BRIDGING THE GAP A crack in Zoom allowed present-day Thomas (Mason Calhoun ’21) to interact with playwright Dumas in 19th-century France. The screen was also used for a sword fight involving a cast member who had been participating in class virtually all semester.
In early November, a cast and crew of about 18 students, directed by Drama Program Head Stevie Ray Dallimore, brought to life in the Black Box Theater an original work titled The Dumas Project. Due to the pandemic, the in-person audience was limited to fifty people per performance. Other patrons, however, were able to watch the play streamed in real-time online. The Dumas Project was co-created by students, Dallimore, and visiting artist Arche Twitty. The work is timely and historically parallel in interesting and instructive ways. Dallimore says,
“As a result of the racial incidents and unrest of this last summer, I was considering where we are as a school and how the arts could be put in the service of promoting more diversity consciousness. And, because the pandemic prevented us from working with the girls from GPS, I knew I needed a piece for an all-male cast.”
He was reminded by his friend, Ty Jones, who is the artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, that French writer Alexandre Dumas was of mixed race – the grandson of a French nobleman and an enslaved woman of Afro-Caribbean ancestry. Dumas’ father was a French general who participated in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars – no doubt contributing to his sense of honor, danger, and adventure. Dallimore remembered that students had some familiarity with Dumas after performing a few years ago an adaptation of the novel, The Three Musketeers, so looking into Alexandre Dumas as inspiration for the fall production seemed like a good start.
The writing process for The Dumas Project was an open-ended process and unsettling at times. Students began researching the life of Dumas and his father, drawing parallels to the turmoil in their era to the clashes of today. During the beginning stages of the creation process, they were unsure of exactly where the play was headed. They wanted to remain open to as many ideas as possible to create a layered narrative. They talked about the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests across the country. Using improv, students worked at actively imagining and inhabiting diverse perspectives. They were disciplined in not landing on one theme or direction too soon. Generating reams of material and themes to work from proved to be productive in the end.
In The Dumas Project, the lead character, Thomas, is in his final year of college and is searching for a great story to write, similar to Dallimore and his students. Alexandre Dumas spontaneously shows up in Thomas’ Zoom call. Neither one can figure out how he got there. Thomas is safe at home while Dumas is stuck in a kind of “Zoom purgatory.” They need each other’s stories to move on. At the same time, the characters of Dumas’ books begin to inhabit Thomas’ apartment. Throughout the course of the play, the characters see parallels of social unrest and injustice from the 19th century that are similar to those in effect today. The show includes in-person performers interacting with actors on Zoom and also includes virtual sword fights. “We are studying a lot of history around the French Revolution, and it is kind of cool how it ties in to today as well with the revolutions we see happening in our society. There are a lot of parallels,” says Mason Calhoun ’21, who played the lead role of Thomas.
In developing the play, students brought their ideas to Dallimore and writing colleague, Arche Twitty, who appeared as Dumas in the show. “I was able to trust the students,” explained Dallimore, “and trust the creative process because of our experience together and our relationships with one another.” Dallimore and Twitty wrote the final script which uses on-stage acting, video, music, and stylized movement. The end result, however, was very much the students’ aesthetic and their perspective. The Dumas Project uniquely honors the current moment in our history.
“Not having GPS has allowed us to be more flexible and we learned to adapt and change as actors as well because such a void has been made without them being on campus.”
Mason Calhoun ’21, lead actor in The Dumas Project
Besides being an original work, there were many aspects of this fall’s production that can be categorized as unusual. Chief among these is the fact that actors had to wear masks. “The masks were a challenge,” says Dallimore, “but, as usual, the students were diligent and surprisingly disciplined in doing what was needed.”
Participating in the drama program at McCallie is a real growth opportunity for young men. Like working in the musical or visual arts, the main emphasis is on problem-solving and critical thinking. The problem boys are charged with in the dramatic arts is to enliven a character, create connection with other characters in the narrative, and elicit a cognitive as well as emotional response from the audience. The actor makes a myriad of choices in using his body language, emotional expression, tone, eye contact, and other acting skills. There is a lot of critical thinking involved as any number of combined choices can work to solve the problem.
Acting and being on stage is a particularly vulnerable art form because one literally inhabits the work with his mind, body, and emotions. It takes a nuanced blending of courage and humility. It is a safe and supported opportunity to rehearse the feeling and expression of a range of emotions. The critique of one’s acting can feel quite personal. Trust between the teacher and student is paramount to being able to receive and incorporate feedback into and experimentation with portrayal of a character.
The Dumas Project is a great example of the teamwork involved in theater arts. The whole group must work together for the common goal of moving the audience through telling a story. “Any performance,” says Dallimore, “is like a puzzle that has to be put together, but in this case we were also creating the pieces as we were putting the puzzle together.” Dallimore encourages his students to fail forward by learning from every experience and being reflective and adaptable. This is not possible without collaboration and trust throughout the whole group.
"At McCallie, students leave their time on the stage valuing the habits, mindset, and skills of acting, having an experience of team effort, knowing how to support a partner because an actor is only as good as his scene partner, and having learned through feedback how to check his ego. His work is assessed by his promptness, work ethic, willingness to take risks and to support others, and, most importantly, by his awareness of his own growth. Dallimore’s philosophy of teaching is that his purpose is not to create actors but to give boys a bag of tools to take with them into the world beyond McCallie. An actor’s endurance in the theatrical process creates confidence as well as develops the skills of resonance and presence – important skills in any interaction."
“Fight choreography...is something I’m very familiar with. It’s something I’ve done since the start and to be able to have that weight and to be able to work with something completely from scratch sort of affords us a creative freedom that we would otherwise not have with a script, which is something that is really novel right now.”
Will Hanley ’21, actor in The Dumas Project