DIY theater at U-M

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Students write and produce a story about friendship

In advance of the performance of the play “Doing White Nights,” Benjamin Weatherston interviewed the writer, Jacob Axelrad, and director, Ellen Sachs at The Leon Loft. The play, which is the work of U-M students, will be staged free at The Yellow Barn, 416 W. Huron, across the street from the downtown YMCA, at 10:30 p.m. March 28 and 9 p.m. March 29 and 30. Which local artist should Ben interview next? Let him know at ben@benjaminweatherston.com.

“Doing White Nights” cast members are Anna Garcia, left, Harrison Lott, Ellen Sachs, Anya Klapischak, Jacob Axelrad, Riley Taggart and Nola Smith. Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

“Doing White Nights” cast members are Anna Garcia, left, Harrison Lott, Ellen Sachs, Anya Klapischak, Jacob Axelrad, Riley Taggart and Nola Smith. Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Ben: Tell me about your upcoming production.
Ellen: Doing White Nights is an original play about two best friends trying to get through the worst night of their lives. It’s gritty, funny, sad, and, at times, surreal.
Jacob: For me, a key theme in the story is how the two central characters struggle to hold on to the best memories of their friendship while also dealing with real-world issues that are pulling them apart.

Ben: How did it develop from an idea into an actual production?
Jacob: Ellen approached me just over a year ago about working on a show that would incorporate multiple facets of the performing arts. The two of us had worked together previously on a play during our sophomore year, which dealt with the same theme of a young man taking care of his best friend who’s suffering from mental illness. It was a theme I wanted to explore further, so I set to work writing a script that could include various performance elements and also tell the story of this friendship.
Ellen: We work well as a writer/director pair, so I was stoked when he brought this to me. We wanted to do something personal and representative of our experience at Michigan. We’ve been workshopping and talking about the script since July 2013. We started moving on casting and into production in late January.

Ben: How did you choose to put it on at The Yellow Barn?
Jacob: We chose The Yellow Barn because we love the fact that this is a community venue that fosters and supports all kinds of arts and artists. It’s been an amazing privilege to work with the talented and dedicated team of people who have worked hard to make The Yellow Barn into another great destination spot for the arts in Ann Arbor. And because it’s not a traditional theatre, the production team has been able to experiment with the space in all sorts of interactive ways that should make for quite an exciting and interesting show.
Ellen: The boys are lost in a cornfield in the middle of nowhere– it’s pastoral but also very eerie. Further, I want the audience to be in on this journey with the boys. Putting the play on in an air conditioned theater with comfortable seats just wouldn’t feel right. It is my hope that the audience will feel fully immersed in the world we’re creating. With it’s stripped wood, lofty feel, and atypical configuration, The Yellow Barn felt right. Like the play, the space is unpredictable.

Ben: How did you meet each other? Have you worked together before?
Ellen: Jacob and I found each other freshman year. I was the Artistic Director of a group that workshopped plays on campus and we ended up doing a reading of one of Jacob’s plays.
Jacob: Harrison, Riley, and Anna are all in an awesome improv group together called The Midnight Book Club. Ellie, Nola and Anya are all in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. So some of us definitely knew each other better than others, but we’ve all been getting to know each other throughout the production process.

Ben: What is next?
Ellen: Ask me in a few weeks, Ben!
Jacob: Just focused on putting up the show. I’m not sure what comes after that but I’m looking forward to it.

Ben: What are your goals after college?
Jacob: I worked as a writer and editor for the University of Michigan student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, during my time as a student and I’ll be pursuing journalism after college.
Ellen: One day, I’d love to direct professionally. My goal after college is to gain as much experience as I can working as an assistant director. Then maybe applying to grad school and getting an MFA in directing.

Ben: You seem to have a diverse academic experience across the cast, what is everyone studying?
Ellen: We do! I’m studying sociology and theatre. Anya and Madalyn are majoring in Interarts. Riley is a film major.
Jacob: I study English with a minor in History.

Ben: What is the Interarts Performance program?
Ellen: It’s a very cool hybrid between theatre and the arts.
Jacob: It’s an interdisciplinary program in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and the School of Art and Design that combines various elements of the arts (i.e. visual, performance, etc.).