The Middlebury Campus

Boston-based theatre troupe acts on imagination Alumni-founded Whistler in the Dark hums a lively tune, and critics are listening

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Justine Katzenbach

There is something positively wonderful about a night spent at the Hepburn Zoo. As students cram into corners of Middlebury College’s own student-run black box theatre, they struggle for a view of the stage where their peers perform but a few feet in front of them. It is in these moments that a revelation dawns on all of us – so this is what makes college great. But, as the Vermont leaves change and the seasons turn, so does our time at college, and the performances that students endlessly churn out during their time here seem to get lost in the mix – somewhere after graduation, when the thought of the “real world” comes barreling down. Fortunately, as various alums have demonstrated, creative work done by Middlebury College’s own student artists does not necessarily cease after graduation.

Meet Ben Fainstein ’04 and Meg Taintor ’01, both graduates of the College Theatre department and joint founders of the Boston based theatre company, Whistler in the Dark. The company, comprised almost entirely of Middlebury College alumni, took form in the summer of 2004 while Fainstein and Taintor worked on a production for the Potomac Theatre Project (PTP) in Washington, D.C.

It all began with a conversation one evening after a performance at PTP. The two young actors were discussing their visions of theatre as an artistic medium when they came up with the driving idea behind Whistler in the Dark: “a non-profit theatre that strives to develop an ensemble of theatrical artists dedicated to producing plays that celebrate the imagination through linguistic acrobatics and an awareness of the relationship between actor and audience.”

After their work in D.C. had come to a close, the two alumni moved to Boston, Ma. where they teamed up with fellow Theatre alumni Amanda Knappman ’04, Sara Garland ’02 and Lindsay Haynes ’02. The new location was a brave theatrical decision. Boston has never been much of a hotbed for the stage, as the bright lights of nearby New York City’s Broadway cast an ominous shadow over the smaller city’s theatre district. But this did not stop Fainstein and Taintor from making the nontraditional move, which ultimately has proven to be a smart decision. A notoriously young city thanks to its numerous colleges and universities, Boston has embraced this fresh and imaginative new company, which, if based elsewhere, may have faced more initial difficulties.

Taintor commented on the effects of Boston’s youthfulness as integral to Whistler in the Dark’s mission. “Young people just aren’t going to see plays anymore. People in their early twenties are working and too tired to go the theatre, so they go to the movies or the bars instead. We are interested in exploring how to get younger audiences back into the theatre,” said Taintor. “Boston has an active theatre scene, but it is still on the cusp and it has not been completely broken [in] yet. But, there are a lot of young artists and there is room for newcomers. We wanted a city where we could find a new niche and develop it.”

Since its conception, Whistler in the Dark has produced three plays out of Boston – The Possibilities by Howard Barker, In Perpetuity throughout the Universe by Eric Overmyer and its current production, All this Falling, All this Tumbling Down by Franca Rame and Dorio Fo. In addition, the company hosted a summer fringe festival that included five other companies, each granted one half-hour to, as Taintor said, “take the stage and do what they wanted with it.”

After receiving a few important rave reviews during its first season, Whistler in the Dark still strives to challenge the conventions of theatre through its work. All this Falling, All this Tumbling Down consists of a collection of Italian Marxist feminist monologues written in 1977. Though this subject matter may sound intimidating, “the show is about juggling one’s desires and responsibilities against the constraints that are put upon all of us through tradition, the collective morality, gender roles, economic stability and sexual repression. But, it’s a comedy, so you get to laugh about all of it, thank god,” said Fainstein reassuringly. All this Falling, All this Tumbling Down has been acclaimed for its avant-garde approach to redefining contemporary theatre.

At the end of its first season, the company searched for a new venue in which to perform, but when nothing immediately appeared, Fainstein and Taintor decided that All this Falling, All this Tumbling Down should be able to travel. As a result, the piece conforms to more unusual stage locations and has no set lighting design and no set performance space. Performed in various bars and art galleries, the show’s transportable nature has expanded its audience to include a less conventional, younger theatre-going crowd, while also succeeding in their mission “to produce work that rekindles the interest of a generation that has abandoned the theatre.”

On Nov. 11 at 4 p.m. and 11 p.m. with a panel discussion immediately following the afternoon show, All this Falling, All this Tumbling Down will take over the Hepburn Zoo – a location that may be new to the play itself, but is very familiar to the members of the company. In fact, to this day, Fainstein, Taintor, Knappman, Garland and Haynes’ names still sit backstage, scribbled in cursive upon bright pieces of paper, programs pinned to the Zoo’s wall for shows that they once performed in as students.

Essentially, Whistler in the Dark is just an extension of the Hepburn Zoo. It may be equipped with professional actors and a budget, but the complex nature of the troupe’s work gives hommage to its origins. Knappman reiterated Whistler in the Dark’s artistic ties to the College’s theatrical endeavors, saying, “Having been shaped by the Middlebury Theatre Department, our theatre and our approach to theatre is inherently ‘Middlebury-esque.’ We want to produce difficult, challenging work.”

What should the audience expect for next Saturday’s show? A night of thought provoking-theatre that Taintor coins as “rough, dirty and risqué.” And, who knows, maybe this dynamic show will be just the reminder that an interest in the arts is not just a restricted pit of college-centric creativity – the art that you make as a student at Middlebury College will only stop after graduation if you let it.

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