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Duke University Arts


Oct 31, 2014

Rude Mechs Residency Brings Together Theater, Gaming, and Science


Now Now Oh Now (photo by Jeremy Lange)
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A Visiting Artist Grant from the Council for the Arts brought the celebrated Austin, Texas theater collective Rude Mechs to Duke this past September. Their ten-day residency culminated in eight sold-out performances of Now Now Oh Now, an intimate, immersive theatrical experience presented by Duke Performances in Sheafer Lab Theater. Rude Mechs treated each audience of thirty to a show that combined serious scientific content with the nerdy pleasures of interactive gaming and the undeniable satisfaction of Murder Mystery Theatre.

According to CVNC reviewer Kate Dobbs Ariail, Now Now Oh Now “shows and tells the importance of plays and playing in the great game of life.” In its final section, she wrote, the actors “engage the audience in a meditation on choice and chance and make a crystalline argument for beauty's crucial role in natural selection.”

Photos by Eric Oberstein

While on campus, Rude Mechs worked with students in several acting and production classes in the Theater Studies department. They also visited Legal Issues for the Performing Arts, a class taught by Dan Ellison, a local attorney, arts advocate, and Duke alum. They joined scientists at the Durham-based National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) for a lunchtime conversation about evolution and theater and they toured Erich Jarvis’s Neurobiology of Vocal Communication Lab.

One student described to Duke Today the impact Rude Mechs' visit had on him:

Duke student Jon Payne has had just enough acting experience to be intrigued by the ethics of the craft. A visit by the Texas-based theater company Rude Mechs to his Introduction to Acting class was just what he needed.

“In the back of my head I have always debated the truthfulness of acting—whether or not what we’re doing on stage, pretending to be other people, is honest,” said Payne, a second-year student. “I’ve never heard anyone debate that in my classes but it was one of the first things the Rude Mechs wanted to discuss. It was a very eye-opening approach to the art and one I might not have heard without their class visit.”

The visiting artist program brings compelling artists in all genres to Duke not only to show their work but also to share the concept, technique and process behind it. According to Eric Oberstein, associate director of Duke Performances, artists are chosen because they are “comfortable engaging with students, good speakers, curious and interested in a deeper conversation.” Their formal and informal exchanges with students and the community complement and extend the work already being done on campus. As Jon Payne testified, those exchanges can be eye-opening.

Sep 9, 2014

2014-15 Visiting Artists

Duke's 2014-15 Visiting Artist lineup includes a dance company that will explore tablao traditional dance of Spain, a theatrical group that immerses the audience in their interactive productions, and a residency that will bring together new music and rare footage about life in the North Carolina Piedmont in the early 40s.

The goal of the Visiting Artist Program is to support projects that will enrich the life of the university and broader community, augment the curricular efforts of a range of departments and programs, facilitate the interaction of artists and scholars, foster the reputation of Duke University as a place where the arts are vital and diverse, and contribute to the arts as a whole.

Mar 13, 2014

Puppets and Patterns of Humanity: An Interview with Torry Bend


Love's Infrastructure (photo by Izzy Burger)
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Torry Bend is an Assistant Professor of the Practice in Duke’s Theater Studies Department, where she teaches the design classes and designs the sets for the department’s main productions. Her set designs have appeared at major venues around the country: Are They Edible, presented at La Mama, Incubator Arts Project and Dixon’s Place, a Southwest Shakespeare Company production of Pygmalion, and Stephen Wadsworth's Agamemnon at the Getty Villa, among others. She’s a 2007 graduate of the MFA program in Scene Design at California Institute of the Arts.

Bend also creates strikingly original multimedia puppet shows, which she then builds and directs. Her first major show in Durham was Paper Hat Game. IndyWeek reviewer Byron Woods described it as a “sparkling yet pensive fusion of video, experimental set design and live performance [that] borrows a number of film techniques as it unfolds the true story of Scott Iseri, a Chicago sound designer whose deceptively whimsical acts of performance art—and community building—began on that city's subways in 2001.” The video design for the show was by Raquel Salvatella de Prada, a Duke colleague from Visual and Media Arts.

"I think that our music is a little silly at times and also very sad and Torry's art combines those elements as well, so, kind of seeing the full spectrum of emotion in life of both happiness and sadness, and laughter and tears."
-James Phillips of Bombadil

Bend’s latest show, Love’s Infrastructure, owes its existence to Aaron Greenwald, executive director of Duke Performances. After seeing Paper Hat Game at Manbites Dog Theater, Greenwald was inspired to introduce the imaginative director to the members of Bombadil, a playfully compelling local band that he’d presented in Duke Gardens the previous summer. They hit it off, and a commission from Duke Performances launched a collaboration. The result is a surreal puppet pop opera that centers on daydreaming Angeline, a character from Bombadil’s song by the same name, and the man who falls in love with her. Love's Infrastructure played four shows to packed houses this past January.

Bend’s next production, If My Feet Have Lost the Ground, is the story of a woman who finds a beating heart on an airplane and goes in search of its owner. It’s slated for production in the fall.

I got a taste of Bend's hands-on production style when I visited the set of Love's Infrastructure on the afternoon of its premier. It was calm when I arrived—a few people were putting final touches on the set while Bombadil ran through their numbers and checked their timing. An hour or so later things were busier, and I watched Bend sit on the floor to paint the base of a little house on a pole. Every few strokes of the brush, it seemed, she was pulled away to discuss logistics or check some camera work or adjust some other part of her elaborate toy cityscape. When I left she was back on the floor, painting and joking with a few bystanders. I had the feeling that the last-minute project was more a refuge than a duty. After all, constructing sets is what got her hooked on the theater, and I think that even her most conceptual work springs from the same basic fascination with model building.

It was an all-consuming show with a compressed production schedule, and Bend was still catching her breath when I interviewed with her about a week and a half after it closed. Naturally we talked about the show, but we also talked about her evolution as an artist, about her dual roles as scene designer and puppet artist, and about her teaching and her background. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

-Robert Zimmerman

Mar 5, 2014

Perfect For Them: Alumni On Their Theater Experience At Duke


Kevin Poole in "Big Love" by Charles L. Mee
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Kevin Poole. (T’98) (directed Phil Watson in his Senior Distinction project, "An Iliad.")
Studying and practicing theater at Duke enriched my college experience immensely.  A thread within the fabric of my overall liberal arts education, theater provided a means to actively explore social issues by more deeply comprehending the complex relationships between individuals and systems within which those individuals operate; sometimes knowingly, often times not.  Balancing practice with theory is a challenge within the field of theater in higher education and that tension played out well for me at Duke and also in graduate school.

Mar 5, 2014

Reflections on a Distinction Project from Actor and Director


Phil Watson in "An Iliad"
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Struggle and Understanding

By Phil Watson

Watson is a senior in Theater Studies at Duke who recently presented his senior distinction project, An Iliad, in Shaeffer Theater.

The experience of preparing and performing a distinction project in physical acting (An Iliad), with an emphasis on movement and voice, was taxing. Projects like mine are explorations; they are adventures. I set out to understand more about my art and myself, and I blinked and found myself shuffling home after midnight day after day, exhausted both physically and emotionally, only to do it all over again the next day, but even more.

But the series of breakthroughs I made in those explorations made all that work worth it. Suddenly, my body and mind connected in a new way, and I began seeing things in a different light. I understood.

That's what Duke is to me. Studying classics, or mechanical engineering, or anything, is a process of struggle and understanding, repeated over and over again. You work hard in the library or in the studio, and you learn. You grasp a little more, and then a little more, and then even more. You learn something about yourself and your abilities and about the world at large.

Feb 27, 2014

Bringing On the Crazy Fire: A Theater Major’s Path


"An Iliad" Production Poster
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This past February, Theater Studies and Classical Studies major Phil Watson presented his Senior Distinction project, An Iliad, in Sheafer Theater. The one-man show, by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, is a modern day retelling of Homer’s classic. The show was directed by Theater Studies alum Kevin Poole.

In the interview that follows, Lauren Feilich talks with Watson about the show and about the path through Duke that led to it. It's a window into one Duke student's transformative encounters with the arts. The interview was published in the Duke Chronicle on January 14 of this year, about a month before An Iliad opened.

In a separate post, Watson and Poole look back on their experience preparing and presenting the show. To round out things out, several other alums of Duke's Theater Studies program who have gone on to careers in the theater or elsewhere have contributed their own reflections.


Senior Phil Watson Reflects On Involvement In Theater Department

By Lauren Feilich, The Chronicle Recess, January 14, 2014

Phil Watson is a Trinity senior majoring in theater studies and classical studies. For his heavy involvement in theater both at Duke and in Durham, Recess spoke with Watson about his years at Duke and his exciting final project for the spring.

The Chronicle: Tell me a little bit about your experience with art at Duke.

Phil Watson: Art at Duke… That’s a lot. I started as an art history major, and I spent a fair amount of time at the Nasher. I was amazed at how much it’s got. You know, Durham, North Carolina, you don’t think of as a hub for culture, but it is. We’ve got that, and I’m a musician so I played with Hoof 'n’ Horn for a little bit, and I slowly became aware of all these different people doing all these different things. I was playing in the pit and looked up one day, during a rehearsal, and I was like, huh, I think I could do that. And here we are.

The thing about Duke is you get the kind of people where everybody is a Renaissance man or woman; you’ve got engineers who also sing and play violin and do all these different things, and they do them all really well. I just did a workshop with a playwright named Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and he referred to theater artists as ragamuffin autodidacts, which just cracked me up. I think that’s how the arts here work, all these people who are not being forced at all. Everybody doing arts here is self-motivated, and as a result, everything they do has this crazy fire to it.

And so the idea of all these people doing all these different things—it’s very punk rock, all these underfunded hanging-on-by-a-thread people fighting tooth and nail to get something out there. That’s what I like about this. And so for my show, “The Iliad,” my distinction project, I have a table... and a bottle. And I have never seen a bottle turn into so many different things.

Jan 13, 2014

Spring 2014 Visiting Artists

This spring Duke's Visiting Artist Program includes a dance troupe from Brooklyn, a theater director from Duke (class of '98), music residencies featuring the premier of a new setting of St. Luke's Passion and three exceptional ensembles who will work with Duke composition students.

The goal of the Visiting Artist Program is to support projects that will enrich the life of the university and broader community, augment the curricular efforts of a range of departments and programs, facilitate the interaction of artists and scholars, foster the reputation of Duke University as a place where the arts are vital and diverse, and contribute to the arts as a whole.


March, 2014   •   Event Site
Performance on March 25 at the Motorco Music Hall

The New York based new-mu­sic sex­tet yMusic will make its final visit to Duke this spring to conclude its work with stu­dents in Duke's grad­u­ate com­po­si­tion pro­gram, re­hears­ing and recording their works in the newly ren­o­vated Bald­win Au­di­tor­i­um.




  Imani Winds & The Hilliard Ensemble

January, 2014
Performances on January 18 and 21.

Two other top-flight en­sem­bles will also work with Duke's stu­dent com­posers this year — Imani Winds, an en­er­get­ic A­mer­i­can wood­wind quin­tet and The Hil­liard En­sem­ble, a vocal quar­tet renowned for bring­ing the pristine blend of Renais­sance po­lyph­o­ny to mu­sic both new and old. Both groups will pre­pare and record new pieces com­posed by Duke Mu­sic De­part­ment grad­u­ate com­po­si­tion stu­dents, and Imani Winds will participate in a rehearsal with the Duke Wind Symphony, providing feedback to the student musicians.

These three residencies will provide Duke's up-and-coming composers with an exceptional opportunity for professional and musical development. Produced by Duke Performances in cooperation with Duke Music Department.



  Urban Bush Women

January-February, 2014   •   Event Site
Performances February 7 & 8

The two-week res­i­dency by the world-renowned, Brook­lyn-based con­tem­po­rary dance com­pany Urban Bush Women will cul­mi­nate in the world premiere of Walk­ing With 'Trane, a piece cre­ated by the com­pany's ar­tis­tic dir­ec­tor, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, and in­spired by John Col­trane's mag­ni­fi­cent jazz suite, A Love Su­preme.

The com­pany will also be on hand to par­ti­ci­pate in "Dancing the African Diaspora — Theories of Black Performance," a sym­po­si­um or­gan­ized by SLIPPAGE: Performance|Culture|Technology, the re­search group founded by Dance Pro­gram fac­ul­ty mem­ber Thomas DeFrantz. The three-day event starts on Feb­ru­ary 7.

Other res­i­dency events will in­clude master classes, a work­shop for dance com­po­si­tion stu­dents, open re­hears­als, and vis­its to dance courses. Out­reach vis­its to local Durham pub­lic schools, Hillside and Riverside high schools, are planned as well, with Duke dance stu­dents shad­ow­ing com­pany mem­bers in or­der to learn their com­mu­ni­ty en­gage­ment techniques. The residency by Urban Bush Women is produced by Duke Performances in cooperation with Duke's Dance Program.


  Hoi Polloi

February-March, 2014   •   Event Site
Performances February 20-March 1 at Manbites Dog Theater

The three-week res­id­ency of the OBIE-win­ning theater com­pany Hoi Polloi will be a home­com­ing for its founder and artistic di­rec­tor, Alec Duffy, who is a 1998 Duke grad­u­ate. The res­id­ency cen­ters on the premiere of Re­pub­lic, a work that has emerged from Pla­to's fa­mous trea­tise over the course of a two-year col­lab­o­ra­tion between Duffy and Duke's De­part­ment of Theater Stud­ies.

The residency will feature class visits and masterclasses in acting and devised theater with Duffy and members of the company, joined at times by the playwright Noah Mease, who is adapting the piece into contemporary language. The company's public events will include open rehearsals and a public conversation exploring the themes of the play.  The residency by Hoi Polloi is produced by Duke Performances in cooperation with Duke’s Department of Theater Studies.



  James MacMillan

April 2014   •   Event Site
Performance on April 13

The spring residency by Scottish composer and conductor James MacMillan builds on his two-year collaboration with members of Duke's Divinity School and the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. The residency here is organized under the auspices of DITA (Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts), a Divinity School initiative that promotes the mutual enrichment of theology and the arts.

The highlight of the residency will be the April 13 premier in Duke Chapel of MacMillan's setting of the St. Luke Passion, performed by the combined forces of the Duke Chapel Choir, Durham Children's Choir, and Orchestra Pro Cantores, conducted by Rodney Wynkoop. The composer will participate in the final rehearsals, where he will discuss the work and its creation with the performers.

In addition to the main event, there will be a performance of MacMillan's Kiss on Wood, for cello and piano, as well as public lectures, panel discussions, and a composition masterclass.


The Visiting Artist Program of Duke University receives funding from The Duke Endowment. For more information contact the Office of the Vice Provost Office for the Arts, 919.684-0540.

Apr 9, 2013

"Lear" by Young Jean Lee


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Don’t miss the final weekend of fiercely talented contemporary New York playwright Young Jean Lee’s freaky, postmodern take on Shakespeare’s greatest play, King Lear.  Directed by Jody McAuliffe, Theater Studies faculty.  As Lee describes her highly original version: “the kids are in the palace, they’ve just kicked the fathers out into the storm; they pretend they’re fine, then realize they’re not.” 

What:  Lear by Young Jean Lee

When:  April 11-13 at 8pm and April 14 at 2pm

Where:  Sheafer Theater, Bryan Center, West Campus 

How much:  $10 general admission; $5 students and sr. citizens

Get tickets at:; 919-684-4444
Get info at:

Follow the development of the play on tumblr at:      


Feb 21, 2013

Hoi Polloi Theater Company performs a work-in-progress


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What does the ancient Greece of Plato’s The Republic have in common with the world today?

Read the story in the Chronicle Recess and see how the two connect and attend the performance on Saturday, February 23.


Hoi Polloi Theater Company will perform a work-in-progress based on Plato's Republic on Saturday evening, February 23 in Sheafer Theater, (Bryan Center, Duke West Campus) at 8 pm. Free.


Event information

Hoi Polloi

Theater Studies

Feb 13, 2013

Take A Stand: Social Entrepreneurship through the Arts


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We are excited to announce that Duke University Office of the Vice Provost and the Duke Music Department are collaborating with KidZNotes, the successful Durham-based music education program based on El Sistema, to host “Take A Stand” in the Nelson Music Room on Friday, February 15 and at the Holton Community Center on Saturday, February 16.

“Take A Stand” is the national El Sistema initiative of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Longy School of Music at Bard College that cultivates leadership and education in the El Sistema movement in the United States.  The conference will bring together representatives from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Longy School of Music to meet with Duke faculty and students, Triangle music educators and local entrepreneurs who have worked with KidZNotes over the three years of its existence.

As one of the most successful expressions of the ideals of El Sistema in the United States, KidZNotes is a perfect example of the effectiveness of social entrepreneurship through the arts.  KidZNotes has established partnerships with the Durham Public Schools, Duke University, and the East Durham Children’s Initiative to provide free music lessons, instruments, and orchestral training to over 100 elementary school students, most of whom could not afford music lessons without KidZNotes.

If you are interested in social entrepreneurship through the arts, arts advocacy, and innovation through arts education, you should attend “Take A Stand.”   Duke is committed to deepening its collaboration with KidZNotes, which means developing exciting ways to engage students in its programs. 

Register now for Take A Stand at:

Read more about Take A Stand on Duke Today.

Read more in The Chronicle Recess.



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