Professor Chris Mangels and College of the Sequioas Theatre Arts Department
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For the Love of ArtMarch 2016
By Jordan Venema
An irony about theatre, though every play and musical is a kind of an onstage pageant, is it needs neither stage nor pageantry to be done well. Still, we judge books by their covers, and the biggest-budget productions can become blockbusters from hype alone, before a critic could ever convince us otherwise. But good theatre, real theatre, can happen spontaneously anywhere – in an alley, on the street, dressed down, without all that pomp and circumstance. And that performance could be the greatest theatre you’d ever see.
“The arts” suffer from a sort of stigma, which is evident in the dismantling of creative departments across the country, and the pressure put on students to pursue more practical educations. So with a bias already against it, some unwittingly overlook good art, and especially theatre, even when it’s staring them in the face. If it’s not hanging on a wall in the National Museum or performing onstage off Broadway, it probably didn’t get a fair shake.
College of the Sequoias Professor of Theatre Chris Mangels recognizes the prejudice against the arts, as well as against kids becoming artists, though that hasn’t stopped Mangels and department faculty from cultivating a conservatory atmosphere as well as producing high-caliber performances. This semester alone, the department will stage three performances: The musical The King and I, and plays Sylvia and Animal Farm.
The King and I (March 11-20) represents “the first time we’ve done one of the golden age musicals, I think, in 12 years,” says Mangels, who expects the other performances to push audience’s expectations. Sylvia (April 8-10) is a family story told through the eyes of the household dog, Sylvia, and will “be produced, directed, designed, and acted by the Artistic Company, which is our core student body.”
The third play, Animal Farm (April 22-30), is a product of the “experimental theatre ensemble,” which challenges traditional interpretations with reimagined direction and perspective. “It’s always fairly out-there stuff,” Mangels says with a chuckle, admitting their interpretation of Animal Farm will be the kind of theatre you’d expect to find in New York.
Considering the quality of the theatre, prices for tickets come at a bargain, but if you doubted COS Theatre Arts Department’s performances were worth the ticket, just look at its other productions – its students. That the program has exported students to some of the most prestigious and competitive conservatories in the country, as well as internationally, is the proof in the pudding. Danielle Behrens, a current cast member of the Broadway national tour of The Wizard of Oz, graduated from Marymount Manhattan, Adam Rodriguez and Cassidy Kipp both graduated from one of the nation’s top conservatories, NYU Tisch, and Sarah Gallegos is enrolled in England’s Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. Other students have attended programs at Fresno State University, UCLA and Syracuse.
Magnels doesn’t take much credit for their success. “Honestly, a lot of it comes out of the students,” Mangels says. “We’ve had a long run of really ambitious students and they were hungry, and really, if you don’t have the students to begin with, it doesn’t matter how hard you’re pushing.”
Even if his students weren’t hungry, one gets the impression that faculty would push regardless, striving to create a program with both “a level of community and accountability” for its students. Unlike most university programs, a junior college can upstage traditional prestigious programs by offering a real-world environment.
Mangels jokes that a four-year university can be something like a summer camp. “You don’t have to deal with the real world if you don’t want to,” he says, “but that’s not the case with a community college.” Not only are students closely tied to their community, as opposed to living in the campus bubble, but also often work to pay for their own tuition. Many former COS students (like Mangels himself) return to the COS program in some capacity, whether as an audience member or even actor, meaning students commonly act alongside “real” actors.
Some students might find the additional competition a nuisance, but Mangels also believes it becomes a training opportunity as they work alongside community members.
Beside the quality of its faculty and students, Mangels says the support of the COS administration has contributed to the department’s creative freedom. “We have a lot of autonomy to work on things,” says Mangels, as the department maintains financial security through fundraising and ticket sales. That autonomy translates to creative stability and credibility, which ensures that students will continue to challenge their audience – and themselves – with performances that would make many conservatories proud. That might be why these schools are accepting students from the COS Theatre Arts Department, and why you should catch their performances while you still can.
The King & I, March 11-20