By Frances Marion Givhan
Photos by Kimberly Williams (C’17)
After opening night of the musical revue In a Nutshell the cast and crew gathered in the cozy comfort of Megan Quick’s (C’15) house. Toasts and cheers danced around the circle, and one person marveled, “This was all student-run.” Students directed, produced, and acted in the musical. Aside from the guidance of the theatre professors, “we had no professionals to help organize things,” said Will Burton-Edwards (C’18). The effort that went into creating this production came from the minds and hard work of students.
Max Hagan (C’16) and Audrey Tchoukoua (C’16), the two directors, originally did not take the idea of putting together a musical seriously. “It started off as a joke between Audrey and me during our freshman year,” says Hagan. “We talked about throwing together a musical and always laughed it off. Then one day near the end of junior year, Audrey wasn’t joking anymore.” They then had the project to translate their idea from a “preposterous concept,” as Hagan phrased it, into reality.
The musical revue, which ran from Thursday, April 21 to Saturday, April 23, included songs from Rent, Wicked, Avenue Q, Dog Fight, Aladdin, Bare, and many others that Hagan and Tchoukoua believed captured the Sewanee experience. Hagan says, “The main priority was to embody Sewanee student life in one show.” The cast and crew accomplished this with amazing talent. The song choices and placement reflected the various experiences of going through one’s college years, and none of the songs felt disconnected from the year it represented.
One song in particular that most Sewanee students feel the frustration of came from the senior year part, “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English,” sung by Tori Hinshaw (C’19). Students make a trade-off in attending a liberal arts school, wondering how they will turn all the knowledge they’ve gained into skills worthwhile in the world, and though Hinshaw is a freshman, her impeccable acting captured the annoyance but sense of hope the song conveys for the future of Sewanee students.
Another song perfectly described the grievances of Sewanee students, as two Sewanee students wrote it. Lily Davenport and I collaborated on rewriting the lyrics to “The List” from The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan. Easily manipulated, the song went through all of the aspects of Sewanee that a sophomore, played by Burton-Edwards, did not miss while away for the summer. The song turned out as well as it did because of Burton-Edwards. His impressive humor, physical comedy, and improvisation took the words and made them funnily and painfully real. “I imagined the guy from ‘The List’ as the guy you could probably find in the Psychology department complaining about his 3-page paper due next month,” says Burton-Edwards.
I also feel it important to mention the song that no doubt got stuck in everyone’s heads, “The Game” from the musical Damn Yankees. The four boys of the cast all dressed up in Sewanee Tigers baseball uniforms and sang what I’ll say was the best song in the show. “It’s a fun number with a lot of moving parts, and Max and I had a ton of fun throwing in ad libs onstage each night,” says Burton-Edwards. Keenan Lo (C’19) says, “‘The Game’ was my favorite number to perform, because I have chemistry with the actors I perform with.” The song truly showed the camaraderie that develops during a production, and seeing the boys interact so well together on stage made the song captivating and hilarious to watch.
Though the musical contained plenty of humorous numbers, it also included heartfelt songs that showed the difficulties of finding oneself at a small college. Hagan’s rendition of “How Can I Call This Home” from Parade blended the two themes. The concept of a guy from Brooklyn trying to adapt to the “magnolia trees and endless sunshine” of the South makes for a funny situation, but a legitimate identity crisis. Hagan’s clear, strong voice engaged the audience and inspired sympathy, while his acting perfectly portrayed a sincere distaste for southern culture. Even people from the South could sympathize.
Ryan Mahan (C’19) had two of the most heartbreaking solos in the musical. “Role of a Lifetime” (Bare) and “Proud of Your Boy” (Aladdin) both discussed the struggle of being oneself in college. The former deals with sexuality while the latter expresses a desire to make parents proud. Mahan’s vocal style and range fit the songs and gave them so much emotion that I teared up every time. His voice was strong and clear and helped each song hit the audience right in the heart.
The Sewanee experience also came together through the scenery, the costumes, and the video interviews played in between the different years. Tchoukoua came up with the idea for the video interviews of actual Sewanee students. “He needed a transition in between songs and to introduce new themes without having a narrator,” says Ruth Guerra (C’16), who conducted and filmed all the interviews. She had wanted to make black and white Sewanee interview videos, so they collaborated on the idea for the musical. The videos added a necessary element of realism to the show, tying the songs with the experiences of Sewanee students throughout the class years. “It’s nice to hear your friends or people that you’ve seen around talk so candidly about their time at Sewanee,” says Guerra. “I almost cried at some of them!” She also says that she felt incredible nostalgia, sadness, and happiness while listening to the seniors answer questions in particular.
Regarding costumes, Sewanee exploded on stage. From preppy class dress to Stirlings-goers to the people who get all their clothes from Goodwill, Tia Strickland (C’16) brought Sewanee fashion into the Proctor Hill Theatre. “I would just sit in McClurg, watch people, and take notes,” says Strickland. “I wanted there to be a representation of most styles throughout the play.” She notes that Sewanee has a wide range of weird things that we find acceptable to wear, but do not question because it’s so Sewanee.
Though Strickland usually acts on the stage, she managed her job as costume designer with dedication and skill. I could see this particularly with the opening number, “A New World.” Every actor played a certain kind of Sewanee student, from Elise Anderson (C’16) wearing business professional to Hinshaw in her kimono and chill style to Hagan being a Yankee kid who does not know how to dress for Sewanee. “All in all,” says Strickland, “this show is the biggest accomplishment that I think I’ve done this year.”
Huntre Woolwine (C’16), the scene designer, decided to design the set from his “impressions of how one sees Sewanee while constantly looking down at our cell-phone.” The scenery was cut outs of stone buildings that blend together, a forest, and a dorm room, but all the pieces were cut-outs. “It’s like a satire on how we only experience the base essence of places while we’re here,” says Woolwine. The set, satire or no, turned out beautifully. The door of All Saints’, painted by Chynna Bradford (C’17), looked gorgeous against the “stone” that the painters made incredibly convincing. The abstract forest was the perfect place for the pensive, sad songs in the musical, and the dorm room was so accurate that I felt at home.
The cast and crew did experience their own struggles and achievements throughout the process, as a large obstacle according to Hagan was inexperience. “This was a project none of us on the production team had taken on before. We were all stepping outside of our comfort zones,” he says. “But we were there for each other every grueling step of the way.”
“We put on a show and did all the work that full-time workers in theatre do,” says Burton-Edwards, “while keeping up with academic work, entertaining our extra-curriculars, getting enough rest, and even calling our mothers from time to time.” He also says that it was worth the blood, sweat, and tears it took to make the show come together.
The work paid off. The cast and crew of In a Nutshell created a beautiful and heartfelt production that represented the many positive and negative experiences that make Sewanee what it is. When watching the performance, I wanted to write about every song, its meaning, the way the actors performed it, the details in the costumes, all of it. Congratulations to everyone who managed to pull this performance together. It is a production to be proud of.