Over the course of the two weeks in which the play was staged, seven ACS professors taught the script and brought over 200 students to see the performance. The students then held a reception with famous playwright and writer of “Muswell Hill,” Torben Betts, in the President’s Lounge on Feb. 20.
“Muswell Hill” is the story of six “connected” people in a posh London suburb. It is 2010, and as a devastating earthquake strikes Haiti leaving 100,000 dead and two million homeless, the news explodes on Facebook, Twitter and across other Internet forums.
Meanwhile, the six people across the pond grapple over the difference between “doing one’s best” and “doing what’s best to do.” Torben Betts uses tart wit to skewer contemporary communication, weighing the promises and limitations of technology and exploring what it means to be human in a dehumanizing age.
For almost a decade the Learning Communities have had a partnership with the faculty at Vasey Theatre to provide a singular experience with one of the plays that is performed at Vasey each year.
“Typically, the students in the first-year Learning Communities, along with their ACS professors, attend a play which corresponds with the theme of the course, such as Michael Hollinger’s ‘Incorruptibles and the Middle Ages,’ or sometimes directly with an ACS text such as a Shakespeare play,” Nancy Kelley said. “This year when the ACS faculty who teach the Learning Communities reviewed the options for Vasey productions, we selected ‘Muswell Hill’ as the play we would not only attend, but actually teach to our students in connection with the theme of ‘Modernity.’”
Freshman Robert Bunting described the opportunity of reading the play, seeing the staging of “Muswell Hill” and meeting Torben Betts as “experiencing the perfect storm, the trifecta of dramatic experience.”
“We found the issues in the play concerning what makes us really happy, how we adequately respond to global disasters, how we relate to our friends and family, and the presence of technology in our lives critical questions for our ACS students,” Kelley said.
The students also had the opportunity to act out certain scenes of the play when the director and dramaturg visited the ACS classes.
In reading and acting out the play, the students were able to experience the steps that actors go through to perfect every aspect of their theatrical performance.
Each ACS class also discussed the central questions that were presented in the play. What should people do with their time on earth? Is it acceptable to just be an ordinary person? Should you work because you want to or for money? Is it wrong to close your eyes to the atrocities that happen in the world because you are a member of civilized society?
“In reading the play, we were able to address these questions ourselves, and discuss them in class,” Bunting said. “In seeing the play, we were able to see how others address the questions, and in meeting Torben Betts we were able to gain a full understanding of the thoughts and themes that he wanted the audience to experience by asking these questions.”
According to actor Ahren Potratz, who portrayed the character of Mat in “Muswell Hill,” the play explores the conflicts between extreme poverty and extreme wealth and how these two worlds speak to each other.
The news of the devastatingly destructive earthquake in Haiti reaches the characters in England through social media and technology and sparks a debate between Jess, a successful accountant, and Simon, a social outcast who plays the role of the “truth teller” in the production.
These two characters’ conversation on the dissonance between the wealthy people who can fix the problem and those who want to actually go and help was a point of contention in many ACS classes, especially in light of our tech-savvy society.
“One of the dialogues which struck a strong chord with my students was the exchange between Jess and Simon over the difference between ‘doing one’s best’ and ‘doing what’s best to do,’” Kelley said. “Of course, we all saw ourselves in the relentless texting and multi-tasking of the characters.”
“Simon says that just ‘throwing money’ at a catastrophe is not enough,” Potratz said. “Because of technology, we see these catastrophes happening and we have a moral imperative to help. The play is also about examining yourself in the digital age and whether you use technology for good or for bad.”
Several of Kelley’s students explored this theme by designing Facebook pages for the characters in the play, helping them to examine the characters in greater depth by deciding what their daily posts would say or what pages they would “like.”
“The thought-provoking play transcends everyday thinking and begs the questions of the audience as to whether or not we are really living to our fullest potential,” Bunting said. “After all, is it really so bad to be an ordinary person? The only way to be truly happy is to live up to that ever-ascending potential, and the only thing that really keeps the world going round year after year, century after century, is ordinary people doing what’s best, the best they can.”