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Picture-Perfect Portrayals

UMD Theatre Students Create Living Portraits at Smithsonian

By Charlie Wright

Theater Portraits

Geoff Sheil

Geoff Sheil

Civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, also known as Maryland student Montana Mondardes, spoke of his humble upbringing and later union organizing as he led visitors around the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Then he introduced a waiting Marian Anderson (aka UMD’s Summer Brown), clad in a red dress and fur coat, who shared her struggles as an African-American singer in the early 20th century.

The whimsical scene melding culture and history is the basis of “The Measures of Our Lives,” a performance held in December by students in the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies. Participants dress as famous historical figures and perform original monologues next to the museum’s artwork about those people. The actors also lead a docent tour of the gallery, interacting with the crowd and meeting other characters along the journey.

Theatre Professor Leslie Felbain created the project in her character development course in 2008 in conjunction with the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress as a way for her students to hone their classroom skills in a real-life setting, combining elements of character embodiment and street performance to engage a live audience. Each member of the class is tasked with researching one character and developing a brief speech that encompasses his or her life’s work while giving the crowd a sense of how the person would have behaved.

“The students get the opportunity to involve themselves in dramaturgical research, really immersing themselves in the environment of history, politics, sociology and the world,” says Felbain. “They’re really getting to go from an isolated world of an acting studio into engaging and accessing these fabulous resources, stepping out of the comfort zone of the studio.”

The five-minute monologue included a synopsis of the character’s life and closes with a few words about how he or she broke barriers and ignited social change. Paul Laurence Dunbar, played by Morgan Scott, discussed racial discrimination in the newspaper industry and the difficulties he faced as an African-American writer in the late 19th century. Brown, as Anderson, recalled how she was barred from performing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, then her famous performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Albert Einstein spoke about his career in an unwavering German accent and waved to children huddled in front of his portrait. Noah Israel ’16, who brought the physicist to life, used a mixture of baby powder, hair spray and water to achieve the jagged, unkempt hairstyle. He opted for sandals as well after discovering that Einstein preferred them to shoes.

“In class we spend a lot of time learning how to let go of ourselves and our own habits and tendencies,” says Israel. “[We] use these portraits as a way of finding new habits and new tendencies that these real life people had.”

The tour began with around 15 people but quickly grew to over 60 as the actors paced the halls. That didn’t surprise Eliana Papanicolaou ’17, who portrayed cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinstein.

“There is this moment of connecting with the audience where you have to open yourself up enough that they trust you,” Papanicolaou says. “[Felbain] always talks about creating a net over the audience, gathering up your energy and imagining a net and capturing them and bringing them toward you.”

After the performance, the actors answered visitors’ questions and discussed current issues of race and religion in the context of their characters.

“The question I always pose to the audience is what is ordinary in someone that is labeled as extraordinary? And what is extraordinary in all the people we think of as ordinary?” says Felbain. “Because we all have both in us. It’s quite empowering and humbling at the same time.”

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Credit: Geoff Sheil

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