Going Deep in the Hills

Located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Wheaton College Science Station sits on 50 acres of lush forest. Each summer since the Station’s founding in 1935, Wheaton faculty and students have gathered there for studies in geology, environmental sciences, astronomy, and biology. Surprisingly, subjects like theater and art can also appear on the itinerary.

This past summer, 24 Arena Theater students and alumni traveled to the Science Station from around the country for the sixth annual “Workout” summer program, to explore themes of identity and community through performance, art, and living life together.

The course, entitled “Alone in Community: Developing Original Solo Work for Theater,” was taken by six undergraduates and ten alumni, and taught by four alumni who are currently working as actors, teachers, and playwrights. Other participants included an alumna who prepared meals, an alumna photographer, an alumnus who flew out to hear the group read his recent play, and an alumna’s husband and baby. 

Each morning, the group met for physical, vocal, and performance classes, and in the afternoons, Assistant Art Professor Leah Samuelson ’02 directed a community art project titled, “Uniquommunity: a Mandala Matrix Tapestry.”

Each night, the group put their “Feet to the Fire,” a Workout tradition, where the chosen Wheaton graduate sits with his or her back to the fire, in front of everyone else, and finishes the sentence, “I graduated from Wheaton and I…”

This year’s program director, Felicia Bertch ’02 stated, “This time is unbelievably special. The undergraduate and graduate participants get to hear the multitude of paths a career can take in the arts, and feel affirmed in their own journeys.”

The rich community developed in Workshop at Wheaton can be seen and felt in the depth of community experienced after years apart.  Jenn Cribbs ’99 shared, “As actors we are asked over and over and over again to step into the shoes of others.  At some point one can’t help beginning to look at the world that way, and judgments about others become far more difficult to make.  At Arena Theater, there has always been room for this struggle.  And the willingness to ask real questions, without the required answer at the end, is genuinely valued.  Honored even.  This allows us to know each other more deeply, to know ourselves more deeply, and to know God more deeply than would otherwise be possible. This space exists in very, very few other places. Having once experienced it, you’ll go to great lengths to find it again.”

Steven Jaehnert ’10, one of the more recent graduates who participated in the course, explained, “I was compelled to return because I was setting off for graduate school. I wanted to reconnect with something I recognized as healthy roots to my creative life.”

Another 2010 alumnus, Cedric Witherspoon, says that above all else, Arena Theater is a “learning community,” and that the summer program is “simply an extension of the unparalleled community developed during their time at Wheaton."

At the end of the two weeks, the students performed their solo pieces for the group. Bertch described them as “breathtaking in their revelatory and brave content,” including pieces about “family trees, racial stereotypes, Dr. Seuss, femininity, what it means to be funny, loss, and the magnetism of children.”  Samuelson explained, “The solo acting piece developed by each participant was mesmerizing, and the connections between our acting and visual arts choices blew us away.”

The original material produced at the Science Station this summer was performed at Arena Theater on Saturday, January 14.