Whitworth Theatre takes on a challenge with "The Elephant Man"

Jordan Coleman

Staff Writer

Whitworth Theatre performed its fall production,“The Elephant Man” on Oct. 13, 14 and 15, and will continue performing on Oct. 20, 21 and 22nd. The play is based on a true story about a man named Joseph Merrick who experienced a harsh life with several body deformities. Merrick lived as a sideshow attraction to make a living, not experiencing a normal lifestyle. Throughout the depiction of Merrick’s life, the play does not reflect the conventional techniques and aspects one finds at a common production, according to the production team.

“I think Whitworth is really good about putting on a variety of shows,” senior stage manager Amanda Sheller said. “Last year we did “Music Man” and “Go Dog Go!,” which are different from “Elephant Man” because where those two shows were very bright, light and cheery, “Elephant Man” is much more serious and it takes place in 19th century London, and everyone is really put together.”

Along with the difference in the tone of the production, strategies  were used to affect the setting and stage effects, enhancing the overall message.

The stage was set at a six-degree angle, tilted downwards, rather than a traditional flat stage. This reflected the distorted nature of the production. The other difference was that the cast remained on the stage for the entire show even when they were not part of a scene to demonstrate the metaphor of Merrick constantly being on display throughout his life, Sheller said.

The production reflected differences from other plays as there was less use of makeup and external objects when creating the characters’ personalities.

“Connor Hughes is playing Merrick and it’s a beast of a role because we don’t show Merrick’s deformities through makeup, it’s solely through the way Connor manipulates his body,” Sheller said.

Hughes, a junior, portrayed Merrick’s physical deformities by scrunching his face and contorting the shape of his mouth, hunching his back, sticking out his left hip and keeping his right arm bent by his side, folding his hand into a fist. He slowly walked with a cane and demonstrated a lack of balance as he leaned most of his weight on his right leg.

It was physically painful for Hughes to play the role of Merrick, he said. “I’m nervous that I’m doing permanent damage to my body with this role… and after shows I have to stretch out a lot and it hurts.”

Some actors partake in a longer mental process when preparing to play a character.

“My thoughts right before I go on stage aren't actually my own,” freshman Steven Dunn said. “Since I am in the opening scene, I am getting as into character as possible. I am a method and immersion actor, so getting into character is intensely important to me.”

Dunn played the character of Frederick Treves, the doctor who tried to save Merrick from his lifestyle filled with vulnerability and exposure with being an attraction.

“I love the dynamic nature of Treves and the fact that he develops immensely as a character during the course of the play,” Dunn said. “I also like that he has a total emotional breakdown.”

With the long preparation process, the actors and production team felt that the play was a success.

“I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done as the cast and the crew,” Hughes said. “The costumes are amazing, the cast is amazing, the set is amazing, the sound and the lights. It’s just been really awesome working with everyone.”

Sheller admires the range of people who participated in the production including new additions of freshmen and transfer students.

“It’s been a blessing,” she said.

Some actors were new to the process of being in a production at Whitworth, taking in the value of the factors that were involved in producing a play such as this one.

“It has been an incredible learning experience and I am very grateful to have been a part of it. I hope we can make something beautiful happen,” Dunn said.

Audience members reflected a positive response to “The Elephant Man.” Senior Ethan Clardy voiced his appreciation for the costumes, the set and the characters themselves including their personalities and impressive accents.

“I love going to plays and different types of theater performances,” Clardy said. “‘Elephant Man’ definitely lived up to those expectations. I saw it the first time the day it opened, and then after seeing it the first time, I looked more into it. Then going the second time, it was interesting seeing things that I didn’t notice before the first time.”

Members of Whitworth Theatre including Sheller and Hughes were proud to present “The Elephant Man” to the community, as they saw the message to be meaningful in several ways.

“It’s how to act with compassion in the face of inhumanity because that's really what happens to [Merrick],” Sheller said. “His humanity is stripped from him and he gets that back, which is really beautiful.”

Sheller, Hughes and Dunn all said that they were proud to work with “The Elephant Man” team and share the experience.

“Personally, I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with the people that we have had on this team for the show because at the end of the show it’s about people,” Sheller said. “That’s what theater is for. We do it for the people, we do it for the audience and we do it for the community.”

As the stage turned to black and the closing music began to play, the cast made their way to the front of the stage. The crowd stood up and congratulated them for their performance, whistles and cheers echoing within the auditorium.

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