The Arts Initiative sat down with Hayley Born, Michael Ayers and Joseph Villarin, co-Presidents of Bard Hall Players, to talk to them about their upcoming production, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Arts Initiative: Tell us a bit about the origins of Bard Hall Players.
Michael Ayers: Bard Hall Players, as far as far as we know, is the oldest and one of the only theatre producers for medical students in the United States. It’s been around for 46 years. There’s some fondness that you’ll sense when you speak with physicians that have graduated from the Physicians and Surgeon’s program (P&S) of Bard Hall Players as one of the many rites of passage as you graduate through P&S.
AI: So is it mostly physicians and surgeons that are in this show? Or do you also have students from other schools?
Hayley Born: The majority of the actors and musicians and everybody who’s involved are P&S, but we try to draw from every school, and I’m pretty sure we have almost every school [from the medical center campus] in this show. We always have representatives from the Nursing School, and the Dental School, OT, PT, Public Health, Nurse Practitioner School. The cast and crew combined is about 70 people. That includes a pit orchestra, tech and lights and all that stuff.
MA: We also sometimes have faculty members involved with the show, although we don’t have one this time around. But they really enjoy getting involved. A lot of them participated in these activities when they were students here.
AI: Were you friends before you decided to produce this show together?
HB: So what our role actually is, is presidents of the Bard Hall Players. Essentially, the role that we end up taking in the shows is producing, but we sort of fill in any gaps that are left. And then we do the advertising, the program, getting the rights to the show, buying the scripts, choosing a director, all the logistical aspects of the show. We’ve actually been doing this since January, so we had two shows in the spring, and this is our third show as presidents.
MA: Hayley and I did Crazy For You last fall together, and the departing presidents sort of roped…nudged…coerced us into being presidents of the group.
Joseph Villarin: And then Mike proudly continued the tradition of roping, coercing and nudging.
MA: Yes, when Joe did Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale this past winter, I sort of informed Joe that he was a new president.
AI: Do you have performing backgrounds in addition to your interest in medicine? Have you performed elsewhere besides with the Bard Hall Players?
JV: I guess I’ll start because I have the least background, which is to say I have no background. And that’s basically it! The first show I was involved with was Winter’s Tale back this past February, and that was really my only acting experience. And it was a great springboard.
HB: And I have very little experience. I did a lot in high school, but as far as college I did one show as sort of a random extracurricular senior year because I felt like I had to do it before I graduated. But Michael is our experienced actor and director.
MA: So I was a theatre major, and then I spent my three years before I came to school here doing mostly musicals. So I got my equity card right out of school at the B Street Theatre in Sacramento, and then I worked at the Goodman with Jeff Daniels in a show called Turn of the Century and then I did High School Musical on tour and then I did Curtains in Chicago, so I did just a handful of musicals before starting with these guys here just three years after graduating.
AI: What led to you going into medicine? Did you always kind of know that would happen?
MA: I was a theatre major, but I finished all the pre-med requirements in school and I always had a deep-seated inkling that this would be where I ended up, but I just took a bit of a detour.
HB: We actually have quite a few people that either have never ever done any theatre – acting, singing, dancing, anything – and then we have other people that have been acting for many, many years, who were theatre majors.
JV: And not just acting either. We have opera singers, conductors and professional musicians.
MA: That’s sort of one of the blessings slash challenges slash enriching factors of doing this show is that you have this enormous group of people with a lot of experience, and then you have people like Joe who had never acted before, but he ended up playing the supporting lead in our winter show, and he was great! He just walked in, and we’re like, “who is this guy?”
AI: What about the crew? Do you have a lot of people with technical or design background?
HB: Our current technical director had actually never done tech for a show and learned it sort of, on the job on our winter show. The lighting director that we pulled in for this show is actually a first year medical student who has done a ton of lighting design work, and she’s been great! She will be our new Technical Director of Bard Hall Players starting next semester. So we’ve already sort of tapped our new leadership.
MA: It’s also really nice that when the third and fourth years come back from the wards, they will circulate back into the program. So our first show which was A Winter’s Tale there were three or four former Bard Hall presidents directing, stage managing and acting in the show. So that really eases the transition, because we always have questions. And we will basically disappear in January. We are almost completely out of contact because of our hours and our schedules.
AI: So tell us about how you manage your workload in the medical school along with the responsibilities of producing three shows a year!
HB: Yes, tell us Joe!
JV: It can be challenging at times. They’re looking at me because I’m the only one who is not acting in this show. So I’ve picked up the responsibilities that are maybe a little bit too much for people to tackle while they are trying to learn their lines and choreography and all that stuff. And this is something that we’ve traded off on throughout the shows.
It can be challenging, definitely. It’s the same challenge as when you’re acting and having to memorize lines, except you’re having to say, “ok, what are my criteria for surgery for hepatocellular carcinoma?” It’s the same sort of deal. And I’ll admit, sometimes you make sacrifices in some areas, you know, like you skip class in the morning to go print the programs and stuff like that. It happens, but it’s just part of the give and take.
AI: Where’s your production facility?
MA: We are very lucky to have Alumni Auditorium, which has a great grid to hang lights from, it’s available to us almost every evening, so we’re very blessed to have that space.
We used to perform, as Bard Hall Players, in what is now essentially the dining hall downstairs, which is in the basement. But when Alumni was built, our Alumni Association wrote in the bylaws of this building that Bard Hall Players have first dibs on the space when there are no classes happening in it. So when there’s not class, other people come to us and ask for permission to use the space, which is kind of neat. It’s really reflective of how much the Alumni Association appreciates Bard Hall Players and how much it’s integrated into the world of the P&S school.
AI: How do you fund your shows?
HB: We do have a fall fundraising appeal to the Alumni for all the P&S student organizations, and they can choose to designate their gift to Bard Hall Players, so we get some support from that. Most of our production costs actually comes from selling ads to community organizations and different departments in the hospital for our theatre program. It’s filled with ads from all sorts of companies that want to support our group and get the word out about whatever it is they’re doing. And then ticket sales – we have that as well.
MA: Whenever I lead the alumni tours, there’s always a plethora of questions about what Bard Hall Players is doing and what’s coming up. They’re very interested.
AI: How do you pick the shows? Do you decide as a group what will be in the upcoming season or do you reach out to the community and ask them what they want to see?
MA: Our president regime, so to speak, took the stance that having a director that’s interested in a show is more valuable than picking a show that’s the right fit for the cast and crew size we want and then finding a director. So we really lucked out in that for all three shows we did, there was a director that came to us and said, “I’ve got some directing experience, this is the show I want to do.” And it was a good fit for Bard Hall Players.
HB: Or they came with a few options and said “What do you think would be best?” and we got to choose. We need a variable chorus size because everyone who tries out for Bard Hall Players gets in. So we have to find a space for everybody. But it was very easy for us, because we had amazing people that wanted to be involved and that had good ideas.
MA: We recently had a meeting with the group of incoming presidents for next year and one of the question the had was, “What do you do when there’s a disagreement?” And we sort of looked at each other and said, “There hasn’t really been any!” We’re almost always in consensus with what to do. Or one person will feel really strongly about something and the other two just go along with it.
HB: For this show we were choosing between Damn Yankees and Forum and it came down to the question of how many boys we thought we could get and what does the pit director want to do? Because he’s got to direct the music ultimately and what instruments does he have that he needs to fit in? Because we want to get all the violinists involved with the show and if there’s no string section, that becomes very difficult.
AI: How much connection do you have with the Morningside Campus? Do you go down there for arts related events?
JV: Well, I went to Columbia College for undergrad, and one of the things that was a huge inspiration to me when I was there was the Kings Crown Shakespeare Troupe. They always do amazing stuff and I’d have a great time going to see their shows. They often do their shows outdoors and make great use of the environment that is the Columbia campus. It was great to see Julius Caesar against the backdrop of Butler Library. Additionally, we recruited a trumpet player who is a freshman at Columbia College to play in the orchestra for this show, because we were short. And in the future, I know that one of the goals of the incoming presidents is to build stronger ties with the Morningside campus, so I think they will be tapping more folks from the orchestra to come and play in our shows!
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs November 3 – 5th at Alumni Auditorium, 650 West 168th Street.
Click here for more info on Bard Hall Players.
– Meropi Peponides, MFA Theatre ’13