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Playing with boundaries: UNC student theater encourages the unconventional

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Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The UNC student theater community collectively produced over a dozen successful shows in 2023, embracing diverse stories and funky performances.

Company Carolina, LAB! Theatre and Pauper Players are all well-known student-led theater groups. While actors often participate in multiple companies through the season, each company has their own style, structure and repertoire.

“People go back and forth,” Kylie Robinson, the treasurer for Pauper Players, said. “It's all just really one big community and you just go to whatever company is doing the show that you are most interested in.”

In this year's spring season, Company Carolina and Pauper Players collaborated to perform the musical “Next to Normal.” They hope to continue this connection with “Heathers: The Musical” next spring.

Brigette Bagley, a producer at Company Carolina, said the groups overlap often and she loves seeing the dynamics and connectedness between them.

First-year dramatic art major Ellie O’Connell acted and helped choreograph Company Carolina’s recent musical "Alice in Wonderland" adaptation, “Alice by Heart.” 

She said when she started at UNC this year, she was scared to be a "small fish in this really big sea," but her cast members helped smooth the transition. After being cast as the Queen of Hearts, O’Connell said the community she found was welcoming and judgment-free.

In the past, many of the productions on campus showcased serious topics such as abortion, abuse and mental health disorders. 

As a result, Kenan Theatre Company, run by UNC’s Department of Dramatic Art, wanted to lighten the mood this fall.

“This year, we made a conscious effort to be like, ‘Let's be a little bit more of a kinder, gentler Kenan Theatre Company,’” David Navalinsky, the director for undergraduate production in the dramatic art department, said.

With the gender-bent Manifest Destiny adventure comedy, “Men on Boats,” and a ridiculous, yet hopeful revenge comedy in “Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” the company has achieved just that.

“The neat thing about having the students involved is that what we like to do changes because the students change,” Navalinsky said.

At the Kenan Theatre Company, students are very involved in the productions, serving as producers, technicians and play-selection committee members. According to Navalinsky, the company prioritizes student growth in an educational environment.

Student-led groups like LAB! have full authority over their productions, and intentionally leaned into the unconventional this year. 

“[This year’s shows] all had this spark of absurdity that I think is less common in some more traditional theater spaces,” Erica Bass, a UNC senior and one of the executive directors of LAB!, said. “You get these weird products that wouldn't normally be produced, but you have people that are so passionate about it, and are just reveling in the absurdity of it. I think it's a space that creates a lot of joy.”

Despite the fact that LAB! operates on a tight budget, their free tickets are one way they demonstrate their commitment to accessibility. Bass said that in recent years, many of the shows have become increasingly reflective of the people that produce them.

Bagley, who has also been involved in Kenan Theatre Company, LAB! and Pauper Players, shared that many shows this year touched her by being both honest and representative of her queer identity.

“I think that especially as an audience member, watching something on a stage that you can relate to is really impactful,” Bagley said.

Past shows by LAB! such as “The Most Massive Woman Wins” and “Dry Land” have ignited conversations about self-acceptance and the female experience.

“Being willing to come up with something that's totally new — and probably not going to succeed at first — is actually another way we can work in tandem with representation to make social change,” Bass said.

Excitement for next season’s productions is in the air. The Kenan Theatre Company has announced it will put on “The Seagull” and the musical “Something Rotten.” 

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Company Carolina will perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Sloshed Shakespeare Event,” a tradition in which cast members over 21 years of age perform Shakespeare tipsy, in addition to “Heathers: The Musical” in collaboration with Pauper Players.

LAB! will be producing the musical “Firebringer” and a commissioned project written by a UNC senior.

@dthlifestyle| lifestyle@dailytarheel.com