|photo courtesy of the Masqueraders
The Masqueraders play Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth. From left: James Flynn (MacDuff), Matt Cruser (Porter) and Sean Bingham (Lennox).
For future officers, theater isn’t just about putting on a good show; It’s also about developing skills that help make good officers
by Beverly Hill van Joolen with Carrie Steele
Senior midshipman James Flynn aspires to graduate to a U.S. Navy cruiser. Yet Flynn stripped down to skins last November in the role of the avenging MacDuff in Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. Standing-room-only audiences — officers who hold the key to his future as well as dozens of his starched classmates — saw him bring down the murderous tyrant.
“Working on Macbeth was an amazing experience,” says Flynn, who was lean and fierce as the vengeful nobleman. “Being a naval officer and being artistic are not mutually exclusive activities.”
Flynn is one of some 40 Masquerading Midshipmen who devote spare time to the dramatic muses Melpomene and Thalia, writing, setting, lighting, acting, directing and producing plays.
Fiercer still as a lady unbecoming an officer was senior Stephanie Hoffman playing Lady Macbeth.
“Stephanie’s embodiment of Lady Macbeth made her character very appealing to audiences, but at the same time, evoked the villainy of the role,” said Christy Stanlake, the Masqueraders’ faculty advisor. “Our Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had an amazing chemistry together.”
On the brink of graduation, the Mid who vanquished Macbeth is celebrating another theatrical victory, this one a triumph of comedy.
On April Fools Day, Flynn’s 2004 one-act play, The Diggers, was staged in the annual showcasing of the best Midshipman-written play of the previous year. Flynn calls The Diggers a “poke-fun-at-everyone comedy” with four idealistic American communists selling their T-shirt and bumper sticker company to Disney. Its combination of zealotry and greed backfiring into social awareness is, the playwright says, “an all-in-good-fun look at bumper-sticker ideology and a chance to laugh at ourselves for engaging in it.”
The Diggers claimed the 2004 Jasperson Award, named for Michael Jasperson, an English professor and former Masqueraders advisor, to honor the script with the greatest depth of theme, characterization, dialogue, dramatic convention, plot and literary merit.
Then over Earth Day weekend, Flynn directed his most recent comedy and Jasperson runner-up this year, Automaton, in the Masqueraders’ annual One-Act Festival, alongside other student-led plays by masters Tennessee Williams and Woody Allen.
|photo courtesy of the Masqueraders
Stephanie Hoffman’s embodiment of Lady Macbeth made her character appealing to audiences … but evoked the villainy of the role.
A Year in the Life
Masqueraders in the U.S. Naval Academy’s theatrical troupe must balance time, new experiences and attention to detail with the precision of a uniformed drill.
The theatrical year begins with the Academy’s big November production, directed by Christy Stanlake, who is a third-year Academy English professor as well as advisor to the Masqueraders. For MacBeth last November, she worked with designer Richard Montgomery, an Annapolitan who has designed sets and costumes for the BBC, PBS and National Geographic. On that production, students get their grounding. Over winter, some Masqueraders take on another dramatic role as playwrights.
Come April, Stanlake steps back and students take over. Masqueraders choose the one-acts they produce as well as casting, staging, promoting and directing the Jasperson winner and One-Act Festival on their own.
“She’s very empowering,” says Flynn.
Joel Godfrey, who worked with Stanlake as stage manager for Macbeth, agrees. “She gives us just enough but not too much help, so we learn to trust our instincts.”
Stanlake also wants students to explore all the roles off the stage that make theater both possible and wonderful.
“Theatre is not all about being on the stage,” says Stanlake, whose pet project is training plebes, as Academy freshmen are called, and youngsters, the sophomores, in light, sound and set design. “There’s a whole world of creative opportunity in the theatre.”
Guidance and wisdom also comes from past Masqueraders.
Midshipmen look to Lieutenant Trey Brown for help in navigating permissions for release from their usual duties — which include a daily schedule of classes from 7am to midnight, drill and parade formations, parade rehearsals and choices of over 90 other activities that are club sports, extracurricular activities and brigade support activities. Brown is the Masqueraders’ military advisor, as well as an Academy graduate and helicopter pilot. Also a playwright and past winner of the Jasperson award, he was a judge for this year’s five entries, which ranged from drama to comedy to romance. “This year’s scripts were all terrific,” Brown says. “The variety was impressive, and the plays were extremely well written.”
The Jasperson judges — the three elected club officers, Brown, Stanlake; along with another faculty member, assistant professor Jason Schafer, and one student from general student body, David Smestuen — reviewed the submissions, ranking first through last and noting strong and weak points of all plays.
Brown is on the judging side of the competition now, but he remembers preparing for the production of his winning play nine years ago as “one of the most meaningful experiences of my Academy career.”
From Director to Officer
The mids aren’t trying to make it on Broadway, but their training and time with Masqueraders still counts.
Trey Brown explained that writing, directing, then turning the play over to the technical crew and actors for production put him in a vulnerable but exhilarating position. Letting loose his project gave him a taste of what life as an operational officer would be like.
“As military officers,” Brown says, “we often design a plan of action then turn it over to our highly trained and competent staff to execute. In a way, I did just that when I staged my play.”
Thus Masqueraders is about more than putting on a good show. It’s also about developing skills that help make good officers.
“The foundation of leadership is knowing and relating to people,” Brown says. Acting requires an actor not only to explore what motivates a character, but also, Brown says, to understand the “moral and ethical implications of the relationships and situations in the play. Our Masqueraders will be successful as junior officers because of this exploration.”
Coordinating the theatre troupe with Brown and Stanlake are a staff of three midshipmen. President Joel Godfrey, secretary Brandr Beekman-Ellner, and treasurer Cassidy Rasmussen collaborate on organizing play selection, recruiting crews and scheduling as well as working in the productions.
Godfrey stage-managed Macbeth, then produced the one-act plays. “Each job in theatre, from acting to directing, has a practical application to it,” the senior said.
Next year’s Masqueraders will begin the cycle again with a staged reading of Eric Cummins’ play fRagility, which was this year’s Jasperson award winner. “The play uses a complex plot, well-developed characters, engaging plot conventions and original music to investigate the struggle of a young man attempting to escape both his home town of Las Vegas and his memories of an alcoholic father,” Stanlake said.
But before the Jasperson winner takes the stage, the Masquerader’s fall show will bring Navy theater full circle with The Belle’s Stratagem, by Hanna Cowley. Written in 1780, the play is a comedy of manners and a satire of the fashionable 18th century high society.
For both of these upcoming productions, Masqueraders will follow in Brown’s footsteps as they carve time for theater in their lives as Navy Midshipmen.
“The students don’t find time to excel both academically and creatively,” Stanlake says. “They make time.”