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Samuel F. Dvorak ’23 believes in the intimacy of creating theater — in particular, the power and passion of an engaged community, even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. To Dvorak, each production is like a spot of light — transient, ephemeral, and all the more beautiful for its temporality.
In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, Dvorak reflected on his experience in harnessing this power as a director, as well as his long, successful career in theater at Harvard.
Charting his theater journey, Dvorak mentioned that he performed in musicals and plays during high school, as well as playing in pit orchestras at community theaters. Though he came to Harvard intending to focus on developing as a musician, Dvorak describes how he found himself irresistibly drawn to the world of theater, becoming a five-time director.
“I wanted to become better at the piano, I wanted to become better at composing, Dvorak said. “So I didn't really expect that I would find myself too involved with theater.”
The First-Year Arts Program (FAP) renewed his interest in theater as the intersection between music and performance.
“FAP was one of the — if not the most — formative experiences of my life,” Dvorak said. “It's hard to avoid theater while you’re there. I quickly learned through FAP that it is in theater that all of these different disciplines come together.”
It was the First-Year Musical, however, that particularly catapulted Dvorak into the directing role, despite his lack of experience with backstage work. Though he’d initially hoped to compose for the original show, citing the “special experience” of participating in the birth of a new musical, he applied to direct “on a whim,” following advice from his sister.
“I was diving in headfirst. It was very immersive, and pushed me in so many new ways,” said Dvorak.
Dvorak sees his work as a director as a “perpetual learning experience.”
“I have been directed myself, but I've never studied directing.” Dvorak said. “Every day, I'm figuring it out as I go.”
Even though directors leave the concrete, technical details to their designers or crew, Dvorak cited the “soft skill” of cultivating an environment that nurtures the inherent passion of actors and staff alike.
“It’s about creating an environment where people feel compelled to succeed and inspired to do their best work. At the end of the day I am not onstage and acting any parts, I am not the one who is going to come up with the lighting design, or is going to draw up the set plans, or create the costumes. It is just my job to help facilitate all of these things, and help the people who are actually doing the hard work feel excited about the show and passionate about the project.”
Though Dvorak’s self-proclaimed assignment of “just making sure everything clicks” portrays direction as a simple task, the scale of his cast and crew is formidable. His most recent directorial project, the musical “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” had a production team of over 70 people and a cast of 17 actors. Dvorak admitted that striking the right balance between allowing designers the freedom to enact their vision and offering adequate support — this “soft skill” has been integral to Dvorak’s directing.
“There's always a fine line of what is too much to give and what's too little to give, and I don't want to overstep, being aware that I'm not an expert in any of these fields,” Dvorak said. “But I don't want to not give direction and then have people feel not supported or like they’re not in an environment where they can be a part of one big, cohesive show.”
Dvorak praised the theater community for the unique productions that arose from the difficulties of quarantine, calling it “crazy” but “a really good time.” Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, his first-year musical was performed online, and he also participated in Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ online production of “Cox and Box.” He described innovative adaptations to the challenges of performing online, including Zoom blocking (“to the side or forward or back”), pre-recorded content, lip-syncing, and the development of a “3D, virtual, animated environment” to create the illusion of actors all in the same room. Experiencing — and shaping — the unique production of shows throughout the pandemic thus reaffirmed the connective power of theater for Dvorak.
“It was very important to me that we did not stop,” Dvorak said about his time in the wake of the pandemic. “Everything was sort of thrown up in the air, but the show must go on. And I'm very proud of what we were able to do.”
Dvorak believes that the theater community is “special,” and wistfully mused on the transient nature of each cast and crew.
“It’s a very intimate process to spend hours every day, week after week, with the same group of people creating a piece of theater; it's very much a bonding experience,” Dvorak said. “The theater community is interesting because it is somewhat transient: when “Comet” closes this weekend that group of people will never come together again.” Dvorak said.
“But the community sort of extends beyond these blips that are the productions.”
In this way, Dvorak’s directorial vision pays homage to — and draws on the strengths of — the theater community. Theater, in turn, nourishes him and “fulfills” him; he hopes to continue his theater involvement in some capacity even beyond graduation.
“I wish I had more semesters. I would very happily continue to do more shows,” Dvorak said. “And I hope to make sure that [theater] remains part of my daily life as much as it can be. And who knows where the winding road leads?”
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