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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

College and high school students shine in The 39 Steps

By Tessa Cheek

Sometime, either during a shower of paper airplanes or when the onstage characters self-consciously built a ‘car’ out of four chairs and a set of lecterns, it became clear that “The 39 Steps” was no ordinary production. The play showed in three evening performances last week under the joint support of Grinnell College, Grinnell High School and Grinnell Area Arts Council.

“One of the big things about this is that a lot of people who went to see it were expecting to see the Hitchcock story and the play is based off a suspense movie,” said Marcus Zeitz ’12, who played the main character—novice spy Richard Hannay. “The playwright, Patrick Barlow, his big thing was using a small cast and a minimalist stage set-up almost to make fun of the performance.”

The script’s blend of suspense and farce was tailor-made for four performers, each with a lot to do. Zeitz, Shaun Peters ’14, Caitlin Beckwith-Ferguson ’14 and Nora Tjossem, a recent graduate of Grinnell High School, tossed on whole new characters with just the onstage change of a hat.

“It’s just a very funny, crazy, out there show,” said Beckwith-Ferguson who played everything from a hired heavy for a Nazi spy, to a old man at a B&B. “It’s not serious or standard theater.”

Zeitz spent the entirety of the play as the run-away Hannay—although Hannay himself often went undercover. Falsely accused of murder, Hannay has only a map of Scotland and a few hints about the mysterious threat to the British empire constituted by the “39 steps” to clear his name. Zeitz’s role had him clinging to the bottom of imaginary train cars, dragging fair damsels through the Scottish moors and generally sprinting around the outdoor stage.

“It was really nice to have the show outside,” Beckwith-Ferguson said. “I think it made it a little more casual and that worked well.”

In addition to being un-ticketed and completely open to the public, under the guidance of director Jack Menner ’13 and stage director Deborah Berk ’12, the production made the best possible use of a minimalist and mobile stage—affectionately called the ‘Bandwagon.’ Well inside Grinnell’s tradition of open-air community theater, “The 39 Steps” team worked hard to meet the challenges of an outdoor space.

“We started in the high school auditorium,” Zeitz said, “but we quickly moved outside and practiced on the same stage by the high school football field where there’s a ton of wind so anything you say that you don’t project is just lost.”

This practice showed during the performance itself in which all the actors were clearly audible despite being on stage and speaking non-stop for the vast majority of the play. But projection wasn’t the only hurdle. The Bandwagon’s mobile nature makes it a perfect venue for outdoor theater, so outdoor that the actors were visible even when they were off-stage.

“It reminded me of [Grinnell College production] ‘The Rimers of Eldridge,’” Peters said. “The audience was right there next to the actors and it kind of breaks down that fourth wall. It’s not in the standard tradition of theater and you develop this intimate relationship with the audience, which helps when you need to pull on their energy to continue going through a scene. I liked it—it was new and different for me. They always say, ‘don’t get in the sightlines,’ but this time there was no way the audience couldn’t see you.”

Ultimately, the success of “The 39 Steps” came not just from its undeniable high energy, high laughs and entertainment factor, but also from the fact that it broke more than a few fourth walls. The production was undeniably a joint effort—from the costume design by Political Science’s own Barbara Trish, to the technical direction by Grinnell High School’s theater teacher Mike Hunter and a props team and a cast peopled by a mixture of students from the College and high school alike.

This collaboration couldn’t have been more clear when it came time to return the material aspects of the show.

“After the last performance we had to take some stuff to the high school, some stuff to the College and some stuff to the Arts Council,” Zeitz said.“So it was very much a collaboration.”

Even though returning the production’s props and costumes illustrated a great deal about the community which made the play possible, that community was also sad to let it go.

“It was also a bitter sweet moment,” Peters said, “because you knew dropping off this thing meant leaving a part of the show behind you in each place.”

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