News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Arts

December 2, 2011

ISU students create plays inspired by Swope collection

TERRE HAUTE — Indiana State University theater professor Arthur Feinsod thinks that to be a true artist, one must have an appreciation and respect for all of the arts.

With that in mind, Feinsod organized a project in which his playwriting class is creating short plays influenced by pieces of art viewed at Terre Haute’s Sheldon Swope Art Museum.

For many of his students, it was their first visit to the museum at Seventh and Ohio streets. Many of the students admitted that although music and film are often sources of inspiration for their work, few look to the visual arts in this way.

Lisa Petrulis, curator of the Swope, describes the collaboration as a mutually beneficial experience for both the museum and the student playwrights.

“It gives us a fresh perspective — their perspective — a new way to look at the artwork,” she said. “And the same for them, they have a new way to look at the work as writers.”

In preparation for visiting the museum, Feinsod gave his students a crash-course lecture on the foundations of visual art. Students learned how to respond to the form and not just the content of a work of art. Design aspects, including color, shape, line, and texture, were all emphasized as important contributors to the “reading” of an artwork. Feinsod encouraged students to question works of art to find the deeper issue, story or meaning that could provide fuel for their playwriting.

On the day of the visit, each student spent some time perusing the Swope collection, then revisited one or two pieces that stood out to them.

Simon McNair, a theater major with a focus in playwriting, focused on the John Laska painting entitled “Fallout.” McNair was greatly influenced by the yellow and tan colors of the oil painting, which became the starting point for the stark desert setting for his post-apocalyptic play.

Many students found their biggest challenges to be viewing an artwork they had never seen before and forming a personal connection to it in order to create their stories. They had been use to drawing from their own experiences, pulling from worlds they had created in their minds.

“I was looking for a painting to ‘speak to me’ even though I know that sounds cliché; something that has a story I can link with,” McNair said.

One goal of this project is to encourage the students to think less literally about what is before them.

“Instead of simply explaining what is happening in the painting, I wanted students to “respond to the soul” of the work,” Feinsod said. “Students’ responses to the emotional content, atmosphere and design aspects of a work are just as valid as the depicted narrative.”

Junior Jacob Osborn chose one of Andy Warhol’s famous screenprints — the iconic “Marilyn Monroe” — as the focus of his play. Osborn noticed that Warhol’s application of bizarre color seemed to highlight the artificiality of Marilyn’s appearance and persona. 

“Although I have a romanticized idea of her, it’s hard to know how accurate that idea is,” Osborn said.

That idea led Osborn to play with the idea of superficiality and how one’s romanticized idea of an individual is many times inaccurate.

Osborn, a journalism major and creative writing minor, was looking for a work that would be fun and “weird.” He thought he would end up with a darker, serious story but described his final product as more of a comedy.

Taking a different approach, Shawn James, a Maltese exchange student in theater studies, wanted to find an intriguing narrative for which he could develop a background story. James is spending one semester at Indiana State, and this class is his first endeavor into playwriting.

James decided to tell the story of two works and let these stories intersect in a single play. Henry Bacon’s painting, “The Earring Peddler,” provided him with the characters needed, determining their personality through posture, dress and actions. The other work he selected was Warhol’s “Marilyn Monroe.”  James intends to go beyond what is depicted in the work by deciphering clues within the painting.

“I am trying to find something more thrilling than the obvious narrative,” James said, “I’m looking at everything in the background and always asking, ‘What is hidden?’”

The students will be reading their plays at 7 p.m. today at the Swope during the Miracle on 7th Street celebration.

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