Act III: Bringing UNH History to Life
Standing on the URC stage in the Strafford Room, Noah, who worked with advisor Ryan Vigil, lecturer in music, on his project, shared his process with attendees at the final event in the 2017 Naked Arts: Creativity Exposed presentations.
From the time Noah had the almost-completed script in hand, he had about two weeks to create the themes for each of the main historical characters as well as entrance and exit music and accompaniment to cover scene changes.
And it was his first time composing music for the theatre.
Quickly, he said, he realized he had to be strategic in his approach, equating the process to first looking at the questions in a reading comprehension exercise before delving into a page-long paragraph of facts. Recognizing there would be time limits and a need for flexibility, Noah created a score recorded by a jazz trio able to provide the improvisation and flexibility needed to meet the play’s varied needs.
When asked by someone in the audience whether he would consider writing music for a theatrical piece again, Noah smiled. “It was a great experience,” he said. “I’d do it again.”
Here's a clip of Noah’s score.
UNH’s theatre and dance department and the Mask and Dagger Dramatic Society had never collaborated on a production before — but all that changed when it came time to celebrate the university’s 150th anniversary.
This weekend, students are performing the original work “Seven Boxes of Books,” directed by Aimee Blessing, lecturer in theatre and dance, with assistant director William Lombard ’17 of Peabody, Massachusetts. And on Friday, Lombard and several core members of the production took to the URC Naked Arts stage in the MUB’s Strafford Room to discuss what it took to make the concept a reality.
Lombard was joined by Isabelle Beagen ’17 of Madbury, New Hampshire, Elizabeth Feinschreiber ’19 of Norton, Massachusetts, and Simon Freitas ’18 of Everett, Massachusetts, to present the final act in this year’s Naked Arts: Creativity Exposed events: “Seven Boxes of Books: The Historical Past and Present Through the Lens of Devised Theatre.”
Lombard explained how the play got its name. When UNH began as the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts (NHCAMA), its first professor, Ezekiel Dimond, arrived at the original campus in Hanover with seven boxes of books, equipment and materials to start the new college.
The premise that evolved was to have a cast of characters — fictional UNH students — charged with deciding how to fill seven boxes to represent the most significant moments in UNH’s history.
The production team began digging through the UNH archives. The guiding question? “What best represents the history of the school,” Lombard said.
They would find items from the NHCAMA days, artifacts related to Ben Thompson and the move to Durham, the change in name to UNH, the effect of two world wars on campus and the activism of past students — just to name a few.
The goal, Lombard explained, was to create a compelling piece of theatre “without being a two-hour lecture on what UNH was.”
A total of 13 actors play the fictional students as well as characters from UNH’s history — including Dimond, who serves as the play’s narrator. Ben Thompson, complete with his flowing white hair, is also featured in the production, along with Lucy Swallow, the first female student to attend the university, and Caroline Black, NHCAMA’s first female professor.
Beagen, who plays Swallow and Black and was also part of the production team, described the research that went into the play and the time spent working with UNH’s archives to collect props and make sure the production was historically accurate.
“The play talks about history, but we actually got our hands on history,” she explained, holding a copy of Life magazine that featured UNH’s all-female ROTC from decades past.
The stories of Swallow and Black especially resonated with her as women ahead of their time. “They serve as a beacon of hope and perseverance,” she said, adding, “They are so relevant today.”
Feinschreiber and Freitas described the acting method the cast members undertook to create the college students in the production, which included research, improvisation and interviews with the directors as the characters they were developing.
“There was a good amount of homework we weren’t expecting,” Freitas said, smiling.
Both agreed one of the most interesting things they learned about UNH in this process related to the student activism of the 1960s and 1970s.
Feinschreiber described stories of faculty providing seminars so students could learn about the issues and how mature those students were in the ways they protested issues without being destructive.
“We really wanted the story to be about the students’ learning — and about those who had been here before,” Lombard explained, adding that after
researching 150 years of UNH history, the part of the experience that stays with him most is “knowing that I’m a part of a group that created something that will be talked about in the future.”
See "Seven Boxes of Books" in the Hennessy Theatre at Paul Creative Arts Center this weekend. Show times and details