It’s not unusual for Albion College students to be constantly on the go. Each student’s calendar is an interesting blend of classes, research or creative activity, and membership in clubs and organizations.
Effrem Grettenberger faced such a grind each Tuesday and Thursday during January and February as he tackled directing the theater department’s upcoming main-stage production of “Once on This Island” along with his regular class load and preparing for his role as a sprinter on the track and field team.
Grettenberger said he attended class from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays before heading to the Lomas Fieldhouse in the Dow Recreation and Wellness Center for track practice from 3:30 p. m. to 6 p.m. Afterward, he made the short trip to the Herrick Theatre to lead rehearsal for the musical. It’s not like any other day of the week was less busy, however, as Grettenberger’s cast rehearsed from 7 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday along with a 3 to 5 p.m. session on Sunday.
The play, one of the events the college had planned in commemoration of Black History Month, took Herrick’s main stage Feb. 23-26. The production was months in planning, as Grettenberger worked with Albion students Danielle Bonifer and Colleen Brewster during the fall semester on choreography. Bonifer and Brewster are both off campus this semester, and dance captain Chrissiey Jackson was placed in charge of that aspect of the production. Because Grettenberger was leading a cast of mostly first-year students and sophomores, he instructed them to start preparing their role during the break between semesters.
Grettenberger, who described the production as a love story complicated by class struggles and social prejudice, wanted to direct it because of its emphasis on storytelling as well as its colorful, Afro-Caribbean-style music and dancing; something unusual for Albion’s theater department. Ti Moune, the lead female character played by Kamara Miller, pursued a life with Daniel (Ryan Fisher), but the relationship was complicated by the struggle between the ruling and peasant classes.
“I redesigned the production and have one character embody most of the storytelling of the play in order to stress how significant it is,” Grettenberger said. “We actually see the story being told to a little girl and the audience is able to focus on the story, as well.
“We are trapped in the age where our primary methods of communications are from TV, the Internet, and our cell phones, but I think we miss something. Traditionally, storytelling was how humans passed on the values of hope and love; and ‘Once’ is a story of overcoming social prejudice, overcoming hate, and sharing hope and love.”
In addition to emphasizing the story, Grettenberger was challenged to bring an attractive visual show to the stage. He said the dancing numbers in the show were intense, and he hoped to impress an audience “that sees so much on TV and in movies that we don’t know we can be stunned” by what is portrayed on the stage.
Because he maintains actors are focused mainly on the roles they have to portray, Grettenberger learned the art of quarterbacking a production by serving as the director.
“The hardest part (of directing) has been making the adjustment in the creative process,” Grettenberger said. “Actors are seemingly selfish because you think of a singular mind in preparing your role. As the director, I had to learn to be dependent because I can’t shove my ideas down the actors’ throats nor my lighting, set, or costume designers.
“The director is always thinking about everything,” he added. “In rehearsal, I was taking notes not only about the singing and dancing and acting, but I was also trying to write notes to (lighting director) Jennie Holan, and I was telling my stage manager (Emily Thompson) to take notes for my adviser and scenographer, Amber Marisa Cook. I was doing six million things at one time, and I tell people that my direction started in November and continued every day before, at, and at the end of every rehearsal.”
Through the opportunity to direct “Once,” Grettenberger achieved one of the key components of the Albion Advantage, launched by the College last fall. Grounded in the liberal arts tradition, the Advantage helps students realize their professional goals through thoughtful integration of academic and experience-based learning opportunities.
“At bigger universities you probably wouldn’t get an experience like this until graduate school,” Grettenberger said. “To put this credit on my resume as a junior in college is almost unheard of.”