Creativity at the 75th

Much Ado

Westmont from the beginning. . . . I tried to capture that tension between the depth of sacrifice and the depth of joy." There was an ecumenical character to that tension—what Steve calls a broadly "Presbyterian" spirit—in a Scottish cadence that lends some high spirits to the piece. Although he wants to convey something of the trials in the college’s history, Steve notes that in the end he "was flooded by the overwhelming awareness of God's hand and God’s Grace in the individual expressions of all that this place has come to be."

"Journey"—the current exhibition in the Ridley-Tree Museum of Art—might be said to be a celebration of what Westmont's art program has come to be, as it displays the work of Westmont graduates from 1969 to 2012. The Santa Barbara News-Press recently saluted the exhibit for showcasing "the remarkable growth of Westmont’s art department and focus over the past quarter century." The show, according to columnist Josef Woodard, also marks the progress from the "modest Reynolds Gallery to one of the more exciting new small art museums on the West Coast." Since Woodard emphasizes the tradition of student shows in the development of Westmont's art program, it seems appropriate to call attention to the exhibit of current student work that is downstairs in the art building. During this anniversary year Briana Stanley, a sophomore art major, has been given an opportunity to curate a show of what she calls works of "real interest"—or "art not created for class." She sought works from her peers that they had made on their own. There's a light touch to many of the selections, including a whimsical blue-gray ceramic with a small troll-like head emerging from the clay. Six of the artists in the show collaborated on "one final piece." From a distance, it has an airy, mystical effect that fits the show's main theme—"Breath"—even as it displays the distinctive styles of each artist in his or her own portion of the piece. Briana offers her own take on the theme in her painting of a dandelion struck by the wind, which she spreads over three plain pine planks, something of a homespun triptych. When I asked her what works she liked, she first pointed to a friend's display of roughly two dozen small photographs, most of them glimpses of commonplace country life. They are symmetically aligned, but pinned to the wall without any frames. It is the balance of formality and unpretentiousness, Briana hopes, that will make you want to look more closely at the intimate drama in each scene.

Perhaps no one probed the clash of formality and pretense more than William Shakespeare. In Hamlet, of course, the Prince's designs to "catch the conscience of the king" end rather poorly for just about everyone on stage; we'll get another glimpse at much of the eavesdropping, deceit and tragedy on November 7, as John Blondell has arranged for several distinguished actors from Shakespeare's Globe to come to Porter Theatre to perform scenes from the last half of the play. This a prelude, as it were, to the full performance of the tragedy at UCSB the following two nights, events co-sponsored by Westmont. In many ways, it is also just the right sequel to Mitchell Thomas's production of Much Ado about Nothing, another play with plenty of pretense and eavesdropping, which Shakespeare wrote about three years earlier. The show—part of the 75th anniversary and Homcecoming—features several alums: Jonathan Hicks (lighting design), Elizabeth Hess (dramaturgy), Lynne Martens (costume design), Cameron Squire (production), Gregory Wadworth (music production and sound), Leah Benson (choreography), and Ben Johnson (art design).

After seeing the play during Homecoming, I met with the two leads—Paige Tautz (Beatrice) and Mak Manson (Benedick)—to hear about the process of creating their roles (see photo). For both of them, working with the alums was one of the highlights, as they perceived the enthusiasm and creative attention to detail that comes with professional experience. They spoke as well about the challenges of "entertaining both audiences"—the people in the seats and the characters on stage. The characters are always hiding and eavesdropping, and the audience must know when the other characters see through their contrivances and when they don't. Both Paige and Mak spoke about the demands of the language, the need to discover a tone and texure that seemed inherent in Shakespeare's words, sometimes even as they were required to perform a little slapstick. "The hardest thing about playing Beatrice," Paige noted, "is that I am like her," especially in how she "covers up vulnerability with mirth." Mak also said that he could see himself in a Benedick whose monologues reveal someone always changing his mind. In developing their roles, they had to find that right blend of antic humor and emotional nuance that is neither too clownish nor too solemn. The work of the full cast and crew drew high marks from Charles Donelan at The Independent: "The whole thing sparkles with the adventurousness and high spirits of Westmont's outstanding theatre program. Between UCSB and Westmont College, Santa Barbara must count as one of the top places in the world for aspiring Shakepeareans to matriculate."

At the Gala on Saturday evening Paul Willis read a sequence of his short poems—entitled "Spots of Time"—written in honor of the 75th anniversary. While enlivened by subtle allusions to William Wordsworth, William Carlos Williams, and George Herbert, the poems survey moments and places at Westmont in a language that is relaxed but deeply resonant. Among the many vignettes, I was caught most by Paul's reference to a former student whose second-grade class sent him "crayon tracings of turkeys" for the Thanksgiving after he lost his home to the fire. I would like to think that it will always be hard to imagine Westmont's history—or hopefulness—without art.