Resetting the Stage

By Steven Vargas Photos by Max S. Gerber

As its second century dawns, Oxy’s Theater and Performance Studies Department remixes the curriculum with a blend of theory and practice

In the fall of 1923—mere months before the birth of Omar Paxson ’48, longtime professor and patron saint of Oxy theater—Occidental established a speech education department with the hiring of Charles F. Lindsley, an actor and orator of considerable renown. (More than 110 reels and disks of his work are preserved in the College’s Special Collections and Archives.)

Legally Blonde, Occidental theater, spring 2024
Ohmigod you guys: Elle Woods’ Delta Nu sisters perform the opening number to Legally Blonde, a mainstage production in Keck Theater this spring. The musical was directed by Wanlass Visiting Artist Dawn Monique Williams. (Photo by Marc Campos)

“Drama is the stuff of life, the very age and body of the time, the channel of ideas, the mirror of man’s struggle with himself and his environment,” Lindsley wrote in the 1928 La Encina. “Therefore, to teach an appreciation of drama as an art form, and to reveal to the playgoer something of the deep and significant values of life, is the function of dramatic study and effort.”

Lindsley remained an active presence in the department for nearly 37 years, until his death in 1960. In the century since its inception, the department has gone by a succession of names—from Speech (1941) to Speech and Drama (1960) to Theater Arts and Rhetoric (1979) to Theater Arts (1986) to Theater and Film (1987) to simply Theater (1988).

When scholar, performer, and experimental theater creator Sarah Kozinn arrived at Occidental in 2013 as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, a number of faculty stalwarts—building on the legacy of Lindsley and Paxson— were in the third act of their tenures. Alan Freeman ’66 M’67 (who taught at Oxy for 45 years) retired in 2014. John Bouchard (32 years) followed suit in 2018, and Susan Gratch (37 years) was inching toward retirement. “This department was living in a specific theatrical paradigm, which was exciting,” Kozinn says. “But I could also see potential for new directions where it could go.”

With Kozinn’s appointment as department chair in 2022 (succeeding Gratch, her Oxy mentor), the newly rechristened Theater and Performance Studies Department ushered in a new pedagogical era at Oxy that is “dilating the lens and thinking through the work of performance,” Kozinn says. But even as the department leans into this new take on all things theater, its core values—performance, production, and innovation—will certainly inform its second century.

Every generation of theater faculty brings its own take on the curriculum. Kozinn comes from a performance studies program at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, “which is different from a theater department—and I think that’s why I was brought here,” she explains. “Many people tend to have a more antiquated understanding of what theater is and does, imagining it only taking place on a proscenium stage and with the primary purpose of entertaining audiences.

Slanguage was staged in Keck Theater by Will Power last November.
A rarely performed hip-hop gem created by the New York ensemble Universes, Slanguage was staged in Keck Theater by Will Power last November. (Photo by Marc Campos)

“If we widen the aperture to view ‘performance’ as something enacted for the purpose of being seen by others, you can then examine phenomena outside of the theater space using a performance studies lens and investigate the impact they have in and on the world. You can look at a carnival, a protest, a political rally, or look at performances of identity or culture. All of these areas come under the umbrella of performance studies.”

How does this translate into the classroom? Extended Reality, a spring semester course taught by Wanlass Visiting Artist Dawn Monique Williams, is a collaboratively built class that investigates how technology is integrated into live works. “This course is really thinking about how you integrate live and recorded performance,” Kozinn says. “During COVID, we had to contend with what it meant to do theater only in the digital space. Performing without an audience and actors in shared space, it was really a simulacrum of theater—like coffee without the caffeine.”

In many ways, the works of Assistant Professor Will Power speak to the breadth and depth of performance studies. Power, who joined the Oxy faculty in 2020, is a renowned playwright and performer whose work has been presented at Lincoln Center, the Sydney Opera House, and recently at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. (His next piece, Memnon—named after the biracial African king of Greek mythology who battled Achilles during the Trojan War—will run at the Getty Villa this fall.) He was named Occidental’s G. William Hume Fellow in the Performing Arts in 2009 and was a visiting professor in 2011.

Power has taught courses on the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, rapper-songwriter Kendrick Lamar, and playwright August Wilson. (In February, Oxy hosted the August Wilson New Voices Competition on campus.) A spring semester class in hip hop performance addressed questions such as: What image is the artist presenting? What are they trying to convey through their images or lyrics?

“Today in class, we’re looking at Cardi B and the complexities of what she is performing,” Power says. “She’s a political advocate. She’s also part lyricist. She’s also part stripper. What did she pull from all these things and how is she presenting it?”

Theater has a long history of being a place for ritual, accessible to all—even as the art form has grown more elite and expensive. “There’s always been a bunch of theater artists out there who manage to buck that system and do it in the street, do it on the street corner, do it in their living room,” says Resident Professor Laural Meade ’88, a playwright and performer (her current cabaret theater piece, Ms. Tucker Will See You Now, stars Meade as iconic singer Sophie Tucker) who has taught at Oxy since 1998.

“Our students have always had a scrappy, can-do way about them,” Meade adds. “That’s is what I was doing as a student many years ago, but we’re really trying to reinvest in the idea that they can make it themselves.”

Theater and performance studies major Wren Andres ’24
“Performing in drag, dance, and improv have been a pivotal part of my college experience,” says Wren Andres ’24. “All of those are types of theater.”

Meade, who teaches playwriting, has long taken an interest in nurturing student voices through the College’s annual New Works Festival, which stages five original plays by Oxy students (and not just theater majors) each year. Meade launched the festival 26 years ago and brings in professional actors and directors to bring students’ scripts to life.

“I’m thoroughly impressed by the rigor and invention of our students,” Meade says. “Playwriting is particularly challenging, but our students really come at it and try new things. And they’re wordsmiths.”

Wren Andres ’24, a theater and performance studies major from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, is a second-generation wordsmith. His parents are both professional writers, and his mother, Caroline (Schless) Andres ’84, was a theater major as well.  A native of Highland Park, Andres spent time as a child on the Oxy campus (“I remember the pendulum”).

Encouraged by Meade to write from personal experience, Andres says, “I started writing about the relationships I have had with other trans people.” The resulting play, Emergency Contact, “a love letter to queer love and friendships,” was staged in 2023. “The New Works Festival showed me something about myself that I really didn’t know,” says Andres, who plans to pursue work in the Chicago theater community after graduation. 

Haowen Luo 罗浩闻 ’24
Haowen Luo 罗浩闻 ’24 sees the opportunity to be an influence on the future of U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations by bridging the two nations through theater.

Many students choose a theater and performance studies major in tandem with a second academic pursuit. Haowen Luo 罗浩闻 ’24’s other major is diplomacy and world affairs, with the interest of becoming a diplomat in his native China. Over the course of his studies at Oxy, he came to recognize that a diplomat’s work can expand beyond traditional politics. He now sees theater as a form of diplomacy, especially through the cultural exchange of international productions.

In addition to his extracurricular pursuits, Luo worked as a stage technician on campus between his sophomore and junior years and as a VIP event assistant at the Stars Asian International Film Festival in Hollywood last fall. “I have more chances to have an influence in the future working in the theater because I can still do what I want to, which is bridging the United States and China through theater,” he says.

Since 1993, Brian Fitzmorris has managed the three performance spaces on campus: Keck Theater, Thorne Hall, and Remsen Bird Hillside Theater. At the time of his hiring, the College’s Theater and Performing Arts Facilities (PAF) departments operated separately and “were at each other’s necks,” recalls Fitzmorris, who also teaches technical theater and producing as a resident professor at Occidental. “I was brought in to work with both of them and to unify them.”

Lineset 10 alumni on the Keck Theater stage in February 2024.
From left, Lineset 10 alumni Marie Scott Mawji ’01, Megan Johnson ’19, Alyssa Escalante ’10, Courtney Dusenberry ’09, Daniel Selon ’07, and Jacqueline Adorni ’11 share stories in Keck Theater in February. (Photo by Uma Nithipalan ’01)

All technical aspects of both Theater and Performance Studies and PAF are covered by a team of four: Fitzmorris, Technical Director Aubree Day Cedillo ’95, Associate Production Manager Marie Scott Mawji ’01, and Lead Stage Technician Megan Johnson ’19.

“We work together in Keck on everything from late-night mainstage tech rehearsals to building maintenance issues to special events,” Mawji says. “While Megan and I serve as the sole on-the-ground team for all Thorne events, we also depend on Brian to manage calendars, contracts, and planning. All four of us collaborate on problem-solving or brainstorming when any issues arise.”

“I’ve watched a lot of students grow in confidence when they’re able to show what they can do in a professional environment,” says Cedillo, who has worked at Oxy since 1996. “PAF provides a really good springboard to have those credits to their name so early on in their careers.”

From plays and musicals in Keck Theater to Dance Production and Apollo Night in Thorne Hall, “It’s rewarding to know that the work I do contributes to experiences that are important and defining for a lot of students,” says Johnson. “Even being a part of the PAF student crew can be a really valued part of someone’s Oxy experience.”

Mawji was pursuing a kinesiology major at Oxy when she started working as a PAF technician. By spring semester of her senior year, she was managing the Performing Arts Facilities crew and running events in Thorne Hall. Mawji got a job offer to stay on after graduation, and she’s worked for PAF ever since. “Oxy really felt like home,” she says.

Among the many productions Mawji has worked on over the years, she singles out a few favorites: Laural Meade’s Leopold & Loeb: A Goddamn Laff Riot, from Mawji’s student days in 1999; a spring 2011 staging of The Seven, a Keck mainstage production directed by visiting artist Will Power; and Carlos Santana’s supernatural performance at Convocation 2005 (“a huge production for us”).

In 2015, Mawji and her husband were married in what she calls “our beautiful third PAF space: Remsen Bird Hillside Theater. My theater family and many other wonderful colleagues from departments across campus helped make it the most unforgettable day.”

In February, scores of Oxy alumni gathered in Keck Theater to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Lineset 10, a production service founded in 2003 by Fitzmorris and Cedillo. Lineset 10 coordinates technical elements for live-event clients such as awards shows and fundraising galas in the Los Angeles area. More than 100 Oxy students have worked with Lineset 10 since its inception.

During the event, Lineset 10 alumni took to the stage to share fond memories from their time at Oxy and provide insights into  their professional careers—a stellar crew that included Daniel Selon ’07, an Emmy-winning costume designer for WandaVision in 2021; Nate Genung ’07, an Imagineer at Disney Live Entertainment; Courtney Dusenberry ’09, project manager for Mattel Tradeshow Services; and nearly a dozen others, including Johnson and Mawji (who identifies as “Lineset 10 Employee No. 1”).

Mawji has helped cultivate more than 20 years worth of student crews who maintain a connection with the department, many of whom have also worked for Lineset 10. The event also underscored not only the practical skills that students develop from hands-on production but also the networking opportunities with alumni professionals.

Elinor Taylor ’24
“The most rewarding and surprising education I’ve received from the department would be my technical training,” says Elinor Taylor ’24.

Coming into Occidental, Elinor Taylor ’24 expected to concentrate mostly on acting, “because that has been what I’ve done since I was young,” she says. “Probably the most surprising and rewarding education I’ve received from the department would be my technical training.”

Over the last two years, Taylor has worked on the lighting for many College productions as a stage technician for PAF: “Anytime there’s a live event on campus, I’m usually behind the scenes in some capacity.”

Those two worlds came together in 2022 in the College’s production of Into the Woods (the show for which Joanna Hall Gleason ’72 won a Tony for lead actress in a musical in 1988). “I was playing Cinderella in Into the Woods while also learning how to weld the platforms that I’d be standing on,” Taylor says. “That was really exciting.”

For her senior comps, Taylor, a theater and performance studies and comparative studies in literature and culture double major from Walnut Creek, is studying Legally Blonde—the 2007 musical adapted from the 2001 novel by Amanda Brown and the subsequent film co-written by Kirsten Smith ’92—“as a period piece in the cultural ontology of the early 2000s, with a particular emphasis on its interaction with feminism and post-feminism.” Taylor’s entrée into the research was through her own work onstage as Vivienne Kensington in the College’s mainstage production of the musical this spring.

Growing up the child of parents who both worked at the local TV station, “I got a lot of free tickets to see theater, concerts, and other performances,” says Visiting Assistant Professor Xinyuan Li, a scenic and lighting designer and visual artist. “The most magical theatrical moment that always felt entrancing to me was the blackout before the show really starts. The infinite possibilities of what you are going to see without knowing what’s behind the curtain was the trigger for me to open my mind as wild as possible from an audience perspective.”

A Dream Play, performed in November 2023 in Occidental's Keck Theater
A young woman goes on a madcap journey to see if life is really as difficult as people make it out to be in A Dream Play, a modern adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1902 work directed by Laural Meade ’88. (Photo by Sarahi Apaez)

From the other side of the curtain, he says, “I now realize how important every single choice could affect audience expectation for the given text or context.” Of the productions Li has worked on at Oxy, his favorite is A Dream Play by August Strinberg—directed by Meade and presented last November. “The show goes fully theatrical and beyond the normal-life logic,” he explains. “We created a vision that the goddess was wandering through different doors and visiting and revisiting the human world by surprise, shock, and oppression. The visual result was wonderful and all of our students were able to shine.”

Li’s Oxy colleague, Aed McMillian—a resident assistant professor since 2021 and professional costume designer, seamstress, and visual artist—likewise cites A Dream Play as their favorite production at Oxy. “I collaborated with students on some of the costume designs that appeared onstage, and that was a fun and exciting learning experience for us all. Student input enriched the creative process in unexpected ways.

“Costume construction is my most popular class, by far, and my most challenging,” McMillian adds. “Students learn various costume-making techniques, including sewing, and make pieces that appear onstage.”

Behind the curtain, Mawji says, “I’ve felt a real shift in our department goals and priorities toward choosing more diverse works, and bringing in more guest directors and artists of color, and responding to our students’ appeals to broaden our outlook.”

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theaterWith the Summer Olympics returning to Los Angeles in 2028, Kozinn hopes to raise Occidental’s profile within the L.A. creative community. In 2025, the department will premiere a devised performance piece tied to the fifth anniversary of COVID-19, a project that grew out of a conversation between President Harry J. Elam, Jr., Kozinn, and Power after returning to campus following the pandemic.

That conversation led to Kozinn teaching a class called Performing Disease sponsored by the Humanities for Just Communities (HJC) Mellon Grant. Working with Culture Clash co-founder Ric Salinas, the students did interviews across campus and with their families to ask about their experiences during COVID. From that workshop with Salinas, they created and performed a 45-minute devised piece for the HJC showcase last summer—which is the seed for a project that Kozinn is directing next spring.

As a student at Carnegie Mellon University in the 1980s, Fitzmorris was told that theater was dead. He’s heard the sentiment repeated many times since, yet all signs point to a healthy future for theater at Oxy. “To see new students all the time—how they evolve and what they want to learn—I think we’re going in the right direction,” he says. 

Steven Vargas is a multimedia journalist, dancer, and actor based in Los Angeles. Additional reporting by Dick Anderson.

Top photo: From left, Assistant Professor Will Power, Resident Assistant Professor Aed McMillian, Associate Professor and Department Chair Sarah Kozinn, Visiting Assistant Professor Xinyuan Li, Technical Director Aubree Day Cedillio ’95, Resident Professor Brian Fitzmorris, Department Coordinator Beatrice Gonzales,  Resident Professor Jamie Angell, and Resident Professor Laural Meade ’88.