Elan A. Greenwald

How have you been involved with the arts while at Harvard?

I found that, of the three shows I was in during my freshman year, the most meaningful experience I had was in a production of The Vagina Monologues (VM) in Agassiz Theatre. I appreciated that production’s sense of community that grew partly from the demographics of the cast and partly from the varying levels of theater experience represented within it. At the end of my freshman year, I joined two amazing women and fellow VM cast members, Julia Reischel ’04 and Heather Thomason ’04, in founding the Athena Theater Company. We wanted to bring inexperienced actresses to the stage with experienced actresses, and to recreate the sense of community that had been so important in our VM experience. Since co-founding Athena, I’ve served on its executive board, produced several plays, acted in several plays, and, last semester, wrote and directed my own show.

What is your assessment of Harvard’s artistic community and culture?

Overall, I’ve been really impressed by the artistic opportunities at Harvard. It would be difficult to find another place in the world like it—where students can explore their talents and experiment in such an open setting and with such a great support network of “grown-ups” behind them. I think the major problem with theater at Harvard is the same problem encountered at other institutions with a long history and such a talented student body—that is, it’s often intimidating for inexperienced people to get involved.

There’s been a lot of talk recently contrasting Athena to Harvard Radcliffe Drama Company (HRDC), representing them as competing organizations. I think these critical comparisons miss the point of Athena, and the point of HRDC. Since we aim to approach theater as a way to explore new issues and to try things we haven’t tried before, we fill a completely different niche in the arts community here and draw from an entirely different pool of actors and technicians. Harvard has an amazing theater program and opportunities in the arts, and, with Athena, we’re just trying to add a little diversity, to put our own spin on the role of theater in our lives.

What do you find rewarding about performing? What inspires you, as a busy college student, to continue to participate in an art that requires such intense training?

I don’t think of theater as another source of stress but rather as an outlet for it. It’s certainly challenging, but it’s challenging in a way that is completely different from academic work. I really need variety in my life, and theater gives me a creative escape from other things I do. At a place like Harvard, it’s easy to get bogged down in your own concerns, your own life. Theater (and really any form of expression) offers a way to connect to other people, to strangers. Each performance poses an essential, tacit question: “Do you feel this way, too?”

Briefly describe your creative process in preparing for a performance.

For every Athena production, on the night of the last dress rehearsal, I write a really dumb poem about the production and send it to the cast/crew lists in order to psych people up for the show. Then, while the cast is warming up at every performance, I give “symbolic gifts”—usually really cheap stuff I buy at CVS that has to do with the show in some way. I guess this has very little to do with the “creative process,” but it gets people excited about the performance. And it’s a great Athena tradition.

What has been your most fulfilling artistic/academic experience?

The summer after my junior year, I wrote a play in response to a class I had taken on women’s theater, and in November, I directed it in an on-campus production. It was an amazing experience—not only because of all the wonderful cast and crew members involved, but also because I suddenly started thinking about myself as a writer. I had previously been too afraid of people’s reactions that I didn’t write anything. But after this November experience, I decided that writing was something that was too important to me, that I had to do it without worrying what people thought.

How has Harvard been a home to you? How have your years at Harvard affected you or your performance art?

Harvard has awakened me to what’s going on in the world, making me aware of what people have written and performed and what they are currently writing and performing. It’s both frustrating and affirming to know that people all over the world and from all different eras have had the same ideas you’ve had or are thinking the same things. I’ll really miss being around all of this, where so many ideas just float around in the air.

Characterize yourself or your taste in arts projects in five words.

A woman unskilled in brevity.

Where do you imagine yourself next year, post-graduation, and in ten years?

Next year, I’m going to go to New York to write plays and work as a writing tutor. I’ll also probably starve to death. But it’ll be worth it. In ten years, who knows? Probably grad school. Hopefully still writing and living in a city somewhere, eating croissants.

Do you have any entertaining performance stories?

As a freshman I was in a play called “Drop Dead,” about a bunch of really horrible actors who try to put on a play while everything goes wrong. So, of course, in a classic instance of life imitating art, everything went wrong with our production: No one had their lines memorized; I couldn’t deliver one of my monologues without laughing; and our set kept falling apart.

Two nights before we opened, our lead actress became too sick too perform, so we had to get someone to fill in for her at the last minute. Before the closing night performance, we [cast-members] were all joking that nothing else could possibly go wrong when one of our lead actors walked in on crutches. He had sprained his ankle playing basketball 2 hours before! It ended up working out—he worked the crutches into some of his lines – but since then, every last-minute problem I’ve ever encountered in other productions has seemed anti-climactic.