If you read the last article I wrote, “Student Theatre on Trial,” then you are already familiar with the work of Stephanie Svarz, one of the most important players on the U of I student theatre scene. Fresh off of Penny Dreadful Players‘ successful production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, I was surprised to come upon her name as a co-author/director of the upcoming new holiday sketch comedy ‘Tis the Season. How could she possibly pull off doing so much student theatre, especially considering the trials that come along with it? Not without good help, it turns out, as Svarz is co-writing and co-directing with fellow student Aaron Russell.
I had an opportunity to hear from the pair about the added benefits and challenges that come with such a joint venture. The end result? A look into what goes on behind the scenes of making a delightful holiday comedy that’s sure to warm up your Winter.
Smile Politely: Stephanie and Aaron, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions about your new show! First off, how has co-writing and co-directing a piece of student theatre gone for you? What has the process been like? Have you found it any more or less challenging than writing or directing individually?
Stephanie Svarz: I’ve really enjoyed the co-everything process. Aaron and I come from very different backgrounds — he’s a chemical engineer, and I’m a Theatre Studies and English major. We balance each other out; we see things that the other doesn’t. There are definitely challenges that come from this, in that coming to an artistic consensus doesn’t happen right away. We compromise; but, fortunately, we’ve gotten pretty lucky. We’ve found that our ideas tend to overlap more often than not. At the beginning of the process, we did some work independently, we’d write the scenes and then edit them together. We’d then block the scenes and run them, then clean them together. We’ve done our best to use our time effectively, give each other artistic freedom, but ultimately create a clean, hilarious final product.
Aaron Russell: I’m relatively new to the process of directing, as my only previous experience was directing a 10-minute play for our student-written play festival earlier this semester. However, I’ve really enjoyed having a co-director. It’s honestly just nice to have a second pair of eyes to catch things during the rehearsal process. Also, the fact that Stephanie and I come from different backgrounds and have unique interests and personalities has helped to bring variety to this show. The majority of the skits were written individually rather than collaboratively, which has resulted in some very diverse pieces, as Stephanie and I have very distinct styles of writing and comedy.
SP: What are your backgrounds in theatre?
Svarz: I’ve be doing theatrical things for about 12 years, anything from dance to musicals to acting, but this was really just for fun. I really didn’t consider theatre as a serious career until my junior year of high school. Since then, I’ve become much more involved in the production elements — specifically directing and dramaturgy. I’m interested in theatre as an educational tool and having a very applicable skill set outside of its own world. As a result, most of my work as of late has been on the directing, writing, and dramaturgical end. I still love designing and acting, and PDP has given me the opportunity to keep my hand in all of those elements.
Russell: I started getting involved in theatre my sophomore year of high school. My first role was a pirate in Pirates of Penzance, and I loved it so much that I continued to be heavily involved in both school and community theatre productions. When I got to college, I wanted to continue acting without making it my academic focus, which is when I got involved with PDP. The vast majority of my background has just been acting and minimal set design, but I’ve really enjoyed directing as well, despite the extra work that comes with it.
SP: Tell me about ‘Tis the Season itself. Where did you get the idea to do a holiday-themed sketch comedy show?
Svarz: I’ve always loved Christmas and have been writing sketches, scenes, and short stories about the holiday for a few years now. I thought about putting them together into a showcase this year and asked Aaron to jump on board with me. We’d worked together quite a bit in the past, and our senses of humor are quite different. I thought he’d be a great addition to this team because we’re so different. We’d be able to challenge and learn from each other.
Russell: Stephanie pitched me the idea over summer break, asking if I was interested in writing and directing a Christmas show with her. The show is a collection of comedic skits, similar to Saturday Night Live, all pertaining to the Christmas season. Everything about the holidays is so festive and larger-than-life that it’s absolutely rife with creative material. The tacky sweaters, family get-togethers, catchy songs, and cheesy television specials are just some of the things we poke fun at during this production.
SP: There seems to be a certain flexibility in having written the show yourselves. Has the show changed at all since you began the rehearsal process? How does the final product compare to your original visions?
Svarz: You are completely right! I’ve really enjoyed the ability to change as we’ve gone along. We’ve taken things out, rewritten scenes, and added dance numbers since we started! One of Aaron’s sketches in particular has gone through 5 or 6 iterations. We’ve had a few that have stayed the same since the beginning, but seeing the sketches has prompted us to rewrite quite a bit. The version that audiences will see on stage is much cleaner than our original draft. We’ve got a great team of actors working on this production and they’ve generated some pretty hilarious moments on stage. As a result, Aaron and I have rewritten scenes to include these moments! The product that people will see is really a culmination of the collaborative process we’ve had these past few weeks in rehearsal.
Russell: The best part about directing a script you wrote is that you have a very clear vision in your head of how each scene should look and what the audience should get out of it. And, as you go through the rehearsal process, you start to realize what is and isn’t working, so many of the scenes have had minor tweaks to fit our original vision. Many times things also get added in later to make a scene more engaging. A good example of this is in a scene I wrote that parodies “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Since the song repeats the same lyrics so many times, some of the early lines got stale as the song went on, so I re-wrote the later verses to remedy this.
SP: Stephanie, you just finished directing The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. What is it like to immediately turn around and do something so different? Has changing gears so quickly been challenging, or therapeutic?
Svarz: Both, but I find the challenge therapeutic, in a way. I have much less experience working with comedy, and this challenge has been great! We’re also working in a different format — sketch comedy as opposed to a full-length play. It’s in this that the creation of small moments has become so important. I’ve really had a chance to unpack each moment in the script, something which is difficult with a full-length play. Though this is a full-length show in terms of time, each moment is anywhere from 3-10 minutes. Focusing and experimenting with what works in each scene has been a much more intense process for this show because they happen so quickly. It’s also been great laughing through most of rehearsal. Judas has a completely different flavor, and, though there were many funny moments, rehearsal could be incredibly draining. With ’Tis the Season, most of our time is spent experimenting with what works, yielding endless funny moments, and that’s been a blast!
SP: Student theatre always has a quick turnaround. Since it will be up for only a short while, why should theatergoers come see ‘Tis the Season this weekend?
Svarz: This show is really a celebration of the season and the joy of comedy. We tend to bog ourselves down around finals with studying, seeing friends, studying, projects, studying, and finishing up the semester. Also studying. I think we forget to laugh and appreciate the excitement of the holiday season or just celebrating the accomplishments of the semester. ’Tis the Season is meant to give people a break. Come see this show — it’s silly, relevant, and fun. Just take a moment, breathe, and laugh. We’re all here together; let’s have fun along the way.
Russell: Whether you think Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, or you’re a complete Scrooge, the holiday season is still the biggest and busiest time of the year. As such, I really think there’s something in this show that everyone can relate to and enjoy. This cast is so talented, and they’ve been a blast to work with. Each one of them brings something unique to the show. With finals week just around the corner, there’s no better way to relax and have some fun than watching this hilarious holiday production!
‘Tis the Season will open this Friday, December 12th. There will be a second show on Saturday, December 13th. Both shows start at 8 p.m., and tickets are $5 for students/seniors and $7 for non-students. The show will be presented at the Channing Murray Foundation, located at 1209 W. Oregon Street in Urbana.