At the end of March, Montclair State University students hit the stage at L. Howard Fox Theatre to perform “Michigan Murders,” a never-before-seen play, part of the New Works Initiative (NWI) program that allows students to work with professionals in developing an original show.
“Michigan Murders” is based on a series of murders that took place in Michigan in the 1960s. The play focuses on feminism and women’s empowerment through the eyes of college girls.
The girls know that there is a murderer among them, but they have no idea who it is. It remains a mystery throughout the show. It’s an abstract performance that somewhat resembles a dream because of its distinct parts and transitions. The writers made the decision to take the focus of the show away from the murderer and put it on the girls who got their lives taken away.
Students said that working with a professional creative team provided them with an experience that is similar to what they will face in the real world after graduation. “We could see the way that they were able to morph in our own personal talents into our roles,” said Giuliana Carr, a junior acting major who played Genevieve.
The level of work was also very appealing to the actors.
“It shows you a different level of working to get to work with New York directors,” said Elizabeth Sayko, a sophomore acting major who played Young Ellen. “Writers usually aren’t in a rehearsal process.”
Meghan Finn, the Brooklyn-based director of “Michigan Murders,” also had a great experience working with Montclair State students. She loved being able to work with a cast that is the same age as the characters in the play, as well as the people involved in the actual events that occurred in real life.
“All of the actors really jumped into this process, gave it their all, and treated each discovery as an opportunity to grow,” Finn said.
NWI shows can get competitive because they are open to all majors in the Department of Theatre and Dance. Auditions are held as early as September for performances in the spring.
The cast consisted of nine women and four men—all but one are acting majors, and there is one musical theatre major. Though it doesn’t happen often, a Montclair State University acting professor, Ellen Lancaster, was cast in the show as Ellen.
Although Lancaster has only been teaching acting classes at Montclair State for three years, she has been acting for most of her life.
“Michigan Murders” being performed in the black box theatre complemented the play’s intimate performance. Some actors even walked through the aisles during certain parts of the show.
“I think it’s one of the most valuable experiences that we’re offered here,” said Brian Sedita, a junior acting major who played one of the Lakeside Lovers, of the opportunity to work with professionals.
The script was constantly changing throughout rehearsals, adding more depth to the story with every revision. “It’s been equally as enjoyable as it’s been stressful,” said Carr, who received a text with a line change at nearly 1 a.m. the night before the first performance.
“It was interesting to help develop a new script,” Lancaster said.
Even though she has been on the stage for years, she didn’t get much special treatment. She was still required to attend all of the late-night rehearsals, however she did end up getting her own dressing room. Lancaster believes that the NWI program is a rich experience that reflects what school should be like for performing arts students. “It gives them a chance to experiment, try new things, and be challenged every day,” she said.
The director and her team are very proud of their work, but they do admit that there are some small changes to the flow of the play that they would change now.
“We were incredibly proud of the work of all the students and we enjoyed our time working with them so much,” said Finn. “I think everyone in the show delivered first-rate performances that would rival any professional actor.”