Kiss, ArtsEmerson’s upcoming show opening Thursday, October 26, centers around a theater troupe of young, earnest actors. So when ArtsEmerson Co-artistic Director David Dower was thinking about producing the play, that’s just whom he cast.
Much of the cast and crew on Kiss is composed of Emerson Performing Arts students, who will lend their energy to acclaimed Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón’s dark comedy—and get valuable professional experience in exchange.
“Guillermo’s written a sneaky play,” Dower, who directs the show, said in a statement, “that on the one hand celebrates the power of theater to change the world, and on the other acts like a cautionary tale for young artists wielding that power.
“I was immediately drawn to the notion of staging the play with student actors from Emerson College, who I see every day here on our campus, and who are filled with the same hope and resolve as Guillermo’s characters,” he said.
In Kiss, a group of young, ambitious actors discovers and performs what they think is a Syrian soap opera, only to learn how wrong they were. It’s a play within a play that demonstrates the danger in misunderstanding cultural cues.
The Office of the Arts, the Emerson College department that administers ArtsEmerson, employs some student workers, and students do sometimes work behind the scenes on ArtsEmerson shows. But because it is primarily a theater presenter, as opposed to a producer, it rarely has the chance to offer roles to students.
So when the chance to perform in an ArtsEmerson show came up, Derek Demkowicz ’18 jumped at it.
Demkowicz, who plays one of the four main characters, Youssif, said acting in a professional production is both a “huge responsibility and a huge honor.”
It’s created more pressure than an Emerson Stage production typically does (Emerson Stage is the Performing Arts Department’s production company). For one thing, ArtsEmerson shows tend to draw a wider audience than student productions. And while a typical Emerson Stage production runs for three to five shows, Kiss’s run will feature 17 performances over more than three weeks.
But that longer run allows the actors to dig deeper into their characters, Demkowicz said.
“If one person doesn’t give 100 percent, the whole thing could crumble,” he said. “All of us have been working so hard and so passionately. I’m so honored to be a part of it.”
Of course, rehearsing for a 17-show run while also being a full-time student and a full-time human being has its challenges.
Lindsey Hopper ’18 works as an ArtsEmerson usher, which is how the Theatre major with a concentration in directing heard about the opportunities for students on Kiss. On this production, Hopper is working with the swings—actors who rotate in and out of various roles throughout the run—to make sure they’re ready to jump in and take over a part.
She and the other students have been rehearsing 35 hours, six days per week.
“A lot of us run right from our classes to rehearsal,” Hopper said.
But Hopper credits Dower with giving the cast and crew support and understanding.
“He’s not just throwing us out in the ocean and expecting us to get to shore,” she said. “He’s there in the boat beside us, trying to make sure we’re getting where we need to be.”
Sara Sargent ’19 is the female swing for Kiss, meaning she’s playing one of two women, Hadeel and Bana, in certain shows during the run. Depending on which show they attend, audiences may see one of three casts—various combinations of the four core players and swing actors.
The play itself is complex, in both theme and structure. And being a swing means Sargent needs to learn two parts, come to understand two characters, and find multiple ways of looking at each scene. She needs to watch the core actors perform their parts night after night and find a way to neither imitate nor upend what they’re doing.
“I learn things from them then I make my own decisions,” she said. “I make a point to make different choices as well. I take things they are finding useful and then make it my own.”
In the end though, working with the production team, meeting new people, and getting to perform in an extended run have been exciting and well worth it,” Sargent said.
“It takes a lot of external work and internal work…but it’s been great and I’ve learned a lot so far,” she said.
Deb Acquavella, senior stage and production manager-in-residence in the Performing Arts Department, agreed that the opportunities for learning on a professional production like Kiss are invaluable.
Acquavella stage manages an ArtsEmerson show on average about once per year, and she said she always tries to bring students to work alongside her. Not only is it good for the students to get the enhanced experience, but it’s useful to her as an instructor to work with her students as professionals.
“It’d be nice to once a year have an option like this for more and more students,” Acquavella said. “It’s so beneficial.”
Kiss runs October 26 through November 19 at the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre. For tickets and show times, visit artsemerson.org.