Are you familiar with the process of writing an honors thesis? Perhaps you’re a regular reader of The Amherst Student’s “Thoughts on Theses” column, an underclassman curious about undertaking a capstone project or a thesis-writing senior who knows all too well the frequent advisor meetings, sleepless nights and writer’s block associated with the endeavor. You might, however, know a lot less about the Theater and Dance Department equivalent of the honors thesis. Student majors in their final year of study must complete a senior project integrating what they’ve learned about production and performance. These projects are unique because they often include an artistic, public performance component and a written component reflecting upon the student’s creative process. The department produces six to eight senior projects per academic calendar year; these projects comprise Amherst’s theater season. Have you supported a classmate by attending a senior thesis show yet this year? “Probably,” the work of English and Theater and Dance double major Owen Davis ’14, is sure to be a highlight of the spring semester’s performance offerings.
“‘Probably,’” Davis said, is a play about “the difficulty we as college students have about communicating about sex and intimacy.”
It tells the story of four friends who attend a college much like Amherst. At first the characters speak candidly — even crudely — with each other about relationships. This vulgarity fades away when a member of the group is sexually assaulted. She now must deal with the trauma of her experience and figure out how talk frankly about it with her friends. The three other students, too, face a difficult task in learning how to speak honestly and thoughtfully about intimacy. After the assault, the crassness and humor of their conversations about sex just don’t seem appropriate anymore. Above all, “Probably” explores the role of language in human relationships. How do the words we use influence the way we treat one another, especially in matters as sensitive as sexual respect? Davis’s play asks the difficult questions that the Amherst College community has been grappling with since the publication of Angie Epifano’s essay in The Student during October 2012. His work is timely and thoughtful, and will surely bring a fresh perspective to the matter of sexual respect in theatrical form.
“Probably” has been a year-long process for Davis, who said he began working on the script halfway through this past summer. He noted that writing consistently during football season in the fall was challenging. Davis has played for the Jeffs for all four of his years at Amherst, two of which included NESCAC championship wins. When asked if his talent and interest in playwriting ever surprise people, he noted, “I think from outward appearance, and if they know I play football, people are kind of confused [by it].” However, the Winchester, Mass. native is no stranger to theater, or writing creatively. Davis first got involved in musical theater in the fifth grade and acknowledged that he began writing short stories during middle school.
“I grew up loving language,” he said.
Chris Tamasi ’15, a member of the “Probably” cast and a teammate of Davis, attested to that, saying, “Owen probably has the best command over the English language of anyone I’ve ever met.”
Davis’s thesis advisor is Theater and Dance professor and Amherst playwright-in-residence Connie Congdon. She is co-directing “Probably” with Will MacAdams, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater at Hampshire College. Davis noted that both Congdon and MacAdams have been indispensable to the writing and production of “Probably.”
“They’re willing to ask the difficult questions that I’m not willing to ask myself,” he said. Congdon and MacAdams meet with Davis to discuss drafts of “Probably” and advise him on all aspects of completing a senior project. They also organized the production’s audition process and offered Davis their opinions for the final casting. Five actors appear in the play: Davis, Tamasi, Sheron Torho ’15, Forrest Hejkal of Hampshire College and Ginny Chesson, also of Hampshire.
Theater is about the visual as much as it is about language and performance. Reilly Horan ’13 brings the world of “Probably” to life as the production’s set designer. When asked to describe her plans for the set pieces for “Probably,” she said “the play takes place in a number of institutional spaces on a college campus, most frequently a stock dormitory bedroom, and the set will nod to those places. But the largest element of the design is the way we will incorporate language about sex onto the walls of theater itself.”
The play’s theatrical space has taken on a larger significance in the form of “The Chalkboard Project,” a community outreach endeavor developed by Davis and Horan to examine the same questions “Probably” grapples with before it is actually performed for the public. Horan designed four chalkboard installations of varying size to be placed in Webster Hall, on the First-Year Quad, in Frost Library and in the gym. These pieces feature prompts relating to sexual respect and communication for Amherst community members to respond to in chalk. “The Chalkboard Project” will be on campus beginning March 3 and will last until March 9. After this period, Horan plans to incorporate the installations into the design of the play’s performance space. Additionally, Davis and Horan, (along with Five-College staff members, specifically Kris Bergborn of Mount Holyoke and Danielle Hussey of Amherst’s Women’s and Gender Center) have organized optional dialogues to be held after each performance. These conversations will allow audience members to discuss “Probably” and the questions it raises in a small group environment.
The senior projects of the Theater and Dance department differ from the honors theses of most other departments because they are more creative in nature; however, the research aspect ingrained in more traditional thesis projects has been part of Davis’ undertaking, too. He sat down with people he knew to talk about the issues he wished to address in his work and kept their thoughts in mind when crafting a story and characters. The resulting play, Davis said, is somewhat of a “conglomerate of a bunch of different experiences.” The Theater and Dance thesis is also an exercise in teamwork, from the writing process to rehearsal and performance. Tamasi praised the environment surrounding the production, calling it “very open to collaboration.” He also noted that while at first he didn’t have plans to write a thesis himself, his involvement in “Probably” has broadened horizons in terms of his thoughts on future academic opportunities at the College. The production has “opened up a world into possibly pursuing a creative thesis or creative study,” he said.
Davis is highly appreciative of the support he’s received in the creation of “Probably.” He spoke highly of his fellow actors and the encouragement he receives from Congdon, MacAdams and Horan. “I have an incredible support network here,” he said. As the play’s performance dates approach, Davis claimed to have more nerves about acting in front of an audience than the reception of his writing. It seems he should have little to worry about, anyway, as Congdon praised Davis’s progression as a writer throughout his years in the Theater and Dance department, saying that he has “grown exponentially with every project he’s done for me.”
If you’d like to change your perception of what a thesis at Amherst College can be, clear space on your calendar for March 27-29 at 7:30 p.m. “Probably” will be performed in Studio 3 in Webster Hall on these dates. By themselves, the notions of communication, intimacy in human relationships, and sexual respect dealt with by “Probably” are worthy of attention. The production also exhibits the talents of many hard-working members of our community, and that most of all is deserving of our support.