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Student actors participate in unique creative collaboration

Furman students rehearse “John Proctor is the Villain” on March 19.

Shakespeare isn’t available for questions about Hamlet’s lines — but a different playwright, Kimberly Belflower, anticipates a “lovely exchange” with student actors at Furman.

“Most of them have never worked with a living playwright before,” Belflower said.

And it’s not just that students can ask her questions — Belflower will use their input to continue to refine her new play, “John Proctor is the Villain.” She calls it a gift to incorporate “so many smart, engaged voices.”

Belflower’s time on campus is made possible by The Farm Theater in New York, which connects emerging playwrights with colleges and universities in a unique collaboration to develop new plays. The play will be performed April 9-13 at 8 p.m. at The Playhouse on campus.

“John Proctor is the Villain” began to take shape in spring of 2018, with students contributing ideas before Belflower even began to write. Two of the three schools involved – in Florida and Kentucky – have already staged versions of the play. Furman’s April production will be the last before Belflower and Farm Theater present the finished play in New York for possible production.

The story is set in a rural Georgia high school where a class is reading Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” Relationships shift and secrets are exposed as they dig into a story set centuries before and ultimately see its connection to the contemporary #MeToo movement.

“The goal of the show is not to shock,” said Karsen Green ’19, a theatre arts and psychology major who plays Shelby, one of the main characters. “It’s to educate. It’s to inspire.”

The Farm emphasizes theater as a means of engaging the community. That focus – plus the themes addressed in the play – drove the decision to make outreach part of the production. Experts in fields such as religion, feminism, sex education and advocacy will lead talkback sessions after some performances.

“There’s a lot of weight to this,” said Cammi Stilwell ’20, understudy for Shelby. “It feels timely, and I think everyone is very aware of that.”

Stilwell, a theatre arts major, has been involved since the beginning, from a Skype conversation with Belflower to a New York trip to read and refine the first draft of the play.

Director Maegan Azar, associate professor of acting and directing at Furman, keeps reminding cast members this isn’t a typical production.

“Yes, you might memorize your lines and then (Belflower) comes in for her weekend with us and you learn new lines after that,” she said. “This is kind of her last opportunity to play with something and we have to be open to that.”

Belflower was amazed by the differences between the first and second shows. It wasn’t that the first school didn’t handle the material well — “the play’s just better,” she said.

The Furman actors rolled with the changes.

“It keeps the show fresh,” said Patrick Fretwell ’19, a theatre arts and communications major who plays a teacher in the show. “It’s energizing.”

Azar said they’re having a taste of real life as they help bring a new work to life.

“That flexibility is a real challenge for student actors,” Azar said. “But it is exactly how the new play experience works in the professional world.”

Ticket information for “John Proctor is the Villain” is available here.

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