Alumni News

Original dramedy ‘Stand Partners’ christens new Box Theater

May 25, 2017 : By Drew Menard/Liberty University News Service

Liberty's new Box Theater (click to expand). (Photo by Kevin Manguiob)

Liberty University’s new Box Theater will be unveiled this week as the Department of Theatre Arts showcases the winner of its inaugural playwriting competition, “Stand Partners” by Sean Gaffney. The two-person dramedy (a story that combines elements of drama and comedy) runs May 25-28, with 7:30 p.m. performances, as well as 2 p.m. matinees on May 27 and 28. (Purchase tickets online or by phone at (434) 582-SEAT (7328) during weekday business hours or at (434) 582-2085 on the night of the performance.)

Theater Department Chair Linda Nell Cooper describes the new 150-seat black box theater, located near Tower Theater in Green Hall, as a blank canvas onto which new styles of art can be brought to life by student actors.

“Now we can have different types of art forms in the two theaters,” Cooper said. “All we are able to do in the Tower is watercolor; now we can do some charcoal drawing.”

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Explaining the metaphor, Cooper said, “We can do shows that are more emotionally intense — things like murder mysteries and cabarets, where audiences wouldn’t have been able to get close enough if they were performed in the Tower Theater; it would have swallowed (those plays) up. Now we can do things that are more intimate; you can see things up close. It allows the audience to be more interactive.”

While the Tower Theater offers a stage for scale and spectacle, with traditional auditorium seating, the new 3,400-square-foot theater is completely customizable. Risers with comfortable seats can be configured in any number of ways — around all four sides of the performance, straight in front of the actors, on three sides of a production, or in the middle with the show taking place around the audience. Cooper said if a show called for it, the audience could even be at a diagonal.

The facility also features a complete tension-wire grid ceiling, which can be walked on. This feature allows multiple students to work with the lighting hands-on (rather than one-at-a-time on ladders). The space also has its own green room and dressing rooms, so it can host productions at the same time as the Tower.

Cooper said the space also allows Liberty to host “workshop productions” — new projects like “Stand Partners” that are in development and could end up on Broadway one day.

Gaffney said he is honored to debut the production at Liberty’s new Box Theater.

“I am here at a prime time,” he said.

The playwright already has a number of stage writing credits to his name, as well as television episodes (“Superbook,” “Veggie Tales”) and movies, including “In-Lawfully Yours,” which is currently on Netflix.

Scott Hayes, Sean Gaffney, and Linda Nell Cooper (Photo by David Steele)

Gaffney described “Stand Partners” as “a story that stretches a lifetime.” The play features two characters, Amy and Will, who meet as 7-year-olds in the elementary school orchestra. The story follows the lives of the two violinists into the twilight years, covering milestones, including junior high, high school, marriage, children, aging, and death.

“It is like life — there is a lot of drama, a lot of tragedy, comedy; it is all mixed in together,” Gaffney said. “It is definitely a ride — (the actors) have seconds to go from a scene of high hilarity to a scene of bone-crushing loss.”

Gaffney drew inspiration from countless personal experiences and those of his friends.

“It really is a very personal piece to me,” he said. “A lot of my own development, growth, and failings are written into the piece, into the characters. My hope for the audience in experiencing it is that it becomes personal to them, too. I hope everyone sees themselves in there, one way or another.”

'Stand Partners' actors Tatiana Harman and Matthew Brandon portray their characters at various stages of life. (Photo by Kaitlyn Becker Johnson)

He said the student actors, Matthew Brandon and Tatiana Harman, quickly “put his mind at ease,” in terms of their ability to perform the play.

“You never know what you are going to get,” he said of actors. “The two young actors are marvelous. I am excited. Tatiana lives moment-by-moment, which is a rare, mature gift among actors. It’s great to watch. She is not reciting a character; she is getting inside of a character. She is living it.”

Scott Hayes, the dean of the School of Visual & Performing Arts and the play’s director, said that although there were many worthy submissions in the competition, Gaffney’s stood out as “poignant, funny, and honest.”

“It is really about the joys and trials of a lifelong friendship, and one that explores some hard and important topics about relationships between men and women,” Hayes said. “I think every person will be able to see a bit of themselves in the characters. I’m proud to be a part of it.”

He said Liberty plans to host more professional playwriting competitions in the future.