Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What’s Inside "Other People’s Houses?": An Interview with Shawn Fennell '10

Google “Shawn Fennell, theater”, and you will be overwhelmed by the number of productions that this Princeton senior has to his name. A Comparative Literature major from Hialeah, Florida, Fennell has been a part of over thirty plays and musicals at Princeton, taking on the varied roles of actor, writer, director, and manager, as well as set, sound, and lighting designer. This weekend, his Princeton theater career will culminate with the opening of his thesis production: “Other People’s Houses (and the Stuff Inside),” which he wrote and directed as part of his work to obtain a certificate in theater. This week, Fennell took an hour from his immensely busy tech schedule to talk with Intersections about postmodernism, the rehearsal process, and singing shoe trees.

Q: First, can you start by describing "Other People's Houses" to those who haven’t heard about it?

A: It’s about a family of two getting settled in a new house, learning to live with each other and with their neighbors. The father is a retired grocer whose wife has passed away, and his son is a sixteen-year-old bedwetter. One neighbor is an old dot-commer who has gotten pregnant again and sold her company, and her daughter is a huge YouTube producer who is always with her camera. Then against that story, there are objects from the landscape that take some time to offer their own opinions about the way things work. It’s a cast of fourteen, but some of the actors are pulling double-duty.

Q: How did this idea come about? How did it occur to you to have objects from the scenery be part of the cast?

A: Oh, hell. I was reading a lot of postmodern literary and cultural criticism, which have a predominantly negative view of the modern world. You get the sense that this is a disenchanted time and place. But it has always been my position that mass consumption and consumerism can give objects a new life. The way in which we relate to everything we own has become more symbiotic. With that logic, I got into treating everything around me as if our interactions were loaded.

Q: How does this relate to your Comparative Literature degree in French and Spanish?

A: The postmodernist literature about these ideas is really cross cultural. In preparation, I read not only French and Spanish literature, but also a lot of Murakami and Japanese literature. I would catalog interesting ideas, and it built up into the world of this play.

Q: Did you come into Princeton knowing that you wanted to write or direct a play for your thesis?

A: I came into Princeton being a theater geek and being a writer. So I thought about two certificates: creative writing and theater. Then I met Ruby Pan ’06, who wrote a play for her thesis called The Thousand Stringed Instrument, which she put up in the Armory. It was one of the strangest and most wonderful things that I have ever seen. Seeing that and seeing the community of Princeton playwrights on campus, I decided that I wanted to propose a play.

Q: What has been the process from the play’s conception all the way to opening night?

A: About two years ago, I started jotting down notes, drawing pictures of the setting, and synthesizing my manifesto about objects in the modern world. Everything coalesced last year as the deadline for thesis applications was announced. Last April, I turned in about twenty pages of what would become the script, along with an outline of what I wanted to do and where I was going with my ideas. I worked on a draft over the summer and completed a first draft by mid-October. I did revisions and had a second draft by the beginning of November. We had auditions before winter break this year and started rehearsals about a month ago. Most of the cast stayed over intersession. Our rehearsal schedule has varied from week to week, but last weekend, we worked from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day. It’s an intense process, but a lot of fun.

Q: Is there a character or scene in the play to which you have become particularly attached?

A: I’ve become more and more attached to the Shoe Tree in the trash. I wrote this character to be energetic and hopeful, and Rashmi Trivedi '11, who’s performing it, is just so enthusiastic and full of glee. Also, the costuming for this character in particular is the perfect balance of makeshift, theatrical, and evocative. [Anya Klepikov, a professional costume designer, was hired for the production.]

Q: How is working in theater at Princeton different from working in theater elsewhere?

A: I don’t think that I would be able to pull this off anywhere else. I don’t know how I would find all of these people who are willing to go the distance with me in terms of performing and producing a show. Here, not only was the program willing to indulge me, for some reason, but I also have a great cast that is completely game. They helped me to confirm the ideas I had concerning the objects, and Noah Freedman ’12 and Pete Walkingshaw ’10 helped me with the music. I discovered in the process of writing that all of the objects had music in them, but I actually have no background in music. I was very fortunate to have help.

Generally, I think that the theater community at Princeton is an interesting society. Everyone’s very close socially, but it also stratifies itself. In terms of acting, everyone finds his or her home, whether it be in productions with Princeton University Players or Intime or 185 Nassau. Then there is a small, sort of underground group of playwrights that comes out of the woodwork for Intime, the 24-hour Play Festival, and the Student Playwrights’ Festival. I wish that, institutionally, there was some way that 185 could adopt these playwrights more. There are playwriting classes with final readings, which maybe twenty friends attend. But you really only get a chance to get your stuff shown if you get a thesis, which is rolling a dice, especially since there are now more applicants than ever. There are great student works that don’t get the benefit of production.

Q: You’ve worked on so many productions in almost every theater on Princeton’s campus. Do you have a favorite production or a preferred performance space?

A: I love the Berlind, just because there’s so much space. My favorite play in which I’ve performed was in the Berlind: Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl. We approached it with the Viewpoints method, which is about physical spontaneity. It involves lots of running and interacting with the space, so to have the Berlind for that was wonderful. In the end, it really resonated. And it’s such a beautiful play.

Q: What’s next for you? Is this the end of your independent work at Princeton? What do you plan to do after graduation?

A: In terms of independent work, I have to write thirty pages for the Comparative Literature department after this. I feel so fortunate that I was forced to distribute my work throughout the year. In terms of the slightly more distant future, I’m looking into theater internships, and I’m going audition for Princeton Summer Theater. But no matter how much I act, I’m a writer at heart. I would like to write predominantly. Directing is second on the list. But I think this is my last foray into directing something that I wrote. It was extraordinarily weird. The tension between the views of a director and the play itself is extremely important, and it’s harder to feed off of that tension when you are directing your own work. This is a one-time deal.

Q: Finally, Princeton students are so busy. If someone approached you and asked why they should go see “Other People’s Houses” instead of studying or working on a problem set, what would be your response?

A: What this play has amounted to is a concentrated effort among artists to make something beautiful. People should come for the opportunity to feel and see this in the world. We hope that it will be, in its own small way, momentous.

“Other People’s Houses (and the Stuff Inside)” runs Friday and Saturday, Feb. 5-6 and Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 11-13. All performances are at 8 p.m. in the Matthews Acting Studio at 185 Nassau St.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Meghan Todt '11

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