Spectrum Theatre Seeks Inclusive Casts, Thought-Provoking Productions

Despite a committed group of leaders early on, including 2008 University of Virginia alums Sasheer Zamata, a new addition to the “Saturday Night Live” cast, and Jonathan Green, founder of Sideshow Theatre Company in Chicago, Spectrum Theatre, a student-run independent theater group with a reputation for producing thought-provoking dramas, faced an uncertain future last spring.

Like many student organizations, it had been guided by strong leaders, many of whom had graduated. The change in leadership provided the theater with a two options: dissipate, or rise to new heights with fresh faces. Spectrum’s executive producer, Lauren Lukow, chose the latter.  

Lukow, a fourth-year interdisciplinary arts administration and media studies major, reached out to fellow fourth-year arts administration distinguished major Stephanie LeBolt, who had been distant from Spectrum since her role as choreographer for their 2012 production, “Avenue Q.”

While continuing to stage Spectrum’s annual productions, “Vagina Monologues” and “Voices of the Class,” Lukow and LeBolt set out to “to reinvigorate the organization with a clearer mission and identity, as well, new program offerings,” Lukow said.

“We’ve worked incredibly hard to develop a brand and an identity for Spectrum, one that’s defined by who we are, not by what we’re not,” said LeBolt, who serves as Spectrum’s artistic director.

George Sampson, a lecturer in arts administration in the School of Architecture and instructor to both Lukow and LeBolt, considers this year’s rebirth to be the result of the leadership of the two.

“[Spectrum has] bonded together more tightly than before, created a community of audience and participants who care about Spectrum and who have learned lessons they will apply to post-graduate life experiences ever afterward,” he said.

Under Lukow and LeBolt’s leadership, Spectrum’s all-student executive board invited 12 students to take leadership positions. By establishing administrative practices, LeBolt and Lukow have created a more stable model for success while leaving room for the creative flexibility that allows Spectrum to thrive.

Although Spectrum may have been traveling on uneven ground prior to its rebirth, its graduates were not.

Green, in fact, provided LeBolt with insight into what had been an ongoing struggle to keep Spectrum alive. “[He said] that the organization had also almost collapsed during his time as an undergraduate. The funny thing, he said, is that despite the many challenges that it’s had over its history, it’s continued to survive,” she said.

“To me, this speaks to the need for Spectrum in the U.Va. community. We will always need an organization willing to take on the risk of doing new and different material and Spectrum’s tenacity and resilience speaks to that necessity.”

Many students who are not arts majors find a home with Spectrum, which opens all roles, from performance to production, to the entire U.Va. community.

Spectrum’s annual “Vagina Monologues” production is an example of the theater’s academic diversity. This year’s cast followed the traditional “Vagina Monologues” goal of including women (and for the first time this year a man) from all over the world and all walks of life. The cast included College of Arts & Sciences students majoring in English, environmental sciences, politics and religious studies. In addition, an architecture school student performed.

“At its heart, [Spectrum] is about inclusion and diversity, and I think that’s essential to the U.Va. arts community,” LeBolt said.

Spectrum’s mission does not end at academic diversity, though, but emphasizes a desire to challenge the community through “high quality and excellence, innovation and creativity, and social relevance and community outreach,” Lukow said.

LeBolt said she believes art should challenge its audience to question their biases and the way they see the world. Spectrum’s upcoming production, “The Arabian Nights,” especially accomplishes that mission, she said.

“‘The Arabian Nights’ asks us to consider the place of cultural diversity in our everyday lives and the way forward for cultural heritage in places like Baghdad,” LeBolt said.

“The Arabian Nights,” a modern adaptation of the ancient Persian tales “One Thousand and One Nights,” runs April 3 through 5 at 8 p.m. in the Student Activities Building.

Spectrum’s productions aim to provide the audience with more than just an occupied hour or pure entertainment; they push the audience to leave “surprised, challenged and touched,” LeBolt said.

“We want audience members to enjoy and be entertained by our productions, but also to think carefully and critically about the subject matter after they leave the auditorium,” Lukow said. “I firmly believe that art begins with its audience.”

“[The] University has had a robust tradition of independently student-produced artistic enterprises – a cappella groups, improv ensembles, etcetera,” drama professor Richard Warner said. Yet, unlike other performing and musical arts groups at U.Va., Spectrum has the capability to push the creative envelope because it is not tied to a niche form of entertainment. Spectrum provides a variety of outlets for creative expression, inviting production proposals at the beginning of each academic year.

“Spectrum has certainly proven itself as an established and thriving student theatrical enterprise,” Warner said.

Most recently, Spectrum partnered with Sustained Dialogue to present a series of dramatic staged readings titled “Breaking Grounds.” Sustained Dialogue brings together students at U.Va. to discuss important topics that impact the University community.

“The reading series really gets to the heart of our mission – it provokes, it challenges, it asks the tough questions, and it offers low time commitments for some great actors and directors. We also intentionally keep each reading free to try and make them as accessible as possible,” LeBolt said.

The first performance this semester, “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit,” was as exciting for the performer as it was for the audience.

Graduate student Mike Long was asked to perform a cold read of the play on the opening night of the series. Unknowingly, he had committed to the gamble of possibly drinking liquid poison as part of the play’s conclusion. Audience members were asked to leave while he waited for uncertain death. 

While Long was the star, audience members were invited to participate, often not knowing what their participation would entail, but always providing a good laugh. Comic relief broke up the thought-provoking moments that the play provided, yet audience members still left the play not knowing whether Long would survive the night.

In typical Spectrum Theatre fashion, the performance is not the highlight, but rather the private and public discussions that are sparked as a result.

“What’s really important are the conversations we host following each performance with Sustained Dialogue,” Lukow said. “That’s where the real discoveries are made and the real magic happens.”

The semester’s final production, “God of Carnage,” is scheduled for April 13 at 7 p.m. at Para Coffee on the Corner.

While new opportunities add an element of uniqueness to the Spectrum Theatre’s schedule, the group remains dedicated to its annual productions, which include “Voices of the Class.”

Each fall, Spectrum performs a sketch variety show based on the incoming first-year students’ admissions essays. The essays are acted out as a part of life at U.Va.

Such performances provide real-life experiences that are crucial to developing the classroom experience, Sampson said.

“[Spectrum productions allow] classes to have a more intelligent, deeper and empathic dialogue between arts managers, audience members and the greater community of U.Va.,” Sampson said.

Warner concurs. “The techniques we practice in class need to be employed in ‘real-life’ public performance,” he said. “An actor can do this in a variety of different ways, but the best way is to either create one’s own work or create a place, a home, where serious, sophisticated work can be explored and presented. That’s exactly what Spectrum Theater has done for many years now.”

As Lukow and LeBolt prepare to graduate in May, they hope they are leaving the theater on firmer footing.

Others on Grounds want the show to go on, too. “My hope is that the baton can be passed to a next generation, who will continue to create provocative and important student-driven work,” Warner said.

Media Contact

Robert Hull

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications