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Elmira College’s Theatre program and its annual theatre season have long been stalwarts of the College’s educational opportunities. Now, Associate Professor of Theatre and Director of the Theatre Program, Rebecca Rich, wants to inject the program with new ideas and practical measures to entice more involvement among students.

Rich, who joined the faculty just before the start of Term I, brings with her more than 20 years of experience and a fierce dedication to making theatre more inclusive.

“I’m excited to have my expertise valued,” she said. “I have an understanding of theatre and an understanding of what it takes to build an academic program.”

One of Rich’s first professional experiences was touring the country, performing in the musical, “Guys and Dolls.” Since then, she’s performed in the U.S. and abroad in small and large theatre houses. She’s acted, directed, sung, and played musical instruments. She learned to “show up” and to be persistent. Like when she went uninvited to the auditions for an Off-Broadway show called “Zombie Prom.” Once the director and choreographer saw her, they made sure to find her a role in the show. This led to additional job opportunities with the same director.

Because of her experiences, Rich is guided by inclusive principles. She wants to create a curriculum that invites the methods and stories of people from historically marginalized backgrounds. She spends extra time sourcing video clips that feature diverse people. She’s thoughtful about the language she uses in class, and she introduces students to theatrical methods and plays from around the world, going beyond the Greco-Roman classics and their descendants.

For example, Rich holds a certification in and teaches the Michael Chekhov technique, a “psycho-physical” approach that uses imagination to connect the body, mind, and spirit of an actor to the character and the text of the play. Chekhov is the nephew of the famous playwright, Anton Chekhov. The Chekhov Technique fosters the creative individuality of actors. In exercises, students use their bodies, gestures, and imaginations to explore and call forth sensations, actions, and emotions. In one imagination exercise,

Rich had half of the students imagine they had tiny feet, like those of a mouse, and the other half imagine they had gigantic feet, like those of an elephant, and then switch. The exercise helped students explore how their bodies and thoughts adjusted, which informed the movements, sensations, relationships, and emotions that came about. These types of exercises may even prompt students to think about cultural and physical differences and inform relationships among characters.

But while the Chekhov method is one of the main techniques Rich uses, she’ll invite guest artists into class to co-teach techniques like SoulWork, which was developed by Dr. Cristal Chanelle Truscott and is rooted in African-American theatrical performance methods and techniques.

And Rich is applying her principles and her pragmatism to the department’s theatre performances. This will be the first year the department will put on three performances - one in each term - since the start of the pandemic. As the only full-time faculty member in the department, Rich has had to be creative to balance the costs and the time needed to produce three plays.

For the fall performance, she created a show called, “Theatre Unmasked - A Revue” where the cast members performed their own narratives using a process based on Ping Chong’s interview-based theatre technique where community members tell their own stories about identity and belonging. A Theatre major will direct the Term II play as part of an independent study and Rich will soon announce the musical for Term III.

Ultimately, Rich wants to grow the academic program. She’s starting by “invigorating” the Theatre minor. She’ll make it easier for students to pair the minor with other programs by reducing the credit hour requirements, bringing the program in line with other minors. Also, she’ll teach foundational courses annually so students taking the minor - and transfer theatre majors - can be certain to fulfill the requirements.

“Moving forward I’ll advocate for more faculty, design resources, and production budgets,” she said. “With pandemic restrictions hopefully behind us, I want to bring the theatre program back stronger and more inclusive than before.”

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