History of Humplay

You may find yourself tailgating in Eliot Circle on an absconded piece of furniture. You might find yourself streaming into Vollum with the wailing crowds into seats that are familiar from many a lecture, only this time things are different: there are togas. There are people screaming. There are memes. This is HumPlay. You may ask yourself, how did we get here?

Greg Lam, the very first direktor of HumPlay, wasn’t aiming to start one of the school’s most popular traditions. The political science major wrote the first Hum Play in 1994 to be performed during Reed Arts Week (RAW), as a one-act simply titled The Extremely Abridged Hum 110. According to a Reed Magazine article interview from 2010, all Greg was looking to do was “put on a funny play.” The performance received a positive response, and in 1995 Greg and his friend Fransisco Toro re-wrote the play, performing it separately from RAW under the title Everything I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Hum 110. The first use of the title “HumPlay” didn’t appear until 1999, and the Roman numerals now familiar to us began following it in the late ‘00s.

Poster from 1997 HumPlay, published in the March 2010 issue of  Reed Magazine . Courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Poster from 1997 HumPlay, published in the March 2010 issue of Reed Magazine. Courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

While HumPlay’s basic plot and many of the jokes have stayed the same over time, each year the play is revised. Direktors, sophomores who performed in HumPlay as freshmen, update its pop culture references according to changes in the Hum 110 syllabus, campus culture, and current issues. For the majority of HumPlay’s existence, the play opened with a single student—named either Student or using the actor’s name—hopelessly studying for the Hum 110 final. In some way or another, Student did not know any of the material, used substances to cope, and would subsequently fall asleep and dream or hallucinate the ridiculous events of the play. In earlier years, Student was guided through the Hum 110 syllabus by Homer. Around 2007, the current guides, Apollo and Dionysus, replaced the bard. The Greek Chorus, another “canonical” aspect of Hum Play, was introduced in 1996. The introductory scene, with the Chorus reciting the first line of the Iliad in Greek, wasn’t added until 2005.

In the past couple years, a new HumPlay format starting dividing the role of Student into several students based on movie characters, establishing a pop culture touchstone which then became the theme of the play. Movies integrated into HumPlay have included Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Breakfast Club, and, most recently, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.

The ridiculousness and traditionally jesting tone of HumPlay conceals the sheer amount of work and dedication student direktors and cast members put into the two-night performance. “The most challenging thing is just the time commitment: ten hours a week is a lot,” said former cast member and direktor of the 2017 HumPlay, Gaelen Eisenbrey. According to other cast members, the bonding and community building that participating in HumPlay offers is one of its main appeals. “HumPlay is a place where, as a freshman, you have a group of other freshman, and you all do this ridiculous thing, so the community is really strong,” said Eira Nylander, 2016 HumPlay direktor. Because HumPlay is written and direkted by past cast members, the community spans several years of students and alumni.

In the recent past, the Quest has run yearly gag articles announcing the cancellation of HumPlay. This relatively new tradition seems to have begun in 2014, with a tragic “cancellation” due to a bee infestation, followed in 2015 by an article citing an invasion of killer raccoons in Vollum lecture hall. HumPlay being cancelled continues to be a joke, even among the cast. “When we first got to HumPlay, we were told by the direktors to keep everything very secretive, and if someone asked how HumPlay was, to say that it was cancelled,” said Rebecca Lewit, a 2018 HumPlay cast member. “I assumed the joke just evolved from over-the-top confidentiality.”

Most convincingly, in the spring of 2017 the Quest announced that HumPlay was cancelled due to the Hum protests and subsequent reforms that rocked campus in the fall of 2016, complete with pretend interviews with disgruntled direktors and Reedies Against Racism organizer Addison Bates complaining that the Hum faculty had misunderstood students’ issues with the curriculum and canceled the play as a result. The 2017 HumPlay itself was much more critical of major issues in the Hum curriculum than performances past, directly addressing concerns about representation and Eurocentrism multiple times.

Now that major changes in the Hum 110 syllabus are in store, the HumPlay cast and community is eager to see how the tradition will adapt to reflect current student experiences. “I’m really excited to see what happens if the Hum syllabus is changed,” said Nylander. “HumPlay doesn’t need to revolve around the texts we’re reading right now. If the Hum syllabus were to change radically, I think HumPlay could still be a thing. HumPlay could be whatever we want to be … It is a tradition, but traditions can change.” In 2012, the direktors assured the Quest that they had adapted their skript to the syllabus revisions while keeping many of the tried and true jokes so that older students in the audience who hadn’t read the new texts would still be able to understand the references.

How did HumPlay become a nearly twenty-five year tradition at Reed? Nigel Nicholson, Dean of the Faculty and HumPlay enthusiast, believes in HumPlay’s unique power to bring Reedies together. “It comes at the right time of term, people work really hard here and they get to just sit down and belly laugh,” he commented in an interview with the Grail. “We don’t go to football games, but we do go to HumPlay together. It may be our biggest mass activity.” The comparison to what you might see at a football game at other colleges is apt, as “rowdy” HumPlay involves ritualistic tailgating, drunken crowds, and the incoherent screaming often found at major sporting events.

Beyond the impact the play has on those who perform and direkt, Nicholson believes HumPlay draws its lasting power from taking the shared experience of Hum 110 as a required course and turning it on its head. “It really expresses a complicated relationship to the material that I think is very Reed. It’s both a critique and appreciation,” he said.  The tone of celebratory satire was echoed by the students involved. “I feel like HumPlay celebrates the community of Reed while satirizing it's academic culture and focus on the classics,” said Eisenbrey. Nylander agreed that the things that make HumPlay frustrating are also what make Hum 110 itself frustrating, noting that the play is a celebration of collective experience at the same time that it critiques the syllabus. “It is a satire of the Hum syllabus,” Nylander said. “I don’t think people pick up on that because it's so hard to hear, which is why we are trying to get people to go to sub-free.”

As it currently stands, HumPlay involves both a sub-free and a “rowdy” performance in order to give Reedies who do not want to be deafened by yelling or risk getting puked on a chance to actually hear the lines Direktors and cast members have spent months writing and memorizing. “I’ve been told the sub-free performance will be much closer to being in a regular show,” said Lewit. “People will laugh at our jokes, and our rehearsals will all feel worth it. The rowdy performance, on the other hand, was called by one of the Direktors an ‘exercise in futility.’” Lewit further expressed that she expects to not be heard at all during the rowdy performance. The cast has even specifically rehearsed delivering their lines while being distracted by hecklers.

Beyond the drunken hecklers (and, some might say, because of), the play has a lot to offer. “HumPlay just synthesizes so many of the things that make Reed special, and gives everyone an opportunity to come together,” said Eisenbrey. Lewit also spoke to the sense of community that participating in HumPlay has fostered. “Being in HumPlay has made me feel much more connected to the greater Reed tradition and legacy,” she said. “I certainly feel a kinship with those who had my part in previous years. It also sweetens the somewhat bitter medicine of Hum as a class … there is also something satisfying about poking fun at texts that have cost me so much sleep and sanity.” Despite its lewdness, nudity, and tawdry jokes, even the Hum faculty have been consistently charmed by the performance. “We find ourselves telling colleagues about it at other institutions,” said Nigel. “It’s one of those funny unusual things Reed does that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.” As one of Reed’s more bizarre and more beloved traditions, HumPlay offers an opportunity for students to bond over, lampoon, and criticize Reed’s one required course in the most ridiculous context imaginable. “Overall, I’ve found it very rewarding to be a part of a Reed tradition,” said Lewit. “I’m excited to watch the play in my years to come as a Reedie.”

You can attend rowdy HumPlay today in Vollum Lecture Hall at 7:00 p.m.


Cover photo: the Humanities 110 play and Greek Festival, circa 1998. Classics professors Wally Englert and Nigel Nicholson are in front row, far left and third from left, respectively.Courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.