Standing in the skeletal set of a Midwestern living room, surrounded by the black walls of UC Santa Cruz’s experimental theater, the actors of “The Animals of Omaha” mentally prepare for opening night.
Jacob Cribbs, a creative writing graduate and theater arts student at UCSC, was the 2009 recipient of the Dharma Grace Award for his play, “The Animals of Omaha.”
“The theme of the play is that memories are always with you,” Cribbs said.
The Dharma Grace Award was established by the UCSC theater department in order to provide funding and a performance space for one full-length student-written play selected by a theater department committee each year. The winner is chosen from a pool of submitted scripts based on criteria determined by the committee, which is comprised of faculty members as well as a student representative.
“We always have a lively discussion about the works, in which we consider their theatricality, their originality and their success in creating a complete and dynamic dramatic world,” said associate professor Kimberly Jannarone, a Dharma Grace Committee member.
However, due to the state of the economy and the shrinking budget of theater arts, the award is in danger of not being offered next year.
“We wanted to make this valuable to the community so that the award can continue to happen,” said Cribbs.
Directed by Stacy-Michelle Walker, a UCSC fourth-year feminist studies and theater arts major, “The Animals of Omaha” explores dark topics such as domestic violence, drug abuse and extortion, some of which were were hard for her to explore.
“As a feminist, taking on something that has so much violence against people, women, homosexuals — and to be able to stage it well — has been a very challenging process,” Walker said.
Walker said that one of the most unique aspects of the play is its multiple endings that will change the outcome of the show each night.
“There are a million ways to experience life, a million choices we can make,” Walker said. “These are just three possibilities.”
Both the writer and director have collaborated in creating a different show for the audience each night in other ways than the multiple endings.
“We wanted to divide the audience experience so it makes them pick sides,” Cribbs said.
Walker said she deliberately staged certain aspects of the show so that if an audience member sits in a certain seat, they will observe different details of the action onstage.
“You can sit in any section you like and you can see a completely different show from the person across from you,” Walker said.
One such perspective is an up-close encounter with a couple’s cramped quarters. Actors pass within inches of the seats and the audience can hear every whisper. On the other side of the same stage, however, the audience members will gaze into a formal living room from a distance.
“The audience is in the cramped space, forced to participate as well as spectate,” Walker said. “Some of the audience, however, has the luxury of distance.”
The cast of 10 takes on living characters as well as images in those characters’ memories. Alexandra Pucci, a fourth-year psychology major and theater minor, plays Marian, who has a capacity for love as well as a taste for violence and vengeance.
“My favorite aspect of this project was finding the humanity in something that seems so bleak,” Pucci said. “The characters in this show don’t think of themselves as villains.”
With only five weeks to prepare for the show, the actors said it has been a trial as well as a learning experience.
“It has been a lot of work, but it has been awesome,” said Josh Saleh, a second-year theater arts major. “Playing with the space around you, experimenting; it has been a real challenge.”
Walker said that the audience has to be prepared for an experience that may cause discomfort in the passive viewer.
“I hope people are prepared to work, as an audience,” Walker said. “People who are used to traditional, naturalistic theater may be turned off.”
Jannarone said that “The Animals of Omaha” met the high standards of the Dharma Grace Award not only through its intricate story line and complex characters, but by the ambitious nature of the entire project.
“‘The Animals of Omaha’ stood out, in a way, because it had a striking fullness to it: it is very complex, and yet beautifully structured; it dramatizes dark and difficult moments in human relations, and yet it is often extraordinarily funny,” Jannarone said.
Cribbs said that the play is aimed at bringing attention to issues that are not only pertinent to up-and-coming playwrights interested in preserving this award, but to any theatergoers and community members interested in contemporary politics and deep social issues.
“If everybody does the same art and does the same thing, what’s the point?” Cribbs said. “Art by nature should be a little subversive.”
“The Animals of Omaha” runs Nov. 6-8 and Nov. 12-15 in the UCSC Experimental Theater
Performances are at 7 p.m. every day (except Sundays, 3 p.m.).
There will be a talkback/open dialogue with the cast, writer and director on Saturday the 14th following the performance.
Tickets are free for UCSC undergraduates w/ ID, $11 general admission, $10 senior citizens and students. May be purchased at the UCSC box office.