Watching the clock during a play is usually a sign of boredom. That’s not the case for the latest production by the University of Southern Maine Theatre Department. In fact, the clock is a big part of the fun.
“Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” was written by Greg Allen to be an interactive experience. The script is composed mostly of snippets from 30 well-known plays. Each play is assigned a number in the program. By shouting out a number, the audience decides the order in which they’re performed. Not challenging enough? There’s also a 60-minute time limit.
Dominating the sparsely decorated stage is a clock that starts counting down from the top of the show. To stay on schedule, the cast pleads with the audience to pick their next scene and runs frantically to do their bidding. The tension builds with every tick toward the deadline.
Brittney Danis keeps the chaos from spinning out of control. She does all the behind-the-scenes work of a typical assistant stage manager but also makes her presence known over the course of the play. From her post at the edge of the stage, Danis shouts cues to the actors at the start and end of each scene.
“This is completely different from what I’m used to. I’m used to doing musicals and straight plays,” Danis said. “When we got the assignment of doing 30 plays in 60 minutes, I was like, ‘This is wild.’ And I would do it ten times over. It’s been fantastic.”
Danis and the entire cast are rookies to the University stage. With “Too Much Light,” the Theatre program is trying something new by giving first-year students a play of their own.
“We were hoping this would kind of bring these first-years together ‘cause they’re gonna move through this program together for the next four years. And I think that has been successful,” said the show’s director, Rachel Price Cooper. “They already seem like they’re a pretty tight-knit group. When one of them drops a line, they all know it well enough to pick it up.”
Pierina Camuzzo faces an extra hurdle in learning her lines. English is her second language. She grew up speaking Spanish in her native country of Peru. While she speaks English fluently, she remains conscious of her accent. But she put her fears aside and even added two more accents to her repertoire in order to play the roles that she wanted.
“The Russian accent and then French accent was so complicated. I didn’t even know how that should sound,” Camuzzo said.
Camuzzo used a Russian accent in a scene that poked fun at the classic play “Uncle Vanya” by Anton Chekhov. Most of the scenes are played for comedy by satirizing particular plays or theatre conventions in general. But a few scenes pack a harder dramatic edge, and the tonal shift increases their impact. Silly or serious, Camuzzo tries to find the truth in each scene.
“I want to feel it’s real. That way, it’s more fun to me,” Camuzzo said. “When I hear people laughing, sometimes I get distracted. But it’s fun when I really try to concentrate on the scene.”
The show depends on strong performances to win over the audience. Beside the clock, the only other consistent set dressing is a clothesline that holds 30 numbered pages representing the component plays. Even the pages don’t last long. The actors tear them down at the start of each corresponding scene.
Only the most essential props are used. And rather than elaborate costumes, cast members wear matching t-shirts emblazoned with the show’s title. The bigger sartorial spectacle takes place in the audience. Guests signal their willingness to interact with the actors by wearing glowing necklaces, available in the lobby.
The interplay with the audience makes every show different. The cast need to be adaptable and confident to pull it off. That’s a lot to ask of first-year performers. But the talent they’ve shown in rehearsals has made a believer of their director.
“It was a good baptism through fire,” Price Cooper said. “Welcome to being a Theatre major.”
“Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” held its opening performance on November 30. The four-show run ends on Sunday, December 3, with performances at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Tickets are on sale now.