Meet the Duke Seniors Behind Theater Studies’ Mainstage Production of Medea

If you are lucky enough to hear seniors Ash Jeffers and María Zurita Ontiveros talk about theater, you will immediately understand that it is an artistic practice they hold in high esteem. Their candor on the subject is heartfelt and earnest, revealing precisely how integral theater is to their identities.

And though their paths to this point—majoring in Theater Studies and leading the department’s spring mainstage production of Medea—were not always straightforward, it’s clear that Jeffers and Zurita Ontiveros have made a remarkable home for themselves in the arts at Duke.

Finding a Home in Theater

Ash Jeffers ’21. All photos by Robert Zimmerman.

Jeffers, who also majors in English and minors in creative writing, discovered theater in high school, where they were a part of their theater program’s technical team. Like many of their peers in the arts, they came to Duke thinking they would major in the social sciences and engage with their artistic interests outside of the classroom. But over winter break of their first year, they came across a job opening in the theater department’s scene shop and decided to seize the opportunity.

“At first I thought it would just be something fun to do on the side, but then I fell in love with the work, the atmosphere—all of it,” Jeffers said. “The people in theater studies at Duke are so amazing and supportive. It was really a moment where I found my home base.”

Jeffers dove head first into theater classes and productions and has become a jack of all trades behind the curtain, working in carpentry, lighting, scene and costume design, and more. “The process of creating something out of thin air from a concept really stuck with me,” Jeffers said.

“Ash had expressed interest in designing the mainstage a couple years ago. Over the last two years, they have worked incredibly hard to ready themselves for this challenge, doing summer independent studies, working in the scene and costume shops, and taking courses at UNC that were not available at Duke. Their intelligence, knack for theater technology, and love of design made me certain they were up for the challenge of taking on the design process from conception to completion.” —Torry Bend, associate professor of the practice of Theater Studies

María Zurita Ontiveros ’21.

Zurita Ontiveros’s involvement in theater before coming to college was considerably different. Back home in Mexico City, her middle and high schools didn’t have formal theater programs, nor the funding required to purchase rights to plays and produce elaborate sets. Instead, she and a handful of her friends banded together to make their own program, writing original plays and putting them on for each other.

“Throughout my life, I always felt completely inadequate whenever I tried to do any type of art,” said Zurita Ontiveros, who also minors in German. “But when I started doing theater, everything opened up for me. I found myself. Finally, I had an opportunity to make my ideas happen.”

During her first semester at Duke, Zurita Ontiveros acted in a departmental show, and from there, it was as if she was swept up in a “hurricane”—she abandoned any pretense of majoring in biology and fully devoted herself to theater, participating in multiple plays per semester.

Jeffers and Zurita Ontiveros’s seemingly parallel paths finally intersected during their sophomore year, on set of Hoof ‘n’ Horn’s In the Heights production. The student group had tapped Zurita Ontiveros to be the musical’s director and Jeffers to be the technical director.

“We started working together more and more as the show progressed, always bouncing ideas off of each other,” Jeffers said. “We developed a really good working relationship during that time.”

Both students on the set of “Medea.”

Making Medea

Naturally, the pair decided to work on a senior distinction project together: a production of Medea, an ancient Greek tragedy written by Euripides. The plot centers on Medea’s desire for revenge against her unfaithful husband and the extreme measures she takes to satisfy it. Zurita Ontiveros was drawn to the play after learning that a common Latin American folk tale, La Llorona, draws inspiration from Medea.

When the pandemic shut down Duke’s campus in March 2020, Jeffers and Zurita Ontiveros feared their production would have to be scrapped. But a silver lining peeked through the clouds: After rearranging their mainstage schedule to accommodate for COVID-19-related restrictions, the department contacted the students and asked them to fill a gap in the calendar with Medea. And so, for the first time, two students found themselves at the helm of a mainstage production—during a pandemic, no less.

“María is an outstanding young director who has worked extensively in theater here at Duke, excelling in classes and behind the scenes in many capacities beyond directing.  In addition, she has studied abroad in Berlin and at the prestigious Theatermakers summer intensive at the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Brilliantly imaginative and a gifted reader, she is eminently qualified— artistically, academically, and in terms of her personal maturity—to pursue this project for which she has had long-standing passion and drive.” —Jody McAuliffe, professor of the practice of Theater Studies

In spite of the myriad challenges COVID-19 poses to the performing arts, Jeffers and Zurita Ontiveros took the experience of planning a production over Zoom in stride, figuring out creative ways to design sets and direct actors from the confines of their screens.

“The fact that our sound designer is currently in a completely different state and won’t make it to Duke for the show, but is still able to work on Medea, is a testament to how, as a theater community, we adapt,” Zurita Ontiveros said.

More than anything, a passion for inclusion and accessibility underpins both students’ relationship to theater. They each emphasized the importance of placing centerstage stories and characters that fall outside of the bounds of what is traditionally considered “the norm,” an effort that their production of Medea hopes to achieve.

“Ultimately, we bear the responsibility of building a new culture.”—Ash Jeffers

“When María and I were on the Theater Studies department’s play selection committee, we really tried to push for plays where the people being spoken about are given stories that are accurate to their experiences,” Jeffers said. “Ultimately, we bear the responsibility of building a new culture.”

“Through the power of telling our own stories, theater can help us heal,” Zurita Ontiveros added. “The most powerful experience I’ve ever had in theater was watching In the Heights and hearing my first language and seeing people that looked like me on stage. It’s a transformative experience.”

Nina Wilder is a 2020 Duke English graduate from Raleigh, N.C. and this year’s arts administration fellow at Duke Arts. As a student, Nina was the editor of The Chronicle’s arts & culture section, Recess.

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