There's a joy to be found in student productions that's unlike any to be found elsewhere. It's the joy of discovery, of young performers and backstage contributors beginning to realize what a magical and transporting experience this art form can be, and that joy - coupled with a longer-than-usual period for rehearsal - often results in area shows that rival anything being produced professionally.
This year, in fact, St. Ambrose University's Urinetown and Augustana's The Laramie Project were both more entertaining - and more technically polished - than a lot of professional endeavors I've seen in 2005. When you witness really first-rate work at the college level, or when certain students - like David Cocks and Cori Veverka in Augustana's recent The Importance of Being Earnest - reveal the sort of talent that knocks you sideways, the thrill is undeniable.
Yet it's easy to forget that, beyond serving as entertainment, the primary goal behind these shows is to educate students in the art of play production. If the audience is amused, great. But student-performed shows aren't, or shouldn't be, about what we get from the experience; they're about what the students get from the experience.
Black Hawk College's fall production, the one-act meta-theatre farce The Scottish Play: A Travesty!, is a backstage look at a production of Macbeth that goes horribly awry, and it's by no means unworthy of a staging, sketchy though this comedy often is. Debuting at Black Hawk in its first staged performance, The Scottish Play too readily goes for easy gags - is-he-or-isn't-he? innuendo regarding the stage manager's sexual orientation, the horrors of an actor secretly wanting to be (gulp!) a critic - and, even for a one-act, it wraps up too quickly; a blackout at the end seemed to naturally lead to a subsequent scene, but, in reality, it just led to the curtain call. (The show clocks in at just under 40 minutes.)
Still, it's a promising, lighthearted work-in-progress. Much of The Scottish Play - written by Black Hawk alumni Traci Davis, Paul-Thomas Ferguson, and Jeremy Koester - is loose and clever, with an ingenious prelude that establishes the show's theatre-within-a-theatre scenario, and although the dialogue is too sitcom-cute to connect the production to any kind of real world, the punchlines are often amusing - certainly no less so than the snappy, ba-dum-ching! comebacks in a Neil Simon or Larry Shue piece. I'm delighted that the playwrights found a public forum in which to view their creation. I just can't quite see what the students are getting out of the deal.
Admittedly, those onstage did look like they were having fun, an opinion I'm basing on how difficult it was for many of them to keep a straight face. But shouldn't educational theatre be about more than fun? It's not like this show offers its performers the chance to experiment with Shakespearean language - Macbeth's dialogue remains all but completely unheard - and there's certainly no character depth for the actors to wrestle with. In terms of performance, the only thing the show's actors could conceivably learn from the work would be how to deliver bitchy one-liners with speed and authority - how, in effect, to enact a sitcom. But speed and authority is just what the show, directed by Dan Haughey, is lacking. So what, exactly, have the students gleaned from this effort?
Student actors rarely display the polish of professional performers, and for good reason: They're not supposed to. For youths just beginning to grapple with the craft of acting, the most you can ask for is that they make choices, whether they're appropriate for the material or not. Yet the actors in The Scottish Play seem hesitant about playing their stereotypes with the required vigor. At Thursday night's performance, at least, they seemed unsure of the effects the writers seemed to be going for - all throughout the show, you could hear where the punchlines are supposed to land, even if they never quite did - and the pacing was slack; The Scottish Play is one of those manically assembled farces that lives and dies on the precision of its actors' comic timing, yet the pauses between the lines, and many of the line readings themselves, continually hindered its momentum.
In the end, though, the show's lack of finesse wasn't all that bothersome. But I was annoyed to think that Black Hawk's theatre students are only given two stabs at a mainstage production during the academic year, and that something as slight as The Scottish Play: A Travesty! was chosen for one of this year's slots. The production might provide sporadic enjoyment for audiences, and might prove invaluable to its authors, but it appears to offer precious little for the people - the students - it was ostensibly chosen for.
The Scottish Pay: A Travesty! will be performed at Black Hawk College's Building 1 at 7 p.m. November 16-17. Call (309) 796-5478 for more information.