Lansing Community College’s theater program may be small — its website lists just two full-time faculty — but it will have an opportunity next month to prove it can hang with the big schools. Its production of Daniel MacIvor’s “Never Swim Alone” was recently selected for the Kennedy Center’s Region Three American College Theater Festival.
The festival runs Jan. 5 through 9 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The other schools represented from Region Three, comprising Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan, are Ball State University, Carthage College, Marquette University and Oakland University. The Kennedy Center oversees eight regional festivals, and the productions selected for regional festivals will be considered for the center’s national arts festival in April.
“It says an enormous amount about the quality of our program,” said Melissa Kaplan, coordinator of fine and performing arts at LCC. “To have all the notes hit — the acting, directing, sound design, sets — for all those pieces to come together, it says we have a strong program.”
Deb Keller, who directs this production, initially thought the play had not been selected for the festival. Typically, selected productions are notified by phone, and rejected productions are notified by email the next day. The call didn’t come the day Keller expected it.
“I didn’t think I had that much attached to it until I didn’t get the call. I cried,” said Keller. “I really wanted it for the actors. To go is a very special thing; it’s such a rarefied place.”
As it turned out, the official in charge of making the calls was delayed, and Keller got a message that evening that the play was accepted.
“It’s a really big honor,” Keller said. “Especially at a community college. Budgets are smaller, and it’s harder to pull off these kinds of productions. It takes a team, and we have a strong team here.”
The play centers around two identically dressed businessmen who are locked in a battle of verbal one-upmanship, which is refereed by a female lifeguard. The three are linked by a dark episode in their past. Deb Keller, who directs this production, said she was drawn in by the dialogue, which she compares to David Mamet but taken to the edge of absurdity.
“I enjoyed the witty battle with the guys. It literally is a battle,” Keller said. “But the woman controls it. The referee is really the controlling, dominant force.”
Monica Tanner, who plays the referee in this production, said the biggest challenge was balancing the two sides of her character’s persona.
“She’s kind of removed from it. She’s unbiased; she couldn’t care less,” she said. “But she also represents a person from their past. A decision the boys made earlier in life affected her in an intense way. I had to ask, ‘At which points do I care, and at what point am I just the referee?’”
The script calls for the referee — who is clad in a one-piece bathing suit for reasons that are not immediately apparent — to climb into and out of a lifeguard tower several times during the production. To mostly avoid the awkward tower work, Keller decided to incorporate aerial silks, a form of gymnastics using a long silk hammock to suspend oneself in the air.
“I thought the lyricism of the silks would add an element of circus to the battle,” Keller said. “It takes you out of the normal; it heightens the mystical element.”
Tanner, who does most of the silk work in this production, had no experience with aerial silks before she started rehearsals for “Never Swim Alone.”
“I had a month to learn silks,” she said. “Most people train for four months before they do any sort of public performance. I had to rehearse four times a week. It was exhausting.”
Featuring a cast of just three actors, the play clocks in at about an hour. The production’s small scale gave Keller a chance to hone in on details.
“We rehearsed like a three-hour drama,” she said.
“Every single moment, every gesture was rehearsed,” added actor Heath Sartorius, who plays one of the businessmen. “You can go more in-depth.”
The cast and crew have already resumed rehearsals. The biggest challenge they face is adapting the intimate show, originally designed for LCC’s black box theater, to the festival’s 500-seat theater space. In a way, it’s a metaphor for what LCC’s theater program is trying to do: compete on a larger stage.
“Community colleges usually don’t go,” said Tanner of LCC being selected for the festival. “It’s kind of an underdog thing.”
“We have this one-hour show that no one has ever heard of,” Sartorius added. “We’re up against big universities doing shows like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Equus.’” Tanner said that the reality of the festival hasn’t quite set in for her yet.
“We’re really calm about it, but the closer we get, the more real it becomes,” she said.
Sartorius, on the other hand, is looking forward to reprising his role a for a few more performances.
“It was the best experience I’ve ever had, and it’s one of the best roles I’ve ever played,” Sartorius said. “To get a role that challenges me, that’s outside of what I’ve normally done, it was a great experience.”
“Never Swim Alone”
Open dress rehearsal 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 3 FREE Dart Auditorium 500 N. Capitol Ave., Lansing (517) 483-1488, lcc. edu/showinfo