Romance might not be an official subject in college, but studying the complexities of love and relationships is a time-honored rite of passage for young adults.
So when Sullivan Canaday White, program director for Transylvania University's theater department, read the script of John Cariani's play Almost, Maine, she saw a unique teaching opportunity.
The 95-minute play is a series of short vignettes set in the mythical town of Almost, Maine, with the magic of love and romance as the primary subject matter. The audience views the scenes sequentially, but each one is set at the same moment in time: 9 p.m. on a Friday night, when the aurora borealis is in view.
"There's a moment of crisis that each (couple) is dealing with in this particular moment," White says. "Then there is a magical thing that happens in the scene that is either for the audience's enjoyment, or sometimes it gives an answer or raises a better question, but there is a real sense of surprise in the script, which is just delightful for audiences."
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The magical side of love has proved enticing for theaters and audiences alike — Almost, Maine has become one of the most widely produced plays among regional and university theaters since its 2006 debut in Portland, Maine; The Woodford Theatre in Versailles will mount a production in January. But romance is not the only reason White selected Cariani's script.
"It was an opportunity for me to be able to cast 16 students in 10 different scenes," White says. "I knew that it would be a terrific script for students to dig in to."
To help her large cast "dig in" to their roles, White tapped experienced actors who regularly work in the community to coach different scenes. Actor Spencer Christensen and Transylvania adjunct playwriting professor Ginna Hoben have worked with White in her role as co-founder of Project SEE, a Lexington theater company founded last year. White also called on fellow Project SEE co-founder and actor Evan Bergman. The three each were assigned different scenes to coach, with White offering feedback as well.
"There are so many different ways to get at the craft," White says. "I wanted the students to hear different people's approaches. They could create a relationship with another actor that was coaching them and get new information from them, which is partly what I think acting is. It's an elusive art."
Student actor Nick Spencer, who was coached by Bergman, has enjoyed the collaboration.
White and Bergman "both gave me great advice on how to improve vocally, physically and mentally," Spencer says. "For example, Evan gave me a great tip on how to walk slowly onto the stage fluidly, as I do in the first scene. He is different from other coaches I have had because he's been helping me focus on acting in the moment and reacting naturally, rather than pre-planning what I will do on stage. It can be challenging at times, but I think it has really helped me develop my character and my acting skills."
In addition to coaching, Christensen, Hoben and Bergman star in two of the play's short scenes. Watching their coaches rehearse and perform was yet another way for the students to learn and improve.
"The adult actors in the show have helped tremendously to raise the bar for the students by allowing them to hear, observe and absorb the amount of time, energy and effort it takes to really polish a 10-minute scene," White says. "I have been lucky enough to witness Evan, Spencer and Ginna truly invest in the Transy students, and I believe that investment has been an extraordinary learning opportunity."