Commonwealth Theater, Then and Now

By Claire Jeantheau

You can find it in announcements soliloquies and the manic energy of Hancock skits. You can see it at the schoolwide Shakespeare competition, where, when not performing monologues, students hurl the Bard’s put-downs (“Thou art a plague boil!”) at each other in good fun during intermissions. You might even find it in the architecture of the building itself: alcoves that seem designed for rehearsing lines with a friend, balustrades that offer themselves for dramatic proclamations. 

Yes, Commonwealth has a theatrical spirit. And in the school’s theater department, that spirit is nurtured as students, many of whom continue their creative endeavors as alumni/ae, perform three annual productions like pro troupes. Take a seat with us as a cast of thespians, stagehands, and directors share why and how the program has endured—even in the midst of a pandemic.

An Uncommonly Ambitious Curriculum

After falling in love with theater in middle school, Gabby Farrah ’14 came to Commonwealth arts with one thing on her mind: musicals. She didn’t yet know how much her range of artistic influences would expand by the end of her first year. 

“We did mask work in Acting 1, and it was heavily influenced by commedia dell'arte [a traditional Italian popular art that utilizes masks],” Gabby remembers. “We were doing a lot of Shakespeare, which other high schools do, but then also Chekhov and works from modern drama and other traditions outside of Western theater. It was really kind of unusual, I think, for a high-school theater department.” 

Taking in the full breadth of theatrical tradition, especially global works, remains a critical part of Commonwealth’s theater program. In recent seasons, students have staged The Other Shore, an experimental show by iconoclastic Chinese writer Gao Xinjian, and Inflation Vacation, an adaptation of an Italian political farce. Commonwealth’s English and theater curricula often work in tandem, introducing students to electrifying works and the close-reading techniques needed to truly grasp them.

Kaila Pelton-Flavin ’20 recently earned a B.F.A. in acting at the University of Michigan and was involved in more than ten Commonwealth productions. “I remember how excited I was to do a Shakespeare play my senior year. I felt so ready to apply what I had learned in my English classes to a full production,” she says. “It was special to be able to go through that experience with the cast and crew, who shared my excitement at the many discoveries we were able to make through literary analysis.”  

Richard Pettengill ’72, chair of the Theater Department at Lake Forest College, feels likewise, comparing his encounter with King Lear at Commonwealth to Emily Dickinson’s feeling “as if the top of my head were taken off” upon reading good poetry. "I remember [English teacher Polly Chatfield] patiently sitting with me and talking over the play, and she helped me to realize that I had some good ideas about it," he says. His class then caught the "extraordinary" 1970 cinematic adaptation by Peter Brook: "That was my first exposure to the work of a visionary director and made me thirst for more great theater."

Opportunities abound for aspiring technical designers and stage managers, too; students regularly work with the state-of-the-art lighting and audio equipment at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center (CMAC), the frequent venue for Commonwealth performances. “My favorite experience is seeing the acting being combined with the lights, sound, and set to make an actual production,” says Danny McDonnell ’26, who spent this school year’s theatrical season delving into all aspects of stagecraft.

But the tradition that perhaps best captures the zeal and creativity of Commonwealth Theater is the senior play, where students race against the calendar to prepare a production in just three weeks, the time allotted for senior projects. When Gabby finally had her chance to do a musical as one of those senior projects, it couldn’t be just any piece. The group chose Steven Sondheim’s Company: a complex show with rapid-fire patter numbers and emotional depth. The production stretched their demographic limits, like casting Gabby’s “well-behaved, quiet” friend Rachel Tils ’15 as the jaded, acerbic Joanne, a woman in her mid-fifties. They rose to the occasion, and, Gabby thinks, “it was a lot of fun.” 

Paris Wu '24 in The Other Shore, by Gao Xinjian


No Small Parts

Whether onstage or behind it, students never take on challenging pieces alone. “I remember my first theater ritual, chanting with the seniors for The Other Shore in a dark, closed room,” says Paris Wu ’24, reflecting on pre-show warmups. Katia Nigro ’25, a dedicated stage manager, still laughs about “having fun over the headsets” with fellow crew members Jo Axel ’23 and Sienna Mathur ’24. And Gabby describes bonding with her castmates through “having a singsong and then doing weird dances and making fools of ourselves day after day.”

Where does this theatrical “ecosystem,” as Katia puts it, come from? All Commonwealth students must complete one art class—performing or visual—each year. Some, like Katia, whose mother is a playwright, enter the program raring to go. (”I was excited because I hadn't really gotten to work in a real theater before,” Katia says.) Others, “people who aren't naturally inclined to be onstage,” need some cajoling but end up staying for more, Gabby says. 

As a result, students with varying levels of theatrical experience are drawn to work together, and Commonwealth’s small size lends itself well to those interactions. “You didn't have factions as much as you would at a bigger [high] school,” Gabby adds. “You didn't have the kids that do arts and kids that do sports.” That close-knit environment also enables students to collaborate and take responsibility for every aspect of a show. “For the fall play [in 2023], we had four total people on tech, so we all had to work together in new ways that I don’t think you would find at larger schools with much larger productions,” says Danny.

Above all, students and alumni/ae alike note how Susan Thompson, who has helmed Commonwealth’s theater program since 2002, helped them fully engage with their performances and each other—promoting, in Kaila’s words, “a sort of fearlessness and willingness to try.” 

Susan frequently divides students into smaller groups “so they can really dive into the emotional world of the play,” she says, another kind of close reading. “I love using my acting classes as an opportunity to work on scenes and using assistant directors and other collaborators to help.”

When Gabby returned to Commonwealth in 2017 to be an assistant director for The Crucible, watching Susan’s encouraging interactions with students in those small-group settings left a deep impression. She currently supports new plays and writers in New York City by organizing workshops and readings, previously serving as the Robert Moss Directing Fellow at Playwrights Horizons. Gabby aspires to adapt works so people with varying levels of theatrical experience, not just professionals, can perform them. As she does so, Gabby’s “thinking about Commonwealth and how to create a community of people, actors and non-actors, around a play.”

Cast and crew members have come and gone, but they remember Commonwealth Theater and the remarkable feeling of connection—all the more remarkable, considering just how well that feeling endured during the drastic transitions of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Muhammad Abdur-Rahman '22 and cast of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 perform over Zoom


Screens and Stages

“I felt for students during the pandemic more than myself. I found it to be incredibly challenging and taxing for the students, as they were very lonely,” Susan says, recalling spring 2020. Live performances, including the storied senior play, were canceled. But the bonds students had forged in backstage warmups and tech weeks weren’t lost as easily.

During the 2020–2021 school year, Commonwealth Theater migrated to Zoom and film, opening up new and compelling ways to stage shows. That season’s fall play, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, performed in the wake of the summer’s nationwide protests for racial justice, covered the unrest following the acquittal of LAPD officers on police brutality charges two decades earlier. Adapting Twilight: Los Angeles for video added new meaning to a show centered on the recording of violent acts.  

“We know that these incidents have been happening. But now that they've been captured on camera, it’s an undeniable, shocking fact,” Susan says. “And I felt, as a school, it was really important for us to do a production that would allow us to speak to that.” Faculty joined students as actors, including Susan herself: “I found it to be very meaningful and a way to create community in the theater program and in the school.”

In addition to this Zoom-based production, students took full advantage of Commonwealth’s place in the city. In the spring, a senior project team mounted a filmed production of The Importance of Being Earnest, recording around greater Boston. When the show premiered on YouTube, the online audience could watch students having high tea on the Charles River Esplanade, dressed in Victorian period clothes (and garnering only a few confused stares from passersby). 

Despite the disorientation of the pandemic, it wasn’t an unfamiliar situation for Commonwealth Theater, where productions, historically, have had no fixed address. Richard spectated some of his first live theater performances at Commonwealth: Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets in 1971, and Plautus’s Amphytrio, a Roman comedy, in 1972. The former takes place during a taxi drivers’ strike, the latter in the ancient city of Thebes; both were brought to life in Commonwealth’s Cafegymnatorium multipurpose space. “I was struck by the simple, straightforward costumes and minimal sets of these productions,” Richard remembers, realizing that “one could make theatrical magic in the most unlikely of places.” Beyond the Cafegymnatorium, past performances have been staged at venues around Boston, including the Cambridge YMCA and the Black Box Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts. The program wouldn’t find an unofficial partner in CMAC until 2009. 

”There was a culture around going to the theater,” Gabby says. “It was fun to say, ‘Oh, we're all traveling, I’m going to get dinner in Cambridge with my castmates, and then we're going to go into rehearsal.’” While that experience was lost during the pandemic years, the sense of flexibility and community remained. 

The entire Commonwealth community enjoyed their first post-pandemic theater outing in February 2024, seeing the world premiere of Becoming a Man at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, thanks to generous support from Alison Hoppin Murchison ’79, P’10 and Bob Murchison P’10

Arjun Krishnan '24 and Margaret Hines '23 in Much Ado About Nothing

Arjun Krishnan '24 and Margaret Hines '23 in Much Ado About Nothing


The Show Goes On

The long-awaited return of live theater came in fall 2021 with The Other Shore, which merged live acting with the video techniques that Susan and students had honed while classes were virtual. Using a projector, edited clips of students in eerie costumes looped in the background during live sequences set in the land of the dead. Precautions remained in place during classes at Commonwealth as well as arts performances, according to Katia, so it wasn’t an immediate return to normalcy. “We had to take a test before tech week began, where we would be together almost all hours of the day and into the night, and every day when we got home,” she says. 

There were shocks, too. In spring 2022, several cast members for Much Ado About Nothing tested positive for COVID before final rehearsals, leading to last-minute role reversals. One actor, who suddenly needed to play two characters, was set to appear in consecutive scenes with no time for a costume change. “[The student] was just in a dress with a coat thrown over it with the script in hand,” Susan recalls. “But those kind of things remind us of why we're doing theater.… The actors have to continue on with whatever that day, that moment, that evening gives them.” Katia, who assistant stage managed the show, adds, “Students stepped up, even one that was not in the production to begin with, and performed beautifully.”

After a pandemic dip, theater enrollment numbers are rising again. Following years of Zoom-based social interactions, the intimacy necessary for performance can feel intimidating. “We do some exercises where you do have to look each other in the eye and you become very aware of how very odd that feels,” Susan notes—touching on a broader issue of digital distractions. “We have our phones now to protect us. Even when someone’s coming down the street, we can always look at our phone.” 

Paris credits theater with helping him relearn the ropes of face-to-face social interactions following the pandemic. As the stage manager for Inflation Vacation in fall 2022, he shared candy and pre-rehearsal basketball sessions with new sophomores—the same ways that a group of older students once welcomed him into theater. “Commonwealth actors are never gone, even after they have left to pursue dreams beyond high school,” he observes. “They are there in the basketball hoop, in the gummy bears, in the homemade gluten-free cookies, on the balcony, and of course, with us in our cultish rituals.” 

But alumni/ae aren’t only present in spirit: Susan continues to invite them back to share their talents and collaborate with current students. “As an older artist, I do like to look at the talent of young alums and younger artists around me and try to bring them into the process, both as mentors for our students and so that they can see paths in the arts,” Susan explains. For the 2023 senior play, TEA, a sendup of comedies of manners, M Berry ’15 returned to assist with lighting design. And that fall’s production, Boundless as the Sea, was adapted from a series of short works on love and loss composed by Ellie Laabs ’17 for a senior project. 

Building social connections helps students new to theater feel more comfortable taking risks. ”Since the pandemic, what I have noticed is that the stakes seem higher to the students,” Susan observes—particularly sophomores, who can feel a sense of trepidation during their first year without the pass/fail grading system. To give as many actors experience as possible in a madcap staging of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors this spring, she doubled the play’s twin plot to make the leads quadruplets. “We had a much bigger list of participating students this year, and even so, there was still that sense of closeness I had experienced the previous year,” Katia says.

“I say to my students, we don't yet know how much you've learned from this experience,” Susan reflects. “I think that there might be some skills and some tools that people have developed through enduring the pandemic.” Students can count a network of fellow artists and friends among those new gifts, joining those who have tread the boards—and Cafegymnatorium linoleum—before them.

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