Dustin Steinhoff, News Editor
The lights went down on the stage and along with them came four hooks each attached to a rope. As they slowly descended onto the stage, four human-sized rabbits with unsettling masks that covered the entirety of their heads with seemingly do mouth or eye holes reared their haunting faces, carrying long, dark pieces of cloth. Each of them attached their cloth to the hook and once they were all finished, they were reeled back towards the ceiling, creating four trees for the scene’s forest setting.
As the actors and actresses got into position, Assistant Professor of Theatre Jacqueline Thompson got up from her seat and moved down the rows of seats to approach an actor who took his place on the ground of the left side of the stage. She whispered something to the actor and he adjusted his position to Thompson’s liking as she returned to her seat. This dress rehearsal was her last chance to ensure that every aspect of “Chasing the White Rabbit” was fine-tuned and ready for the play’s opening performance the following night.
“Chasing the White Rabbit,” the final university production at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, ran from Oct. 11 through Oct. 14 in the Touhill Performing Arts Center.
In May, UMSL made changes to a number degree programs and this included the decision to cut the undergraduate Theatre and Cinema Arts degree program. No faculty in the department lost their jobs and students previously enrolled in the program are currently finishing their degrees, but no incoming students can graduate with that degree and university-produced plays are ceasing production, with “Chasing the White Rabbit” being the last one.
Thompson is the director of “Chasing the White Rabbit” and has been directing an UMSL production once a year since 2012. “Chasing the White Rabbit” is a modern retelling of “Alice in Wonderland” that focuses on the danger of opioids.
The play was commissioned by Theatre Department Chair Felia Davenport, who wanted a theme about opioid abuse and drug addiction with teenagers. The topic of the play is very close and personal to Davenport and she wanted to create a space of awareness and education.
“Our department has always been adamant and passionate about doing theater for change and theater for power and what we have always tried to do is have thematic shows that address some kind of social justice issue in the community,” Thompson said.
During Thompson’s first year at UMSL, she did a show called “In the Blood” that dealt with the issue of homelessness. She also worked on the play “Good People,” which dealt with the issues of classism and racism. Other plays she worked on include “For Colored Girls” and “In the Red and Brown Water.”
“We have always been intentional about doing shows that create some type of awareness to an issue in a community or society,” Thompson said.
The production of a play can be long and difficult and it requires the talents of many people. First, the play was commissioned by local playwright, with this being the first time it is being produced. Once the play has been written, as the director, Thompson looks at it and thinks about all of the aesthetics of what this world needs to look like.
“This is an adaptation of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ so you think about how to incorporate the elements of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ but also merge it into this contemporary world and you think about set design and costumes,” Thompson said. “I use a word bank, so I write down words and smells and textures that remind me of the show.”
Once Thompson has an idea of how she wants the play to look, she consults other members of production to create their shared vision.
“When I take this into a production meeting, design teams talk about how the play feels and each designer comes up with their own visions,” Thompson said. “It is a great collaborative experience to merge everyone’s creativity and create this new world.”
Later in the process, actors and actresses in the play are given their roles and have about a month of rehearsals before opening night. Alex Tash, senior, theatre played the role of Cat in “Chasing the White Rabbit,” which was his first play at UMSL after being a part of multiple productions in Los Angeles.
“The part is hilarious,” Tash said. “I didn’t understand him, so that is why I wanted to do it. To figure him out.”
Thompson finds that students learn theater best through their rehearsals.
“So much learning takes place through the rehearsing process. I would dare to say my students actors learn more through rehearsing than they do in class. They are in tech rehearsals, they see the behind the scenes process, they in the show from inception to the final performance. There is a lot of integral pieces of the art from in the process,” Thompson said.
During Thompson’s time in the theatre department at UMSL, one of her favorite parts of the job was seeing the journey of her students as they became better performers over time.
“I have had many students that entered into our production as one major and felt the power of theater, believed in the message of the plays and switched majors. It has changed the trajectory of a lot of lives,” Thompson said.
Another reason why theater is so important to Thompson is the role it played in her life when she was a child.
“Growing up, I was very shy and sheltered. Theater was the one time where my passion was stronger than that fear,” Thompson said.
With theater taking such a major role in Thompson’s life, the cancellation of the program and any future productions upset her as well as the students who love the theater. However, the cast decided to use their last performance at UMSL to make a powerful statement.
“What it has made all of us more aware of is living in the moment, being present in the moment and being appreciative that we have this one last time to explore and create. And be a conduit to raise awareness about such a serious issue in the city,” Thompson said. “We are all grateful, we are all humble and we all have a responsibility to do the show with integrity and appreciation.”
The cast knew their final performance had to be memorable and it showed through the dedication of everyone involved in the play.
“It has made us go 100%. We know that this is the way it is ending, so everyone has been so dedicated and here on time, here for every rehearsal. It’s made everyone work very hard,” Tash said.
With this being the final UMSL production, future UMSL students will unfortunately be unable to participate in university-produced plays.
“I have witnessed lives being changed from the power of theater, from the power of expression. I have watched students that mirrored how I was as a young artists blossom and bloom and come into their own artistry through the program. It is definitely sad to see that students to come won’t have that opportunity,” Thompson said.
However, Thompson urges future students who may be interested in theater to fulfill their passions elsewhere.
“For students who are interested in theater, I implore them to search for spaces to audition in the city, to always look for local auditions, community and professional theater in the area,” Thompson said.
As with all skills that someone can acquire, acting requires practice in order to hone one’s talents.
“I also urge them to get training elsewhere. Training is a necessity for the endurance of this career. It is important and is how you sustain yourself and make a living in this field. Explore workshops, and outside classes to nurture their gifts and talent and to look for opportunities in the community to perfect their craft.”