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May 12, 2004:

Princeton experiences
From the spectacle of theses to the classic field trip

By Sara Mayeux ’05

There was a point this spring when, like all seniors, Maura Cody ’04 – a comparative literature major – sat down in her carrel in the bowels of Firestone and hammered out the bulk of her thesis.

Unlike the majority of her classmates, though, Cody found herself weeks later surrounded by the characters and scenes of her thesis come to life – in this case, running around spouting Italian and falling in love and belly dancing and serving cookies to the audiences who gathered in the Matthews Acting Studio at 185 Nassau for two weekends this April to see Cody’s play “Spettacolo!”

Emily, the play’s main character, at once overwhelmed and guiltily delighted by the hyperactive Italian town where the story takes place. “It feels like there’s always something going on here!”, she exclaims. Now, Emily, especially as played by Olivia Wills ’04 in director David Bengali ’04’s production of the play, is a rather neurotic type: the sort of reluctant tourist who struggles in high-heeled sandals to manage her unwieldy suitcases through Italy’s cobblestone streets and then blames it all on Italy. But she has a point in her more wide-eyed moments: there was quite a lot going on in the small-town piazza that Bengali and crew had created.

Rather than separate the stage from the audience, “Spettacolo!” made the whole room both stage and audience at once. Surrounding the center stage was a church, a hotel, the office of the aforementioned temp agency, and the Caffè Pronto (from which waiters served pastries and cookies to the audience halfway through the show). Spectators sat on benches here and there, on the steps of the town’s church, at the café’s red-and-white check tableclothed tables. In one corner Princeton’s own Klezmer band, the Klezmocrats, provided musical accompaniment on violin and woodwinds; in another, there was belly dancing, ribbon dancing, and tap dancing. (At a few points, the play’s action required that whole chunks of the audience move out of the way of the rolling piano, or relocate to another corner of the square altogether.)

In addition to being Cody’s creative thesis, “Spettacolo!” – the production – fulfilled requirements for a handful of other seniors earning certificates in the Program in Theater and Dance, including Bengali and Wills (an English major, who also wrote a play for her own thesis). In fact, all along the process was highly collaborative; Bengali, a computer science major earning a certificate in Italian as well as theater, came up with the original idea for the show last spring. Liz Berg ’04, also a theater and dance certificate student, was studying abroad in Italy at the time, and had written a junior paper on commedia dell’arte, the raucous, exuberant, improvisational mode of theater that emerged in Venice in the 16th century that is evoked by “Spettacolo!”; Berg choreographed the show’s dance numbers in addition to playing a starring role. Cody wrote the script based upon the ensemble cast’s improvisations over the course of the year, as well as their experiences visiting Rome, Bologna, and the Southern Italian region of Puglia together over the intersession break in February. And Scott Elmegreen ’07, who Cody met when they both acted in another student production this fall, composed the music.

Many of the cast members had been involved with each other’s shows over the past few years in various capacities. “Pulling everyone together into one project was a cool thing to be doing senior year,” Bengali said. But in this case even some veterans were also getting a chance to try something new: theater certificate student John Vennema ’04, the play’s set designer, also played the romantic lead, though he’s spent most of his Princeton theater career behind the scenes.

Having heard about the play over dinner one night with Cody, Bengali, and Wills, I wanted to see for myself. Like Emily, I was somewhat overwhelmed, if also delighted, by the entire experience. Spectacle, indeed: on my way to my seat alone, I was offered a cup of espresso by my friend Charif Shanahan ’05, who was playing a waiter (and who I happen to have first met in a real piazza while we were both studying abroad in Italy the summer after our freshman year), and then nearly bowled over by two light-hearted handymen – played by Elmegreen and Grace Labatt ’06, otherwise known as the Goldoni Brothers Temp Agency – who were chasing each other with the sort of gleeful mischievous abandon that renders one blind to passersby. I suppose that all seniors hope that at some moment between the months of laborious research and the frantic weeks of writing, their thesis starts to come alive. For Cody, then, who was taking tickets at the door that night, all of this frantic activity must have been a good sign.


When I was in elementary school we went a lot of field trips, and these always involved much logistical planning beforehand: picking a buddy, being assigned to a chaperone group, and wearing matching T-shirts so that if we happened to get lost we could be easily identified as belonging to Sarah Smith Elementary in Atlanta, Georgia. Our parents were instructed to send sack lunches. Under no circumstances would we be allowed to board the bus if we did not have a signed permission slip, or if we had misbehaved in school that week.

A few weeks ago I went on what may well have been my first official Field Trip since my Sarah Smith days. (There were Class Overnight Trips in middle and high school but those involved a whole different set of worms.) Not only did we not need permission slips, we also did not take a yellow bus. My graduate and undergraduate classmates in ANT 406/506: Anthropology of Memory gathered, as instructed, at the Dinky station one Saturday morning where our professor John Borneman handed us our train tickets. From there we took NJ Transit to Penn Station, then the subway to Battery Park. With no matching T-shirts I was constantly surprised each step of the way to find that we hadn’t lost anyone of the group, especially since the only thing we had been told was that we were going to Ellis Island, without any further details as to how exactly we were getting there. We all made it to the ferry station, though it had been a race to the finish; our only hope for sticking together as Borneman led our motley crew through the bowels of Penn Station and the streets of New York was to keep up with Borneman’s swift pace, and the dozen or so of us weaving breathlessly through the Manhattan crowds in a long disjointed directionless snake.

Instead of sack lunches, there were vegetarian burritos for lunch, purchased at a nearby deli and smuggled onto the ferry, and, after returning from the island, dinner at a swank Malaysian restaurant in Soho – the sort of place with indoor huts and waterfalls. As we were waiting for the ferry, a couple of my classmates lit up cigarettes; once on the ferry we found ourselves surrounded by families with small children, foreign tourists, and a high school marching band from some faraway state, on a trip to New York and wearing matching sweatshirts. An announcement was made about the requirement that school groups include one chaperone for every 10 students. There were certainly more than ten of us, but I guess we were our own chaperones now.

Sara Mayeux is a history major from Atlanta, Georgia. You can reach her at smayeux@princeton.edu