The DownStage Theatre Company occupies a space unlike any other within Sarah Lawrence’s diverse theatre community—and I’m not just talking about DownStage itself, which is the elusive black box situated in the belly of the Performing Arts Center.
Technically, DownStage belongs to the SLC curriculum. The course catalogue describes it as “an intensive, hands-on conference in theatrical production.” Each member of the production company plays a role in building a show from scratch, whether it be selecting plays, updating social media, selecting actors, directing, designing, budgeting, and more. As a theatre component, taught by Graeme Gillis and offered to upperclassmen and graduate students, DownStage meets twice a week and receives the benefit of its own school-provided budget. At the same time, DownStage identifies as its own independent theatre company, unaffiliated with Mainstage or any other theatre group on campus.
Samuel DeMattio ‘19, DownStage’s co-literary manager, described DownStage’s position as a “happy medium” between SLC’s major Mainstage productions and the smaller-scale, but no less profound, independently produced shows, such as those put on by the Melancholy Players.
“Mainstage shows are...very, very grand productions that focus more on story than, necessarily, acting or design elements, and then Melancholy [Players] shows are like these beautifully intimate, really raw, artistic stories,” DeMattio explained. ”DownStage is great because it’s somewhere in the middle. We have a few more technical elements than Melancholy can do — like, just being under the department; we have a lighting board, we have gel lights, we have the toys to play with, which is nice, but at the same time, it’s not these big, grand productions done in huge theaters, it’s still very intimate in a black box.”
Luke Miller MFA ’17, theatre tech extraordinaire and DownStage’s co-production manager, added that while Mainstage most often employs faculty, DownStage does its best to focus on the student voice. “We know what the student body is really wanting... what areas are not being explored in Mainstage,” he said. “And then we can take that on, we can tackle that in real time, in the moment, as needs arise, and it puts us in a really unique position that no one else can really fill.”
Another aspect that differentiates DownStage from every other theatre company is its yearly reinvention. Recently, the members of DownStage released this year’s mission statement, focused around family and how the word carries a different meaning for each individual. As part of the statement runs, “We all come from many cultures, yet the theatre ties us together. We aim to explore the concept of family, be they blood families or found families; the people who make us intrinsically who we are. We invite you to explore your voice, and weave the tapestry of stories that bind us together.”
“We create a new mission statement, and we choose our season, and we basically redefine DownStage as a theatre company every year it exists,” said Elizabeth Pritchett-Montavon ‘17, company manager. This year, DownStage welcomes us to their family.
DeMattio described the process: “Our mission statement took a while to come together...we really talked about it for hours and hours and hours on end,” he said. “Miller and I had settled on this idea of the human condition, and everyone else in the group loved it but felt it was a little too broad, so then Mariel [Sanchez] had the idea of focusing that on family, ‘cause that’s something that’s innately a part of every single human being...everyone has some sense of family, some sense of home.”
Pritchett-Montavon also pointed out that the process brought about so much more than just a written statement about family—it helped create one. “The majority of us had never worked together,” she said. “So it was also working together as a group to both get into the year working as a theatre company...and to find out what our identity as DownStage was going to be.”
For the first performance of their season, DownStage brings us Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike—a humorous piece centered around a dysfunctional family who loves each other through their flaws.
“[It’s] a very broad comedy that is like a riff, it’s a joke on Chekhov’s 4 greatest plays. So it’s so, so funny, especially if you’ve read Chekhovian literature, because it’s all jokes about Chekhov—which our group is really happy with,” DeMattio said of DownStage’s selection. “We typically do a lot of contemporary and new work at Sarah Lawrence, so it brings in a classical element...which is nice,” he added.
Just another way in which the extraordinary members of DownStage strive to break boundaries.
Note: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs from November 17-19, at 9pm (Nov. 17 & 19) and 10:30pm (Nov. 18). Also look out for Steel Magnolias, DownStage’s next production, December 9-11.
Peck Trachsel '20