Few college students are granted the opportunity to spend their summers working with Grammy-nominated singer-songwriters. Isaac L. Alter ’16 and Jake H. Wilder-Smith ’16, however, can count themselves among that number. For Alter and Wilder-Smith, summer 2015 meant helping Sara Bareilles to compose a score for the musical “Waitress,” which premiered in August at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) and has sold out for the remaining weeks of its run in Cambridge.
Tucked away in the Loeb Experimental Theater, next door to the A.R.T.’s mainstage theater, students in the Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theater program were hard at work on a different project, staging “Mad Forest,” a play examining the aftermath of the Romanian Revolution. And scattered across campus in libraries and museums, students participated in the Summer Humanities and Arts Research Program (SHARP). They explored the digitization of poetry courses, the curation of museum exhibitions, and translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Staying on campus during the summer allowed students to pursue the arts in a variety of fields not only professionally but also with greater depth. “It’s great to get that kind of experience with high caliber shows, [to] have that in your back pocket in the real world,” Alter says. “[The A.R.T.] is a wonderful place to learn the ropes.” Echoing Alter, Emily E. Bergquist ’18 says that her time on campus this summer facilitated a profound connection to the arts at Harvard. “It was a lot of me standing there in awe of these remarkably talented performers.”
The A.R.T., a professional theater, offers positions to students each summer. Those students assist with show production in fields ranging from dramaturgy to stage management to music. This summer, 15 students from a combination of Harvard and other schools spent their time working on various aspects of “Waitress.” Bergquist and other members of the dramaturgy department worked with writers as they developed and revised the script, organized read-throughs, and produced blocking notes. “I didn’t realize how collaborative it was with the actors,” Bergquist says. “Working through a professional tech and preview process was so valuable, [as well as] being able to see how everything works and how all the puzzle pieces fit together and also watching the show from start to finish get created essentially.”
Through connecting with the cast and exploring behind-the-scenes aspects of “Waitress,” Bergquist gained a deeper attachment to the show. “Certain songs still make me cry. I still laugh at all the jokes even though I know they’re coming. I think because I’ve watched all of the different versions of the show as it existed, I can still go see it now and truly enjoy it,” Bergquist says, reflecting on her experiences as an intern at the A.R.T. this summer. She worked in the dramaturgy department, as the A.R.T. turned “Waitress” into a full-scale musical. The show, based on based the 2007 film by Adrienne Shelly, follows Jenna, a waitress trapped in an abusive marriage who ultimately finds the courage to change her life. “When I think back to the first table read and I think about how the show is now, it’s so different, and it’s really cool to be able to say that I watched that grow and I watched that change,” Bergquist says.
Alter, an A.R.T. music intern, worked extensively with Bareilles to write the songs featured in the musical. “In this musical you get the sense that it’s kind [of] just about everyday life,” he says. “Sara has done such an extraordinary job because she really tailors her songs to the character and the moment the character is in, so you really get the sense that the music is complementing the journey that the show is taking you through.” Alter says that watching the first preview and attending full-cast rehearsals were some of the more memorable moments of the summer. “The first time I saw the show all the way through I remember just crying my eyes out because it was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This show exists, and I in some small way helped it exist,’” Alter says. “Another big moment was towards the beginning when I was sitting in a music rehearsal. I was helping sing some extra parts for the song and the people in the room were Jessie Mueller...Keala Settle...Sara Bareilles and our Music Director Nadia [DiGiallonardo], who’s amazing and playing the piano. I got to sing with those three people and it was just like, whoa. This is a crazy moment. How did I end up here?”
Students also had the opportunity to get more intensely involved with theater this summer through a student-run production. As part of the Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theater program, they not only staged “Mad Forest” but also became a community. Written by Caryl Churchill and directed by Sam R. Reynolds ’16, “Mad Forest” examines life before, during, and after the Romanian Revolution of 1989. The production opened on July 17 and ran through August 2 at the Loeb Experimental Theater.
Having peers around without the pressures of academics, extracurriculars, and the typical social buzz of campus facilitates a special closeness, says Caro P. Ribeiro ’18, who participated in the production. “There’s more of a tight-knit community during the summer,” she says. “During the term time there’s like 20 different shows going up, so it’s very difficult to meet people who aren’t in the same cast as you. But since there’s only one show going on during the summer everyone kind of bonds together, which is really, really nice. I really like that.”
For Nadia L. Urrea ’17, who was part of the “Mad Forest” cast, participating in summer theater was a chance to engage in the drama world during a less stressful time of year. “This year I was really busy, so I wasn’t able to do much theater. So I really wanted to do something this summer,” Urrea says. “I knew about the summer theater program...and so I decided that I would audition.”
The summer production schedule also allows students to more actively engage in the subject matter, Ribeiro says. “Our directors have done a great job creating the world of the show and the world of the characters and the Romanian Revolution, and I think that for people who aren’t familiar with the time period, it’s a great opportunity to learn more about a country’s history that we don’t often hear about,” she says.
Alona R. Bach ’16 stared at a cardboard box filled to the brim with vintage lantern slides. Wearing purple latex gloves and handling the broken ones with care, she sorted through the box, organizing the materials based on shared characteristics. The slides, which numbered more than 900, dated to the 1960s classroom of former Harvard chemistry professor Eugene G. Rochow. “I find myself looking at objects a lot,” Bach says. “I was interested in museums before but spending the summer working in a collection just cemented that desire. Really getting to see how it works is fantastic.”