‘Love Is Love Is Love Is Love’

With “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare gave us the archetypal tragic love story that’s been rending audience hearts since the late 16th century. The play was a hit in Shakespeare’s day and its popularity seems destined to endure because the “star-cross’d lovers’” doomed trajectory strikes a basic yet profound chord that resonates across cultures and ages.

Next month, Director Kristin Wolanin and her Country Day troupe will bring the perennial fan favorite to the Steinman Theatre stage for four performances. All four will present a timeless tale of ill-fated love. But, besides featuring sets and costumes evoking the 1950s, two of those performances will tell the story from a less familiar perspective.

For those shows, at 7 p.m. Saturday April 8 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Madison B. ’17 will take the stage as Romeo and the love she and Juliet (Lily D-L. ’17) share will be fervid. It will also be homosexual. The first two performances, at 7 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday, will feature Cole S. ’17 in the Romeo role, with Lily continuing as Juliet.

“Cole and Madison each have their own journey to take, and both explore their own path toward love. I’m proud of the intensity and dedication and thought that both actors have brought to the roles and I think this casting decision will essentially give audiences two plays for the price of one, so to speak,” said Wolanin.

“‘Romeo and Juliet’ is such a great story of teaching people to appreciate the individual,” she continued. “Being open to showcasing two star-crossed love stories speaks volumes about the school and the values it embraces. This production is more than a show of support for the LGBT community at LCDS. The students do a good job of advocating for themselves and one another, but this is the first time they’ve had a project with this kind of substance and reach.”

The spirit that embodies the production was eloquently captured by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in a sonnet, and this quatrain in particular: “We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger / We rise and fall and light from dying embers / Remembrances that hope and love last longer / And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love.” Wolanin said that portions of Miranda’s poem will be incorporated into the set itself.

Just as important as what the play is, is what it’s not, Wolanin said.

“Other than changing the pronouns for the Saturday evening and Sunday matinee shows, we’ve stuck to the letter of the text. This production isn’t a cover for some moralistic exhibition,” she said. “We’re just trying to raise awareness and, to the extent that there’s a message we want to convey, it’s simply that people are people and we should love them for who they are.”

“Romeo and Juliet” opens at 7 p.m. Friday, April 7 and runs for three days, with performances at 7 p.m. Saturday, as well as 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $15 at the door, or $10 online.

World Civilizations: Triumph Over the Traditional

On one side of the Upper School hallway in Brenna Stuart’s room, Lexi J. ’19 recognized a phrase from Voltaire’s “Candide” in a 1751 commentary supporting sumptuary laws as a bulwark against “the dregs of the people.”

“That’s so mean,” Lexi said in smiling astonishment.

On the other side of the hallway in Genevieve Munson’s room, freshman Jonah R. handed his teacher the outline he’d made using the critical techniques from the previous day’s class.

“This is going to be a bomb essay,” Jonah said.

Munson scanned the page and nodded approvingly. “I don’t doubt it, young Jonah. I do not doubt it at all,” she said.

Other than being impressive displays of scholarly aptitude, these two scenes would appear to be discrete, disconnected events with no relation to one another.

That appearance would be deceiving.

There’s a common thread that runs across the hall, connecting Munson’s class to Stuart’s, Jonah’s experience to Lexi’s, history to English and freshman year to sophomore year. That thread is World Civilizations.

The two-year, interdisciplinary course serves as an immersive introduction to the humanities in Upper School. While grounding students in the fundamentals, World Civ aims to provide a richer experience than individual English or history classes would by exposing students to texts that span millennia and cultures, but speak to a common human essence.

“Dividing history from literature is a false dichotomy,” said Stuart, who teaches World Civ II along with Emma Miller.

“We’re trying to combine big ideas with the nuts-and-bolts of grammar and effective, engaging writing. The trick is figuring out that balance.

“It’s definitely ambitious, but it works because they’re not just high schoolers,” Stuart continued. “There’s this idea that students that age we should just spoon-feed facts, but facts without context become facts without meaning and just bore these kids.”

Munson, along with Sarah Parker, teaches World Civ I and echoed Stuart’s sentiments.

“Any idea is not an idea in isolation,” Munson said. “Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech isn’t some frozen moment in time.

“I want my students to understand that the paths of English and history are not journeys that take place in isolation. And on the best, most fulfilling days of class, I’m learning shoulder-to-shoulder with my students. Challenging fixed perspectives is always an aim of whatever we’re doing in class,” she said.

The World Civ I curriculum includes The Bible, The Koran, The Dhammapada, “The Odyssey,” “The Republic” and “The Divine Comedy.” World Civ II focuses on the development of modern Europe and the causes and consequences of western dominance. The material that helps illuminate that journey includes works by Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Tolstoy, Camus, Kafka and Garcia Marquez.

“The struggle,” said Munson, “is that there are fun, interesting, applicable elements within great texts, lurking in the background. The challenge is to tease those out and bring them forward so students can engage with them as preparation for thinking and speaking and communicating critically.

“What’s always on the forefront is how to craft good writing, and probably the most fundamental aspect of that is that you have to be a good reader if you ever want to be a good writer,” she said.

The Upper School faculty are hardly alone in cultivating critical thinkers.

“The Middle School sets us up for success,” Munson explained. “The collaboration among and between teachers helps ensure that kids arrive in World Civ I with a strong scaffolding of what they need to know, and that allows me to just build on. We’re trying to foster a critical eye and look at the human experience and develop in students an empathy and understanding.

“There are certain universal themes throughout the great works — One might even say that’s what makes them great,” Munson continued. “But it is a profound experience for students to interact with the Koran and the Tao and ‘The Odyssey’ and books separated by cultures and continents and hundreds or thousands of years and to find, universal, unifying human elements and truths.

Stuart and Munson’s belief in the superiority of the interdisciplinary World Civ model is clear. Munson made equally clear, however, that the point of the class was not to upset the pedagogical apple cart.

“World Civ is not some sort of insurrection against the traditional teaching of English and history. But it is, we think, a natural way of eliminating the more arbitrary barriers between the two disciplines in a way that makes learning the material a uniquely good fit for freshman- and sophomore-age students.”

Stuart said that even within World Civ itself, the aim is to get rid of boundaries and present students with a unified curriculum and more complete learning experience.

“We bring in art history, we bring in various kinds of philosophy, we bring in dangling modifiers and lots of other things. But it never feels like, ‘Now we’re going to do history,’ Stuart said.

“We’re always doing all of it.”

‘You Should Never Eat Your Heroes’ Premiere

LCDS students will perform the world premiere of playwright Jonathan Dorf’s dark comedy, “You Should Never Eat Your Heroes” at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $5 in advance or $10 at the door. Head of Country Day’s theater Kristin Wolanin had directed one of Dorf’s plays before, and so the two began an email correspondence earlier this year that culminated in the school staging the debut of Dorf’s original work.

Cougar News asked the actors and playwright about the experience, and what follows are their thoughts:

Dorf: “Originating a role is a challenge in that you’re boldly going where no one has gone before. Nobody knows exactly what that character or indeed the show itself is going to look like or sound like — including me. That can be kind of scary, as it’s like being an acrobat without a net, but as one student said, that’s part of the fun, “We get to blaze our own trail.”

This is a play that, I hope, allows a production to play. One thing the students really seemed to identify with is how the play’s amped up “reality” mirrors the pressure, craziness and downright absurdity of the high school experience. I love taking a world we recognize — in this case, high school — and heightening that world until it’s more than a little off its rocker. But hopefully, even in the maelstrom of mayhem — and there’s rather a lot — we recognize little shreds of truth.”


CN: How does being a high schooler affect the challenge of acting in an allegory about high school?

— Sophia M. ’15: It makes it a lot easier, in some ways. We’re all pretty self-aware of the absurdity of high school.

— Payton B. ’15: It’s easier to act like a high schooler because I am one but it’s also sometimes hard to separate yourself from your character.

CN: If you perform Shakespeare and you’re filling the shoes of Lawrence Olivier, there’s a lot of tradition and history (and baggage) there. How does acting in a play no one’s seen before affect your expectations about your own role and the show as a whole?

— Sophia M.: I think it’s actually lessened the pressure that famous shows carry. When doing well-known shows, it’s hard not to compare yourself to professionals who have been acting for years. It’s like presenting first in class, it’s tough, but you’re also not being compared to anyone else.

— Nick A. ’15: It pushes me to try harder.

— Payton B.: You really have to build your character from the ground up. I really want the character to be right and for people to look at how I played the character and want to play her the same way. The show itself is also an experiment, which we find our way through as we go. We are kind of going into it blind but it’s fun to blaze our own trail.

CN: What’s been the most fun part of doing “You Should Never Eat Your Heroes”?

— Payton B: It’s fun working alongside my best friend as he plays my character’s best friend.

— Nick A: The most fun part was doing Oscar and Betty’s “spats” because they were so close to my everyday conversations with Payton.

— Abbey B. ’21: The most fun (so far) would be the very first day when we met everyone, learned roles and read through the script. Even though I have seen all of the actors in the play before in school, I had never actually gotten to talk to them and know them as well as I have now.

CN: Why should people come see the show?

— Sophia M.: I’m trying to be as mean as possible and I get put in a cooler.

— Payton B.: Although it might be cheesy, it is really true to what high school is and how it can get kind of crazy.

— Nick A.: Because it’s absurdly hilarious.

‘Fullness of Meaning’

It was late afternoon and there was poetry to be written in Sarah D’Stair’s creative writing class. Her passel of Upper School students included freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. Conspicuously absent, or at least discreetly unacknowledged, were muses. Instead of waiting for inspiration, D’Stair and her writers got down to the matter at hand: writing. The creativity in creative writing can only appear once pen has been put to paper and thought given form. By definition, creativity demands creation, and words very seldom write themselves.

“Allow the unconscious, spontaneous mind to take over,” D’Stair told the class. “I want you to picture the Platonic ideal of the image I tell you and write the most descriptive thing you can in two minutes.

“We’re going to build a poem,” she said.

D’Stair proceeded to give three prompts: an old book, a puddle and child sitting on his front stoop. After the students finished Round 1, D’Stair laid out the modulation to Round 2. “Explore the nonlinear nature of poetic language. See a thing and make it something else. Make the reader do a little mental work to get the fullness of meaning,” she said.

Now the old book was underwater and the child who had been sitting on the stoop was falling through a bottomless well into the abyss. After two more modulations and several minutes of thinking and poeticizing, D’Stair introduced a final grammatical wrinkle: Lose all the prepositions and conjunctions.

“Intensify what you’ve written,” she said. “Get to the nucleus. The goal is to match language to emotion so we’re going to get rid of all the words that get in the way of that.”

After a few more minutes mangling syntax and making Strunk and White roll in their graves, the students put their poems down and looked across the table at one another. One by one, each read his or her spontaneous and variegated work aloud. An exercise that began with images that could have plausibly been plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting had, in two moves, evolved into a novel abstraction of that starting place. The students’ poems had put Platonic ideals, poetic conceits and language itself before a funhouse mirror, and the results were creative writing indeed.

Below are several samples of more traditional, but no less inspired, student pieces.

In “Dark Secret,” Charlotte S. ’17 paints a blackly vivid picture of one woman’s train ride, along straight rails through pretty country and down twisted tracks into the depths of her own mind.

“The wind whips my hair in front of my face as I wait on the platform. I can see dark clouds roiling and tumbling over each other in the distance, bringing the promise of rain closer and closer. The air feels charged, and I sense something within in me rise up to meet those clouds. Within me, there is a storm approaching.”

Following strict instructions to use no adverbs ending in –ly and to evoke feeling without using the signposts of plot, sophomore Danny F. penned a delightful afterlife monologue one could imagine rising from the cold brain of Holden Caulfield, experiencing a death every bit as awkward as the life that preceded it. Having met his end running a cross-country race in an ensemble he didn’t care for, the narrator explains:

“I’m dead. … It happened about a year ago. I was running in a cross-country race in one of those ridiculous, uncomfortable uniforms when I had a little bit of trouble breathing. Then a lot of trouble breathing. Then no breathing. … I hated every second wearing that uniform when I was alive. Now imagine how it felt when I figured out I was still wearing it as a ghost. … Do you have any idea how many people have used these uniforms? Eight people. … Eight years of sweat, dirt, hair, stains and who knows what else.”