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Juniata\'s Theatre Department Debuts Professional Theatre Program: The Gravity Project

(Posted January 16, 2006)

The Gravity Project creates a balance of professional theatre and educational opportunities for Juniata students.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- The Gravity Project, an innovative new twist on collaborative theatre production, in which award-winning professional actors, directors and technical specialists collaborate with Juniata College students to conceive and produce theatrical productions, will debut with the premiere of "Nine Gates" at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 28 in Rosenberger Auditorium in the Halbritter Center for the Performing Arts on the Juniata campus.

For tickets and information about the Juniata College Artist Series, please call (814) 641-3605. General admission tickets for single performances are $20, except where otherwise noted. Single-show tickets for seniors over age 65 and children age 18 and under are $12. Juniata College students are admitted free with a student ID.

"Nine Gates" takes its inspiration from a series of essays on poetry by poet Jane Hirshfield. It features staged dramatizations of poems written by Hirshfield and other contemporary poets, complemented by vivid movement and dance sequences scored to an eclectic mix of musical styles.

"You don't have to love poetry to enjoy this show," says Andrew Belser, associate professor of theatre and director of the production. "We are trying to give the audience a look at the experience of creation, to let them see the art of creating a poem."

The production features mostly contemporary American poets, although several sequences will feature Hirshfield's translations of traditional Japanese poetry.

The production also marks the first major production by The Gravity Project, a unique theatrical collaborative that combines teaching, collaborative creativity and hands-on technical instruction between season theatre professionals and Juniata theatre students.

"Essentially the function of the project is to act as an intense teaching laboratory for Juniata students, out of which will emerge professionally produced theatrical shows, and finally a possible touring production of the play," explains Chad Herzog, director of Halbritter Performing Arts Center. "What makes this unique is that our students will be deeply involved with all aspects of the project -- learning, production and touring."

The Gravity Project was formed several years ago by Belser, initially as singular artist-in-residence projects in which various theatre specialists worked or consulted on Juniata productions. Belser chose "Nine Gates," which debuted as a student production in spring 2004, as the first play produced by a full Gravity Project ensemble.

Among the professional theatre specialists working on "Nine Gates" will be assistant director Stephanie Skura, who has visited Juniata several times to work on previous student productions. She has worked primarily as a choreographer and a artistic director in her own dance company and as a teacher of the Skinner Releasing movement technique. She is based in Seattle, Wash. and worked on the student production of "Nine Gates."

"It is unusual in the theatre world to find a commitment to integrating movement, theatre and poetry," she explains. "This is like a dream come true to merge all of that into a large scale work."

Scenic design for the "Nine Gates" performance comes from Randy Ward, head of the graduate program in theatre design at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Va. His most recent professional production, "Cathay," a puppetry-based collaboration with Ping Chong and Company, debuted at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., moved to an engagement in New York City and will be presented at the Vienna Theatre Festival in Austria later this year.

Ward is excited about working with Juniata students to shape the production. "It's really quite rewarding," he says of working with young theatre enthusiasts. "You get people with fresh outlooks and open minds -- they're willing to explore every possibility."

Every educational opportunity will be explored during the production, according to Belser. Juniata students are slated as assistants to every technical and artistic director.

Professional actors also will play all the roles in this production.

David Nevell is an actor and teacher whose credits include "Romeo and Juliet" at the Shakespeare Festival/L.A. and "The Winter's Tale" at PCPA/Theatrefest. He also performed with Pittsburgh Public Theatre in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible."

Marika Becz is an actor and choreographer who has appeared in productions at the Mark Taper Amphitheatre, Shakespeare Festival L.A. and the Laguna Playhouse. She taught theatre and movement at California State University, Fullerton.

Sean Ryan is a founding member of VIA, a dance and theatre ensemble, as a performer, teacher and director. He has toured with the Dance-Theater Company, Paula Josa-Jones/Performanceworks and has appeared in productions at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Christine Ryndak, who trained at Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Point Park University's Conservatory of Performing Arts, has worked professionally at Pittsburgh City Theatre, Pittsburgh Public Theatre and Confluence Theatre Company.

Andrew Olewine has performed with a variety of theatre companies across Canada. He is on the faculty at the William Davis Centre for Acting Study, teaching acting and movement.

Luke Boulton, a freelance television journalist, who acted in the 2004 production at Juniata, will act in the current production. He is based in Los Angeles, Calif.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.