All posts by Maggie Boccella

Clashing Ideals: Staging ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at Elizabethtown College

A Shakespearean story performed in an apocalyptic setting would seem as sweet…or would it?

Elizabethtown College’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” features all of the elements one would expect from the classic tale ⁠– star-crossed lovers, epic combat, and a cautionary tale for the ages. The text remains unchanged, but many factors set it apart from the typical college Shakespeare production, including its devastated future world setting.

Notably, the production features a gender-blind cast, a convention often adopted by contemporary theaters presenting Shakespeare. This comes as a result of the college’s population being “roughly sixty percent to two-thirds female”, according to director Dr. Michael Swanson, making it a necessity for certain male roles to be played by females, else the production staff be faced with a lack of actors.

“You could say not having enough men would be a lemon,” said Swanson. “We decided, let’s make lemonade out of that and make the best we can of it. And it’s really kind of fascinating to see the classic Romeo and Juliet scenes with two women.”

This non-traditional casting gives the actors room to experiment with their characters, and has allowed them to bring different interpretations to the table than in traditionally gendered casting. Grace Gibson, a senior English Literature major playing Romeo, sees it as an opportunity to reinterpret her character’s head-over-heels moments as something deeper than simply teenage love.

“Initially I didn’t know whether I was going to be playing Romeo as male and just being a woman playing the male role, or if I could play a female Romeo,” Gibson said. “I got my wish, I get to play female Romeo…and I think that’s just really amazing that I get to portray a queer character in a story that’s very traditional and old, and usually very much heterosexual. And it…adds things to the way I’m playing my character, because I’m playing a sixteen year old queer girl, who is just realizing that she is allowed to like other girls, and that there are other girls who will reciprocate, and so…that is really part of the idolatry of Juliet, and the fact that she is so head over heels immediately.”

Aside from the upside of gender-blind casting, the show also offers students other perks – like the chance to unwind and have fun.

“We actually went around…at our first rehearsal [and] had to say our favorite thing about theater,” said Gibson, “And everyone had these deep reasons like, ‘It helps me forget all of my own struggles,’ and ‘I get to be someone I’m not and find refuge from myself’, and I’m like…not so deep guys! It’s just for fun!”

Kelty Tarvin, a history education major playing Paris, shares similar views on participating in the show.

“Theater is just very fun because you can kind of…go onto stage, be someone who you’re absolutely not, and people will watch you and applaud. And it’s kind of fun.”

Official poster for Elizabethtown Theatre’s production of “Romeo & Juliet”

However, the excitement of an experimental ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is slightly dampened by the knowledge that there may be no more shows performed at the college after this year.

It was announced over the summer that Elizabethtown would be cutting the theater major and minor from its list of educational offerings, citing a lack of interest as the reason for the decision. According to the school, no freshmen declared a theater major during the 2018-2019 school year, having dwindled to nothing from healthy numbers in the past. This decision also means that two full-time theatre professors and two adjunct staff members will lose their jobs at the end of the academic year.

Students of the college, both those participating in “Romeo and Juliet” and otherwise, have expressed concerns over the school’s decision. Many cited the fact that the importance of department goes far beyond simply the education and degrees provided by the theater major and minor.

“It makes me very sad and angry,” said Gibson, “Because these are people…who trained for this…and have built up a community through repeated productions with all these different people, and now they’re basically told that their jobs and what they do at the college isn’t important enough to keep them here. And that just is really terrible, and it’s not what I see based on the work they do. They do fantastic, life-changing work, and the college is just completely devaluing that.”

Students like Tarvin have also lost not only their creative outlet, but their jobs as well.

“It makes me sad,” said Tarvin, “Because all of the people involved with the department are really kind people and I’ve gotten to know them very well over the past year that I’ve been involved with the theater, and personally, obviously, I lost my hobby and my job, and they lost their job[s] too, and it’s kind of sad.”

Many students who participate in the department’s shows are not theater majors, but simply engage with the art because it’s enjoyable for them, and many have expressed that it is not simply the major that is an important part of the campus community.

“One of the reasons I think the administration is missing [in choosing to cut the department],” said Swanson, “Is that we have lots of people in our theater productions who are not theater majors or minors, but people who simply love the art and what it does for them and what it can do for an audience.”

According to Swanson, there are currently no plans in place to continue producing shows at the college once the department is officially eliminated, so students are making the best they can of what may be their final college theater show, and hope that audiences will enjoy the production they’ve worked hard to put on. 

‘Romeo and Juliet’ also stars Delphi Aubrey as Juliet, Logan Crosby as Benvolio/Friar Laurence, and Gavin O’Brien as Mercutio. It runs October 31–November 2nd and November 7–8 at 8 p.m., and November 10 at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the Tempest Theatre box office or by emailing boxoffice@etown.edu.

Etown Students Worry Over Loss of OISS Position

Fall is a season of change. The leaves shift colors, the air gets chillier, and students go back to school, adjusting or readjusting to their new environments.

Unfortunately for some Elizabethtown College students, however, some of these changes in this year’s fall season season aren’t what they’d been hoping for.

It was recently announced to the public that several changes are being made to the college’s Office of International Students and Scholars. The office is responsible for the educational and emotional support of students attending the college from overseas, whether for a semester or their entire college career. They provide academic support for those international students who require it, and also help solve visa and immigration issues that students may face during their time on campus. Amongst the changes being made to this office is the elimination of Kristi Syrdahl, the Etown faculty member in charge of the office as a whole.

As Director of International Students and Services, Syrdahl was in charge of caring for international students’ needs, ranging in urgency from arranging immigration paperwork and ensuring students are entered into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System to setting up tutoring services for students. She was the main point of contact for many international students that experienced issues during their time at the college.

The loss of Syrdahl’s position comes as a result of Elizabethtown’s decision to cut several staff positions due to budget cuts. Emma Pile, a junior communications major, confirmed that there is no longer one person in charge of these duties for OISS, but that the work is being split between a group of Elizabethtown faculty members from different student services departments.

“They are merging the diversity office with our office because they think that they don’t need to be two offices,” said Pile. “And they think that they don’t need one person assigned to [specifically the OISS office], so they’re just assigning [that] role to multiple people that have other jobs as well.”

Etown’s 2019 class of international students & OISS employees, including Leo Costello & Emma Pile (back row, second and third from left).

The cuts to staff around campus were announced over the summer, while most students and staff were away from campus. Many student employees relied on public news sources to discover the information, and some students attending classes abroad didn’t find out until they returned to campus this fall. As for the students, they only found out as Syrdahl did.

“Kristi texted us [when she found out],” Pile said. Both she and Leo Costello, another communications major and OISS employee, confirmed that that was the first they heard of Syrdahl’s position being eliminated.

Joni Eisenhauer, Assistant Director of Health Promotion on campus, was given temporary responsibility for the Office, but employees fear that international students are not receiving the support they deserve because one employee is being stretched over multiple positions.

“Joni is great but [she] was kind of forced to take on this role,” Pile said. “She didn’t really have a choice, and she wants to do her best, but she’s really busy with the Bowers’ Center because she’s kind of in charge of that. So, she doesn’t really have as much time or heart to put into the international students…and I feel like the three people we now have [in charge of the Office] don’t understand it at all.”

OISS falls under the jurisdiction of the Student Life Division, who operate on the Elizabethtown campus to “[encourage] personal growth, academic success, appreciation of diversity, and the capacity for life-long learning”, according to the college’s website. In addition to Eisenhauer, each of the three faculty members in the Division are now part of the group responsible for maintaining OISS. Wetown reached out to the Division, but they formally declined to comment.

Going forward, OISS employees hope that, if the position cannot be reinstated, then some semblance of knowledge be passed to one person who can be used as a reference point by future international students to lessen the sense of confusion within the Office.

“I think they would have to educate at least one of these people,” said Costello. “The people in charge need to know about the paperwork and about [the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System] because we have had students go to these people and they don’t know what to do, and that’s a problem for the students, because then they don’t really have anyone to go to.”

Arts & the Armistice

Elizabethtown College sponsored a memorial event the weekend of Veterans’ Day, featuring a poster exhibition and a live performance to commemorate veterans’ memories. The exhibition features images of women in World War One, as depicted by wartime posters.

The performance and the exhibition were created in conjunction to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended World War One, on November 11th, 1918.

The performance occurred on the night of the anniversary, Sunday, November 11th. It featured music and poetry written during World War One. Both students and faculty were involved in varying capacities.  Sophomore music major Sarah Peppe spoke to us about her involvement in the program.

“I’m playing a piece called “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Von Williams,” she said, “And I’m playing it on violin. It has ties to World War One. He wrote it before being drafted into World War One, and completed it when he came back.”

Participants were deeply affected by their exposure to the work of veterans and their families, even without a personal connection to the war.

“It was a really amazing experience, just being able to read someone else’s words and kind of put my own emotions into them,” said Abigail Spessard, a junior who read two of Charlotte Mew’s poems for the program. “And I think that this opportunity, while I may not have a very close personal connection to it, I do know a lot of people that do, so it’s kind of like, my feelings mixed with theirs.”

In Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, Margaret Boccella, Wetown.org.

Parties Over Parish Doughnuts

Part of the Chinese auction at St. Marcellus’s calendar party.

To view the news package, click here.

Some churches may have doughnuts on Sunday, but St. Marcellus Parish does things a bit differently.

Each year, they host a “calendar party”, a luncheon and benefit held in the church’s reception hall. Each of the party’s twelve tables represents a different month, with each month having a different theme. This year’s themes ranged from Mardi Gras in February to National Cupcake Month in April.

The party also features a Chinese auction, with prize baskets donated by various parish members.

The Saint Marcellus Parish calendar party has been going on for fourteen consecutive years, and calendar parties like it have slowly become more popular in and around Green County, Pennsylvania.

The benefit raises money for the parish’s Ladies’ Guild, a group that keeps up the church’s sense of community. But it’s more than just that – many see it as an opportunity to bring families together.

“I always make my daughter do it with me,” says Rebecca Kuhns, a parishioner and member of the Ladies’ Guild. “And then we throw in a few grandkids to help too.”

Many parish members look forward to the party every year, even some of the younger ones.

“It’s a lot of fun,” says Jonathan Boccella, a parishioner currently in high school. “It’s kind of a commotion sometimes, but it’s a good way of having a community and being active and having fun.”

In Greene County, Pennsylvania, Margaret Boccella, Wetown.org.

 

Humans of Etown: Dr. Rita Shah

dr shah

There’s nothing better than a professor with an open door, one with a willingness to say ‘hey’ and answers any questions that might be crossing your mind.

That’s exactly how Dr. Rita Shah is, the woman whose office sits on the second floor of Nicarry Hall, just out of reach of the hustle and bustle of everyday classes. She teaches all of her students to be respectful of a professor’s open-door policies, but is always there to talk if need be – sitting at her desk, constantly working away like the diligent professor and sociologist that she is.

Her office is filled with boxes, stacked in the corners and piled on top of one another like kids in a dog pile. Crates are filled with files, papers, books, and more, the walls emptied of memories. The space used to be covered with knick-knacks – notes from students, stickers promoting activism and feminism, random coffee mugs and Post-It notes and all the other indications of a well-loved professor.

Officially (that is, according to the college’s website), Dr. Shah is a criminologist who researches the relationship between parole and post-release supervisors for prisoners, as well as the re-entry process for former prisoners, but to the campus community, she is a beloved coworker, professor, and friend. Dr. Shah has always been a woman anyone can go to for advice, no matter the topic. She’s always got an intelligent thought, and they are always greatly appreciated.

She received her PhD from the University of California-Irvine, and has been at Elizabethtown for the last six years, teaching criminology courses and the occasional first-year seminar. Students have described her as an excellent teacher – if an intense one – and frequently comment on how much they learned from her.

On Becoming a Professor

Dr. Shah is known for her rigorous sociology courses that mentally prepare students for the workload of college – and eventually, the workforce, academic or otherwise – but there was a point in her own academic career where she considered a career path that didn’t involve working with students.

“I actually debated between law school and the PhD,” she says of her decision. “And between the two, I really enjoyed both teaching and research…[I] knew that if I went into law school, I would either be a defense attorney or a constitutional lawyer. And I wasn’t convinced that I would be 100% happy doing that, but I knew I would be as a professor.”

On Feminism

Last semester, Dr. Shah taught a first-year seminar course titled “Joss Whedon: Friend or Foe?”, which focused on examining writer-director Joss Whedon’s filmography under the lens of many different types of feminism. The course involved a cumulative final paper in which students examined particular pieces of Whedon’s work, and many credit the course with giving them a much deeper understanding of a subject they’d heard so much about.

Shah noted that the course material was incredibly interesting to her, but also that feminism is something that students and staff (as well as the general public) should understand on a deeper level.

“I think it gets a bad rap,” she said. “It’s something that I don’t think people really understand until they’ve taken the time to really look at [it]…[Like], what exactly does feminism argue, what are the different branches of feminism? Most people, when they critique feminism, I think they focus more on radical feminisms, and the idea that, y’know, ‘we don’t need men’. But that’s one of many, many, many different versions of feminism, and many individuals don’t abide by that.”

She also mentioned that feminism isn’t just about empowering women, it’s about breaking down the barriers between men and women so that no one is viewed as ‘less than’ another person.

“The only differences that exist [between men and women],” she says, “Are the ones we put upon ourselves. But those differences have been around for so long that it’s really hard to acknowledge that they don’t actually exist biologically.”

She speaks powerfully and with authority, like a woman who knows her stuff and isn’t afraid to show it as she speaks.

“And so I think feminism – especially today – is important because until we start breaking down the assumed differences, we’re never going to get to a point where we can truly have men and women – and anyone else who identifies as any other gender identity outside of the binary – as truly being equal, as truly being respected, as truly viewed as an individual with worth.”

On Leaving Etown

Dr. Shah’s packed-up office is not just the sign of a semester coming to an end – it is the sign of her career at Elizabethtown coming to a close, her chapter in the college’s history books written and ready to be published. She is moving on to Eastern Michigan University, a far cry from the colonial-style buildings and chocolate-scented air of Etown.

“I’m going to be in a place that’s going to be much larger,” she says of Eastern Michigan, “And so, I have no doubt that I will find students and faculty and staff that I will connect with and be close with, but it’s not the same as having a handful of people in every class, even only thirty students in every class, where I can get to know you on a first-name basis.”

But when asked what she’ll miss most about this tiny little college in Amish country, she credits the school’s greatness to its people, without hesitation.

“Etown has some truly amazing faculty and staff that work here who are just some of the most kind-hearted, hardworking, brilliant people you’ll ever meet, and they bring the warmth to Etown, and I will definitely miss that.”

A stack of three large plastic bins sits behind her desk chair as she talks about these people – she says they were filled entirely with her graduate school dissertation data. She said that purging was difficult, but a welcome and cathartic release. It’s sad to see her go, but the feeling of eradication is shared as the semester comes to a close.

We’ll miss you too, Dr. Shah.


Listen to the full interview with Dr. Shah here.