're going from an actor to a director. You're not reacting to characters on stage, but understanding them collectively. You have to get across to the actors what you're visualizing. And there's a lot of decision making to be done. This has given me a whole new appreciation. I never really understood how hard it could be until I put on the directing cap. It's been eye-opening." 

Other directors include students Stephen Reida, who chose "Bolero" by David Ives; Ayman Syed, who chose "He Said, She Said" by Alice Gerstenberg; Ila Phelps, who chose "Death Comes for a Wedding" by Joe Tracz; Krista Hightower, who chose "The Worker" by Walter Wykes; Curtis Wilkins, who chose "An Interview" by David Mamet; and Amanda Longpine, who chose "For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls" by Christopher Durang. 

Allan pops in to rehearsals randomly and unannounced. 

"I will help, but they have to ask me specifically," she said. "They are not allowed to say, 'What did you think?'." 

Students will turn in portfolios to Allan next week with an analysis of their script, a critique of the process including what worked and what they need to improve on for next time, and a full design concept if they were to have an unlimited budget and more time. 

Sometimes, things don't go so well, Allan said. 

"But if it's a flop, and you recognize that, and you address it in your critique, that's part of the learning experience," she said. "Sometimes failing is the best learning experience. To stand there and feel your soul melting out of your body. This is a safe environment to do that in. You won't lose a job, you won't get kicked out of the industry, and you can use that experience next time." 

As for VanBecelaere, he hopes to land a theatrical carpentry job after graduation in May 2018 in order to get his foot in the door of the industry. 

"I'll apply anywhere and everywhere," he said. "A lot of actors, including Harrison Ford, take tech jobs, smaller jobs in theatre, and they grind until they build a rapport with their superiors and are given a chance. If you nail that chance, you might get to go on. I plan to put in the grind until it turns into an acting career or it turns into something else. I can't imagine a world in which I'm not involved in theatre in one way or another. I don't want to." 

To learn more about Pitt State Theatre, visit

'Theatre Unplugged' gives students real-world directing experience

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