UNDERGRADUATE ADMISSIONS at WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY in ST. LOUIS

PLAY: A Senior Honors Thesis by Sarah Palay

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The stage is simply set. Three chairs facing backwards from the audience. No backdrop, no set. Simply blackness.

Before the lights go out, we are told to imagine three white boxes where the chairs are, to picture three heads sticking out of the boxes. Three different boxes for three different actors.

Cue blackout.

Actors to places.

Lights up.

The three actors begin to speak, bodies hidden in shadow. As the spotlights shine in their faces, the actors emit a sea of words–rhythmic, overlapping, and indistinct.

Lights out.

Lights up. One of the women is illuminated. She speaks slowly and deliberately until the light suddenly cuts out. She is cut off. Lights up. Spotlight on the man in the middle. He speaks. The light cuts out. Lights. Another woman speaks. Darkness.

The rest of the one-act play continues in this manner. Though I understand the words being said, the story is harder to piece together, as the actors speak only when the light is on them, never interacting with the other actors. Lights up. Lights down. Lights up. Lights down. And so on.

We watch the performance a second time, told to imagine the heads in urns rather than boxes. Only this time, there are three different actors, and their speech is choppy and quick, without any trace of inflection. The effect is visceral, overwhelming, and even a bit off-putting in the best kind of way.

This is theatre.

This is “Play.”

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This production, directed and coordinated by Sarah Palay, was the capstone of a project that has been in the works for many, many months. The senior honors thesis allows WashU students to undertake and present a comprehensive research project in order to graduate with honors. This project permits students to delve into in-depth study of topics about which they are eager and passionate to learn.

Sarah’s project, “Staging Typescipts: Play,” was a paper project turned production. In a Q&A session that took place after the showing, Sarah described how she was drawn to this heavily revised work by Samuel Beckett both through a scholarly lens and a performative one. Realizing that her research could not be confined by written work, she went about staging what is one of the most intriguing performances that I have ever seen.

“Play” is a play by Samuel Beckett that underwent several transformations before it was finally produced. Ten typescripts in all, it explores humanity and the essence of life through a minimalistic viewpoint. It draws heavily upon light and darkness and revels in the contrast between the two to tell the tale of its three characters, the nondescript Man 1, Woman 1, and Woman 2.

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What Sarah did was present Typescript #3 and Typescript #7. In doing so, she highlighted the differences between the two, explaining to her audience her theories behind the drastic changes that occur between the two revisions. The themes of minimalism were heightened and thoroughly demonstrated as Beckett progressed with his revisions of this piece. And what he developed is something designed to make his audience consider the ideas of story and plot and what constitutes either.

Thanks to WashU’s Modern Literature Collection, Sarah was able to work with Beckett’s actual typescripts. The Modern Literature Collection is an archive of the works of prolific contemporary American and English writers compiled by Washington University in 1964. It consists of letters, notebooks, drafts, and other materials and serves to provide insight on the creative processes behind the outstanding writers of the modern era.

Sarah writes in a director’s note that it was this opportunity to analyze the different variations of Beckett’s work that caused her to become “fascinated by Beckett’s editing process.” Further examination spurred her desire to stage a performance of Beckett’s typescripts in order to “enhance [her] understanding of Beckett’s playwriting process.” Thus, “Staging Typescripts: Play” was born.

What Sarah presented is something poignant and intuitively beautiful. Watching this production, I was reminded of the things that drew me to WashU in the first place: how passionate the students are about their education and how those passions comes together to improve the world around them. Sarah has endeavored to understand the creative processes surrounding Beckett’s work and explain that understanding to her audience. But ultimately, what she has done is allowed people to think–to ponder their selves and their own lives–and, in doing so, impact the way that thinking is done.

So thank you Sarah, thank you actors, thank you crew, thank you everyone who was involved with this production. It certainly made me think about theatre in a new light and influenced me in a way that, though I may not yet understand how, helps me see the world differently.

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All photos courtesy of Evie Hemphill.