(Posted February 13, 2017)

Neal Utterback, far left, works with theatre students on movement.
Photo by Jason Jones
Neal Utterback, far left, works with theatre students on movement.
Photo by Jason Jones

HUNTINGDON, PA. -- Like post-pandemic survivors of a plague, Juniata College theatre students are banding together to make its latest production, “SciFi,” collaborative while also foraging advice from other Juniata professors on how to save the world from a virulent disease.

            The production, which opens Thursday, Feb. 16 through Saturday, Feb. 18, and February 23 through Feb. 25, at 8 p.m. in the Suzanne von Liebig Theatre in the Halbritter Center for the Performing Arts, was inspired by Juniata’s current freshman-year reading assignment, “Station Eleven,” by Emily St. John Mandel.

            The Juniata theatre program uses a new ticketing program. To make reservations, go to Juniata’s Vendini.com account on the landing page for the Department of Theatre. Student tickets are free. Tickets for seniors age 65 and older are $12, and general admission is $20. 

Instead of creating a straight template of the novel’s plot, the students and director Neal Utterback, assistant professor of theatre, gathered to discuss the assigned reading, and created a three-act play based on the novel.

            “Station Eleven” takes place in the upper Midwest as a flu epidemic sweeps across the country, killing most of the human population. The novel follows story threads from six characters both before and after the devastating flu.

“The students pulled ideas from the novel and decided to focus the story on a nomadic group of roaming musicians known as ‘The Traveling Symphony,’ so the play is more concerned with how do we survive and what does it mean to be alive or dead during an apocalypse,” says Utterback.

The musicians within the play will struggle across the barren landscapes to find humanity and perhaps horror, all of which is suggested by a creative set design by Julia Laplante, a senior from State College, Pa., and a unique seating plan that puts the audience in the four corners of the theatre in order to suggest the desolate distances the characters must travel.

Utterback asked the students to write and construct the play from the structure of the novel. In order to give the students a glimpse of the knowledge needed to write about a devastating disaster, the class called in Juniata professors from different disciplines. Hannah Bellwoar, assistant professor of English, talked about the genre of science fiction. Donna Weimer, professor of communication, spoke to the class about how to communicate after society has broken down. Dan Dries, assistant professor of chemistry, talked with the group about disease and pandemics.

The play also makes use of music provided by Gabriel Gould, a professional composer and instructor in Juniata’s College Writing Seminar program. Utterback also says he will step down as director once rehearsals start and hand the artistic reins to student Pat Rutledge, a senior from Dubois, Pa., as director. Utterback says this might be the first time two students, Rutledge and Laplante, have been tasked with directing and creating a full set design for a Juniata production.

In addition to the director and set designer, the cast includes Leigh Hendrix, an instructor in theatre arts, and Cosimo Sciortino, a freshman from York, Pa.; Christine Reilly, a junior from Nashua, N.H.; Elijah Hall, a senior from Huntingdon, Pa.; Kien Le, a junior from Huntingdon, Pa.; Rina Kirsch, a sophomore from Clayton, Calif.; and Aiden Borgardt, a freshman from Huntingdon, Pa.

Contact Gabe Welsch at welschg@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.