Recently, Eastern Mennonite University’s (EMU) spring 2017 mainstage “The 39 Steps” was invited to perform at the Region II Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF). Abigail Greaser, a sophomore transfer student from EMU, spent the first week and a half of the spring semester in Harrisonburg, Virginia and in Indiana, Pennsylvaniafor the festival.
Since the premiere of “The 39 Steps” Greaser and other cast members left EMU’s theatre department, making the festival a perfect time to reconnect.
“It made the opportunity to be reunited even more special for all of us,” she said. “When we all first arrived it was like a big family reunion. We knew that we will likely not ever have the opportunity for all of us to be together and working on a project as a team again.”
“The 39 Steps” is a play adapted by Patrick Barlow from the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. The play follows a man named Richard Hannay who gets caught up in a conspiracy plot involving a foreign secret agent. Hannay then tries to solve the titular mystery while also running from the police after a woman is murdered in his apartment.
Greaser described the play as, “[a combination of] your classic spy novel with Monty Python and Looney Toons! It is a fast-paced, over the top, and highly comical show written for the sole purpose of a good time and a hardy laugh.”
The cast only requires four people, with one actor playing Hannay and three other actors playing a variety of roles, including all three female love interests and two clowns.
This was a delight for Greaser, who played one of the clowns. “I was playing everything
from a bawdy underwear
salesman to a Scottish innkeeper to a not-so-intelligent hitman,” said Greaser.
Three other cast members played silent clowns who helped with technical details of the show, along with portraying the roles of silent characters and even inanimate objects like lamps and chairs. There was also a pianist and a Foley Artist — someone who provides sound effects for comedic and dramatic effect — on stage as well. The play was directed by Justin Poole, EMU’s assistant professor of theatre.
The play had quite the journey to the festival. KCACTF Region II includes schools from parts of Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and New York. When performing a show, there is generally an option to register for consideration to be invited to the regional festival. After registration, two respondents come and watch the show, later pitching it to a committee which picks from the nominated shows.
That was not the case for EMU, which did not initially register. Rather, a representative from KCACTF came to the show to provide feedback for the student actors and designers. This representative encouraged the production to attempt to take the show to the festival. After looking into it, they managed to add themselves to the list of nominees and were chosen by the board.
The journey didn’t stop there. A fundraising process was required to get the production to the festival. Before the festival, Greaser spent time at EMU to perform in three benefit performances in Harrisonburg to help with that funding. This was in addition to an intense two-week rehearsal process.
“The show is very athletic,” Greaser said. “We were all constantly running around, climbing on and jumping off moving boxes and just pushing our bodies to the limits constantly. Most of the cast was (and still are) covered with bruises. It got to the point where we were all so beat up because of the show that we joked about calling it ‘The 39 Bruises.’”
The show was performed twice at the festival, both sold-out performances. One of the national respondents called it one of the best shows
they’d ever seen.
“KCACTF audiences are notorious for being obnoxious: they react to everything,” Greaser said. “Luckily, that was just the sort of audience our show was made for. Having all the effort we had put into this show appreciated by the audience was intensely gratifying.”
While Greaser has had to dive into another show very quickly after wrapping up “The 39 Steps” as she is currently involved in GC’s Mainstage, “Pirates of Penzance,” she is still processing all that happened.
“It was an incredible opportunity to return and revive this show,” she said. “In addition to all the excitement of the festival, simply being able to work with that team of people again was just incredible.”