“Reed must be the place where we take things apart and put them back together.”
Last weekend, my favorite Reed theater production so far came to life in the Black Box, featuring five actors and five chairs. More Eliot chairs and desks were suspended from the ceiling beyond the stage, tipped sideways, upside down, made strange by the lighting and suggested flight.
This Must Be the Place is the production component of theater-literature senior Ashlin Hatch’s thesis, which focuses on community mythology and how the Reed community creates and shares folklore. The show is a devised production, meaning that the actors, directors and other creators actively wrote and constructed the play using input from current and past Reedies. Ashlin’s written thesis is an examination of how this collaborative devising process can be a way for communities to confront and interact with their own folklore.
The play began suddenly. Its five actors, all wearing plaid and constantly changing roles, burst into action as they performed the sequence of events from the Spring Crisis of 1972 as written in an entry from the 1975 Student Body Handbook. Then, in a clever use of repetition, the show proceeded to go through these events again, only this time interrupting the story with synchronized claps. The actors froze, then deviated from the original story as the lighting became dimmer and bluer to explore a collage of historical context, alternative perspectives, and elaboration gathered from interviews with alumni and various historical sources from the Reed archives. This deconstruction of student handbook myth spoke to a line from the very beginning of the show: “The student handbook is lies, all lies. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it—you should. But keep in mind that it’s less about how Reed actually is, and more about how people believe it to be.” Throughout the pauses in the myth, the collection of voices and sources was unified by the props—five wooden Eliot chairs, wielded, dragged, stood upon, and carried by the actors in various ways throughout the show.
The play not only explored the vexing ambiguity and complexity involved in the spring crisis of 1972 and the takeover of the second floor of Eliot, but also the ways the Reed community tells stories about itself, and how these stories are passed on. In the last pause, the actors presented criticism from various alumni about the ending of the 1972 spring crisis story. The 1975 Student Body Handbook provides no explanation of what exactly students were protesting, but the show offers many answers: Nixon’s bombing of Vietnam, the rigidity of the Reed curriculum, the clash between tradition and reform, the continuation of a senseless and brutal war, the purpose of protest, of striking, of denouncing business as usual, the relevance of a classical education while people are being killed in a world that seems to have gone crazy.
One of the alumni perspectives, taken from an interview with an unnamed black, female alumna critiqued the Handbook version of events for how it emphasizes and glorifies quotes from “oddball white men saying quirky ‘Reed’ things,” such as the quote, “My name is Robert Foster and I am a chemistry major and I did not come to Reed College to have my ideas challenged!” Other alumni described how the handbook story seems more like a template for action that a history of the particular 1972 Eliot takeover, full of “quintessentially Reed” moments and a revolutionary mood but no contextual details. Does this make the student handbook version of events a genuine piece of folklore about how the community reacts and responds to events that form the heart of a Spring Crisis or any other campus controversy? These myths proliferate in student body publications, by word of mouth, and in our imaginings of Olde Reed, but how do they affect how we see ourselves and how we think we belong to the community described by them?
This Must Be the Place may have explored what went on in the 1972 spring crisis, but its main goal was exploring how the Reed community tells stories about itself. The anecdotes and ruminations from 1972 sprinkled throughout the play were both eerily familiar and yet part of a strange and inscrutable past.
Toward the end of her director’s note, Ashlin Hatch reminded the audience to engage and process the folklore that brings us together at the same time that it pushes us apart. Both the note and the play serve as reminders to think about what kind of place Reed has been, what it might become, and how the stories we tell about ourselves shape the future of our community. “What will we find when we go digging through the many layers that lie beneath a story’s smooth surface?” Ashlin’s note asks. I would answer, a treasure trove, a mess, a contradiction, or, maybe just ourselves.