Group breaking Gnu ground

Student-written theatre takes to the multi-leveled stage to showcase burgeoning one-act dramas

Gnu Ground throws a wrench in the suburdan family unit in The Last One to Bed.
Gnu Ground throws a wrench in the suburdan family unit in The Last One to Bed.
Austin Shaefer’s The Machine was boldly inspired by Nietzche.
Austin Shaefer’s The Machine was boldly inspired by Nietzche.

Think the family next door is perfect? Think you and your best friend are going to be BFF in the literal sense? Think you can believe everything you hear? This semester, Gnu Ground invites you to think again.

This fall the theatre company’s double bill consists of two student-written pieces, The Last One to Bed and The Machine, each of which seems intent on shaking the complacency of their characters and audience.

The night’s first offering, Brianne Pickrell’s The Last One to Bed, explores the explosion of a picture-perfect nuclear family through the eyes of their adorable and sad spinster neighbour, played by Tory McAlister. The various family members speak in unison to illustrate the insecurities of the out-of-work father who eventually wreaks havoc on the scene at the dinner table.

Pickrell, ArtSci ’10, said the one-act play was written for a class last year and was drawn loosely from her personal life.

“I dealt with some of this stuff personally, so I thought it made sense to write about something I knew, and it kind of changed and took off from there,” she said.

Pickrell added that she didn’t want to direct the piece because it was important to have another person’s perspective on her work.

“It’s kind of neat because you get to see your play a whole new way,” she said.

“[A director can make] choices you might never make yourself, or things you wouldn’t think to do.”

That perspective comes from director Tasha Niesen, also ArtSci ’10, and former actor with Gnu Ground.

“I was in the show last year. I directed in high school and thought this would be a good ‘gnu’ step,” she joked.

“Gnu Ground’s main mandate is to get people interested that aren’t involved in theatre at Queen’s, so there are a lot of people in our show that have never been in drama at Queen’s, or who are in first year,” she said.

Niesen said her favourite part of the company was its open-minded nature.

“The nice thing with Gnu Ground is, that unlike Vogt or something, there is no set type of play that has to be performed. Last year I acted in a show and it was improv-based, so you can really play around with it and experiment.”

The shows take place on a multi-level stage spanning Kingston Hall’s Red Room, a set which transforms easily from cosy dining room to treacherous cave with the help of a black scrim and a custom-built machine.

This machine forms the centrepiece for Austin Schaefer’s succinctly titled work, The Machine, a dark but humourous look at human belief systems.

Inspired by Nietzche, Schaefer, ArtSci ’10, wrote the piece last summer and originally pitched it to the Vogt studio series.

“They told me it was wrong for Vogt A because they were doing all comedies, so I decided to submit it to Gnu Ground without my name attached,” he said.

Schaefer had to remove his name because he is playing a dual role this season, as Gnu Ground’s producer and a writer.

Schaefer said The Machine, which features two friends waiting in a cave following a homeless man’s tip that the machine within would make them rich, is a macabre exploration of the concept of faith.

“[It asks] why believe what we believe? How far do you take your beliefs? Fundamentalist beliefs have caused a lot of chaos in the world. You can and should always second guess your beliefs. There’s a lot you can learn from that,” he said.

Schaefer echoed Niesen’s sentiments about the pliability of the company, adding that this year it had incorporated a workshopping process into its rehearsals.

“Gnu Ground wants to give people an opportunity to do theatre and explore what they like about it. Our passions can go so many different ways,” he said.

“It’s about trying new things. We are now also a credible workshop in a sense. There were a few rehearsals reserved for playwrights to come in and modify, tweak and rewrite if they wanted to. I feel like I really improved my script by working on it this way.”

This year’s diverse ensemble features first-years, first time actors at Queen’s, members of Queen’s Players and drama students soon to be seen in the spring major. Schaefer said this mixture allows everyone a chance to examine their craft and develop their skills, adding that Gnu Ground prefers to give newcomers time in the spotlight.

“It’s a learning process, a growing process,” he said. “We have people here out of drama, and some in the major productions. We’re very multifaceted. That being said, our preference is to give people who haven’t had a chance to be in plays—first years, actors with less or no experience—a chance.”

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