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Duke University Arts


Feb 27, 2015

Aaron Lazar, From Duke to Broadway

After a performance of Sting's musical The Last Ship in mid-November, a couple of exceptional Duke theater alums and a transformative faculty member talked about their connection to Duke. Aaron Lazar graduated in 1998 with a music degree. The Last Ship was his ninth appearance in a Broadway show. Nathaniel Hill is a 2012 graduate of the Theater Studies program. In his senior year he produced Ragtime, Duke's first Graduation with Distinction project in production. Standing next to them was a man who played a crucial role in both of their college careers—Emanuel "Manny" Azenberg, an eminent Broadway producer who doubled as a professor at Duke for many years.

This is Lazar's story, lightly edited.

I got a scholarship to sing in the opera department that was new. They had just brought Susan Dunn down from the Met to teach and create the opera program, and so I was very grateful for the scholarship. It required me to be a music major, so I was majoring in music and then minoring in pre-med.

My parents were going to be very happy because they'd have a nice Jewish doctor in the family, and then two things happened. One, I took Manny [Azenberg's] class. I'd never read a play before, and the first play we read was Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, which was absolutely a joke for me, I seriously didn't understand a word of it.

Manny's entire class hinges upon visceral essays in response to the play that you've just read. I couldn't write anything, I didn't understand anything that I read, so I made up some... crap, I'm sure. And I got to meet Tom Stoppard here, on stage, a couple of weeks ago, and tell him that story. He was very gracious.

Anyway I took Manny's class. And then a drama professor at Duke, Jeff Storer, and Jody McAuliffe, cast me in Carousel. Carousel was a reintroduction to musical theater for me. I'd done some musicals in high school and said I wouldn't have time to do it in college because I'd have to get good grades and all that. And then, after Carousel, professors started pushing me, saying, you should try it, you should try it.

I kept my parents happy after, because the MCATs are good for three years. I went to graduate school for theater for two years at Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and then I had one year to get a job. I got a job six months in and then never wanted to take the test again and so, here we are.

Nathaniel Hill went from his senior production at Duke into the professional world, where, among other things, he served on the general management team for The Last Ship. This past fall he returned to campus during DEMAN (Duke Entertainment Media and Arts Network) weekend to share his experience with students coming along behind him. As he says in the video, DEMAN is "an amazing program that's been created to help students who don't necessarily want to be doctors and lawyers get their toes wet in the business, get that first internship and start meeting people, which is so important in our business."

It's worth quoting comments Azenberg made about his Duke class when he received the 2012 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. Lazar, it turns out, had exactly the experience his professor intended him to have.

For 25 years Azenberg also taught a theatre course at Duke University, where he was famous for handing out in class plays with the covers and title pages ripped off, so that he could elicit an unbiased “visceral response” from the students. “It was a fun course and the kids were challenged,” he says. “If they didn’t understand the play, they would have to just say that, not that they hated it. By the end of the semester, hopefully, they actually had some confidence in their own opinion and also recognized that all the arts are subjective.”

Feb 20, 2015

The Perfect Detonator

The Perfect Detonator, the Duke University Department of Theater Studies fall MainStage play, finished a successful run this past November. The play, based on Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, was adapted and directed by Duke theater professor Jody McAuliffe.

McAuliffe’s work follows Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, as he reads Conrad’s story of an anarchist cell in nineteenth-century London plotting to bomb the Greenwich Observatory, a major symbol of science and industrialization at the time. As the play unfolds, Conrad’s fictional tale intersects with Kaczynski’s real-life bomb plots in the United States. "Like the Unabomber, Conrad saw industrial society as at odds with the human heart,” McAuliffe says.

As McAuliffe told the Duke Chronicle, the genesis of her project was an encounter with the work of filmmaker James Benning, who came to Duke in 2013 as part of the visiting artist lecture series Immersed in Every Sense 2.

“Benning had reconstructed Henry David Thoreau's and Ted Kaczynski's iconic cabins,” McAuliffe said. “He used these structures to reflect on utopian and dystopian versions of social isolation. Benning’s visit reignited my interest in the controversial figure of Kaczynski, particularly in his connection to Thoreau. I developed a plan to read the books that Kaczynski kept in his cabin and I started, fatefully, with Conrad’s 'The Secret Agent,' a most significant book for Kaczynski.”

McAuliffe pursued the natural connections between her production and the work and concerns of the broader academic community. Tim Nichols, an expert on counterterrorism and homeland security and Executive Director of Duke's Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellowship Program, was involved in the rehearsal process. After the opening-night performance he led a public discussion of domestic terrorism, joined by fellows from his “National Security Decision-Making” class. Two nights later, Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies Beth Holmgren presented “A Brief Intro to Joseph Conrad, a Man Between Empires.”

McAuliffe, who is Chair of Theater Studies and Professor of the Practice of Theater Studies and Slavic and Eurasian Studies, found collaborators in other arts departments, as well. William Noland, Professor of the Practice of Visual Art & Theater Studies, was the video designer, assisted by MFAEDA students Aaron Kutnick and Windrose Stanback. Noland was also responsible for bringing James Benning to campus. Emeritus Professor Frank Lentricchia was the dramaturg. The sound designer was composition graduate student Ben Daniels, and the choreography was created by Clay Taliaferro, an emeritus professor of dance.

In addition, McAuliffe brought in Roz Fulton-Dahlie from UNC School of the Arts for lighting design and local designer Sonya Drum for set design. The vocal coach was Duke theater studies alum Madeleine Lambert.

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.

Read more of Kevin's observations on directing "An Iliad."

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:      



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