A quick Google search will lead eager thespians to a wealth of knowledge about Stanford’s theater department — its history, upcoming performances and a seemingly endless selection of workshops, teach-ins and undergraduate programs. But the cult of students known for stalking the dark halls of performance venues on this campus is by no means limited to the confines of the department. Since Stanford’s founding, students have grouped together to create spaces in which to make their own art — each group being unique in its approach to aesthetics, purpose and performance.
The oldest (and arguably most well-known) of these organizations is, of course, Ram’s Head Theatrical Society. Since its founding in 1911, Ram’s Head has been committed to “the production of sketches, songs, musical comedies, and the like,” and has consistently put on some of the most lavish and well-attended productions in Stanford’s history. As the only group on campus that consistently encourages the production of student-written work, its annual season includes “Gaieties” (a student-written satirical musical about Stanford’s Big Game Week), the “Original Winter One Acts” (a collection of original 15-20 minute plays) and a major Broadway musical. With an average cast and crew of over 30 people, Ram’s Head’s membership looms far over that of other organizations — making it the group which offers the most opportunities for technical and artistic design in large-scale professional productions.
Another classic is Stanford’s beloved Shakespeare Company, or “Stan Shakes,” as it affectionately refers to itself. This organization wears its interests on its sleeves, but if you’ve stumbled into its midst expecting another run-of-the-mill production of some play you were forced to read sophomore year of high school, you’re in for a surprise. Stan Shakes has earned a reputation for its creative re-imagining of the old classics — from a matriarchal Lear who’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s to a version of “Much Ado About Nothing” set in the Roaring Twenties. As part of an arts-based community outreach program, Shakes has also been known to visit middle and high schools in the area and hold workshops for local students.
Another group known for its work offstage is At the Fountain Theatricals, which derives its name from the 2002 musical “Sweet Smell of Success.” Dedicated to musical theatre and performing arts education, At the Fountain holds video conferences and social events with thespians around the world, and has staged a plethora of experimental musical work, including “Violet: The Musical” (which was performed on a moving bus) and “Did We Offend You?” (a cabaret-style showcase of some of the most offensive numbers in the history of musical theater).
As one of the first alternative theater groups on campus, the Stanford Theater Laboratory (SAL) sets out to provide a “flexible artistic home” for artists here on campus, and has produced a number of shows over the past five years which have stood out for their creativity, intensity and intimate staging. While more markedly social justice-oriented in the past, SAL has produced a number of successful shows such as “Eurydice,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” and “Proof.” Run by a small, tight-knit board of directors, SAL manages to evade the bureaucratic framework of so many on-campus groups and provide a setting in which all members are encouraged to participate artistically. According to Noemi Berkowitz ‘16, ensemble director, “Lab” is unique because “absolutely anyone can propose a show for our season, and our artistic decisions are made by the ensemble as a whole.”
The Asian American Theater Project (AATP) takes its place as one of the few surviving identity-conscious collectives in Stanford’s undergraduate theater scene. Founded in 1978, AATP has been producing season after season of socially critical work, creating one of the few niches on campus in which artists from all background can be creative and still have room to explore the many questions which come along with minority representation in the arts. They have used theater as a platform to question some of our most deeply-held beliefs regarding race, gender and the intersection of cultures on stage, and have reimagined well-known works like “My Fair Lady” and “Death of a Salesman” through an an Asian/Asian-American lens.
Flying Treehouse, founded in March 2011, takes a very different approach to theater. More invested in community involvement than size and scope, Flying Treehouse does a majority of its work in elementary schools, where Stanford students conduct writing workshops with local second and third graders, who have the opportunity for their creative fiction to be selected by the group and turned into a full-scale performance. Camilla Franklin ‘17, teaching coordinator, says these shows follow “a unique structure that borrows from improv and sketch comedy,” with a small ensemble involved in every part of the process: teaching, adapting, writing, acting and directing. “We’re lucky enough to get to use the boundlessly creative ideas from our students [as] a springboard,” she says. “They are always really excited to see their writing come to life in a tangible end product.”
Taking this trend in bright, bold and unconventional theater to the next level is Stanford’s final (and newest) addition to its undergraduate arts scene: the Freeks. Known for its passion for the absurd and glorious disregard of the sterility of the Silicon Valley Experience™, the group takes on the term “thespian” in a way that’s fresh, fun and radically different from most college collectives. In the past few years alone, it has already made its mark with such ambitious shows as “Titus,” “Rhinoceros,” “Circle Mirror Transformation,” “Equus” and, most recently, a rave-inspired “Bacchae.” Its mission statement has an unmistakable anarchist flare, and emphasizes the importance of art which “accesses everyone” and is “accessible to everyone” — a feature which becomes increasingly rare in an industry so bent upon raking in ticket money and pledges of patronage.
Of the many undergraduate groups that color the canvas of Stanford’s arts scene, each has its own perspective on life, theater and what it takes to bring the two together. Their imagination and devotion to the work that they do makes it possible for us to enjoy the barrage of shows that are put on every quarter, and allows students to participate in performance-making beyond the limited opportunities provided by TAPS productions. Despite ongoing struggles to acquire funding, departmental support and performance space, these groups continue to bring a taste of the human experience to the Farm. They are not tangential to Stanford’s theatrical culture; rather, they are its heart and soul, and we will strive to ensure that they remain staples of the Stanford landscape for years to come.
Contact Madelaine Bixler at mbixler ‘at’ stanford.edu.