Why I Made It: TEA

By Jo Axel ’23, Margaret Hines ’23, Kerem Pauwels ’23, and Avery Selk ’23

It all started the summer before our senior year: we had finished working on the previous senior play, joining as juniors since there weren’t enough seniors to fill the roles. Inspired to take initiative and make our own production for March Break 2023, we began drafting ideas (for example, a production of The Princess Bride). Our main goal was to find characters we personally would like to play, either because we hadn’t played parts like them before or because we thought we would enjoy them.

A secondary goal naturally emerged from that: we wanted to see ourselves represented in the characters and themes of the story. With the deadline for choosing a script approaching, we decided to write our own—preferable because we were discontented with other options, feasible because many of us had creative-writing experience, and convenient because we wanted to avoid the trouble of copyright. We ended up revisiting the script of a short film Margaret created with a group of friends in the summer of 2020. Excited about its Jane Austen–esque family-dynamics humor and Oscar Wildeian social shenanigans, we set out to adapt TEA (2020) for the stage. The plot quickly evolved: an oblivious mother attempts to match her son, who intends to tell her about his engagement to a young Lord, with a completely uninterested female suitor. Through the process of many light-hearted Zoom meetings and inside jokes, we ended up writing an entirely new script that featured our own twists on characters from the original screenplay, still full of literary and historical references, many of which were informed by our education at Commonwealth.

With TEA we finally had the perfect building ground to create characters that truly complemented the corresponding actor. Theater is typically associated with auditioning for a role, convincing a director that you’re the best at pretending to be someone or something that you’re not. Yet, one of the teachings of nonbinary acting methods (furthered by Boston actors such as Tufts’ Jo Michael Rezes) is that the actor doesn’t leave themself behind when slipping into a role: who they are offstage empowers and is reflected in who they are onstage. That philosophy is  something TEA very much reflects.

While theater has a long history of playing with gender, the roots of the practice in Western culture often but not always stem from excluding female actors or replicating socially appropriate depictions of gender and age demographics—for instance, an older actress cast as a young boy or a young male actor cast as a woman. When queerness is explicit in theater, the themes can be dark, often containing important messaging but missing the escapism that drew so many—including, famously, a large number of queer people—to the medium in the first place. TEA strove to play with gender in a joyful and binary-breaking way, portraying different historical perspectives on sexuality and marriage, with plenty of cross-gender casting, and proudly displaying an elderly English woman with glorious facial hair.

Full creative control was an exciting and enticing concept for us and a fully collaborative process. Everyone played a part in design and aesthetics, from set and prop placement to costuming to hair and makeup. As we were premiering this play, we had no basis for what it should look and sound like outside of our own imaginations, vibrant and detailed as they were. There was something notably different about creating in the real world, beholden to its limitations. Every prop involved a conversation, every costume piece had to balance feasibility and historical  realism, and the set was an exercise in a dream becoming a reality in lots of small ways. We found a paisley lavender vest for one specific joke, and we made it through the whole production without breaking our thrifted tea set, arguably one of the more important aspects of an “afternoon tea” set. For the handwritten letters, our tech team wrote out several versions and then actors had to rate their legibility—we had to call in reinforcements for the cursive. We could never quite decide where the piano should go, exactly, but as long as the actors had space to walk beside it, we were content with “in the corner over there.”

It was a lovely thing, to create a world of our very own.

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