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Rothko, Me, and the Literature Degree

I have been very fortunate as a student here at The College of Idaho to have two majors that I’ve loved in such a way as to make my probable future as a waitress somewhat worth it (I’m kidding Professor Schaper, I know how much you hate the waitress jokes). When I made the choice to major in Literature in English and Theatre, I knew it would likely be challenging, as both degrees rested within the same PEAK category. I also knew that there was no two subjects I felt so dedicated to or in love with, and I genuinely couldn’t imagine giving precedence to one over the other in my educational career. So I resigned myself to the long haul, to biting off more than I could chew and occasionally cursing both of my favorite things for existing in the same universe. There were certainly times in which that happened, nights where rehearsal lasted too late and there was far more reading to do than seemed possible. Sometimes I felt like I was drowning under the weight of my responsibilities, and couldn’t help but harbor the deep deep fear that I was going to let my momma down and have to move back from college, degreeless and dejected, to live in her basement forever. I know that I drove many a roommate/ boyfriend crazy with what was undoubtedly a lot of overstressed, angsty tirades against the demands of my education. Despite those moments of weakness however, I have never regretted pursuing both of these studies side by side, because I believe they have assisted me in gaining a deeper, more thorough understanding of both subjects in ways I never could have achieved if I’d let one of them go. My Literature in English degree has completely reshaped the way I view story telling and performance art, and I know that the literature classes I’ve taken during these last few years have made all the difference in terms of my ability to engage and find deeper meaning symbolically and emotionally in literary texts.

It’s strange to know that most of my friends and family associate me more with Theatre than with English. I suppose I can understand why, I invite everyone to watch my plays but I rarely send out my essays for perusal by my loved ones. I find it kind of disingenuous not to emphasize my literary base however, because I directly attribute most success I have in my theatrical endeavors to my education as an English student. Having the literary background I do has given me a much wider base of experiences, emotions, and empathy to draw on than I could have possibly gathered on my own in my incredibly sheltered, cul-de-sac life as a white girl in the burbs of Boise, Idaho. The plots, the characters, the themes, the symbolism produced by the authors, all of these things fall under my scrutiny as a literature student.  And that ability to empathize with literary characters vastly different from myself has made it possible for me to play theatrical characters that also differ from me personally. I recall being grateful that I was in Professor Schaper’s “The Brontes” class during the same time as my performance as Maggie in The Gut Girls, written by Sarah Daniels. The character Catherine of Wuthering Heights served as a partial inspiration for me while I developed my attitudes as that character, someone tough who was still capable of great feeling, but who must sacrifice some aspect of her emotions to survive the world around her (aka she’s a badass feminist from the past who has to marry a herpy derp of a dude in order to survive the patriarchal realm she lives in). I was also in Professor Schaper’s “Thief-Making and Thief-Taking” class, which discussed the politics and social attitudes of the time period when the show took place. As a freshman at the time, I remember feeling almost overwhelmed with the influx of information I received, but I was also incredibly grateful for the numerous amounts of resources available to me. My Literature in English degree has been my greatest ally continuously throughout my experience as an actress, and I do not see a time in my future when I will not rely heavily on the skillsets I have learned from it.

During my sophomore year of college, the Theatre Department took a trip down to the Boise Contemporary Theatre to watch their fall play, Red, written by the playwright Jon Logan and directed by Boise’s Mathew Cameron Clark. The play centered on the actions of postwar artist extraordinaire, Mark Rothko, as he developed some of his most widely known work, the Seagram Murals.  During the play, he and his assistant, a fictional character named Ken, engage in an emotional and often explosive dialogue about art and it’s place in the universe. I loved the play; for all that I knew nothing about it. I didn’t know that Rothko was a real man. I had no idea that the heart wrenching moment Ken walks in on his dejected boss, who is covered in red paint and sitting alone in the middle of his studio, was meant to symbolize the tragic suicide of the real Rothko. Frankly, I didn’t particularly grasp the deeper meaning behind the majority of the play. I just knew that it was fun to watch, that the acting had been good, and that I wanted to revisit it at some point in the future, maybe if I ever needed to direct a scene.

The next year, as a junior, I wandered into the Tate Modern and came face to face with a Rothko painting in the flesh. It was a surprising moment, like having someone tell a joke you’d dreamed about the night before. I’d seen that painting before! Where had I seen that painting before? I suddenly recalled a purposefully gloomy set and an actor with large glasses and a stern expression, silhouetted against a lovingly replicated Black on Maroon. I was transfixed. The authentic art piece was staggering in its intensity, but my feeling of familiarity undoubtedly heightened my appreciation of the work. The Tate Modern was filled with paintings by Rothko, as well as many other artists I had heard of fleetingly during my London preparation class. I lingered there for quite a while before being once more unceremoniously swept away by the magnetic force of the city. There were a thousand and one things to see and connect to in London and not a fourth of the time necessary to do so, so I moved on from the Rothko paintings with only a few sentences in my journal to commemorate the experience.

 Then a few weeks ago, during the last semester of my senior year of college, life came full circle. In my “Play Reading and Discussion” class, where I consistently enlist the analytical assistance of my English degree to more deeply understand various texts, the script of the week we were tasked with reading was ironically Logan’s masterpiece and my old friend, Red. It was a surreal, giddy feeling, having physically enjoyed a performance of the play, visually experienced the authentic product and inspirational artwork created by Rothko, and then finally to be given the opportunity to earnestly analyze the text for the deeper nuances of the story. I took advantage of the brief moments of freedom I had in between writing essays for my “English Capstone” class and the multiple rehearsal schedules I was juggling so I could research Rothko and his play the way I had wanted to do since I was a sophomore. I felt very powerfully the true depth of difference between myself as a senior in the here and now, and the oblivious sophomore who’d first been introduced to these characters. It was one of those instants where you laugh to yourself because you feel, for a fleeting moment, exactly the way you are “supposed” to as a nearly graduated student. For a satisfying second, I enjoyed feeling wildly well rounded.

I have been grateful a hundred times over that I was able to benefit from studying both Literature in English and Theatre. Both groups of study are so intrinsic to my personality and sense of self that going without one of them would have been like severing a limb. My experience with Rothko and Red is just one example of the hundreds of times in which I was able to make a grander connection with my education that helped to inspire and encourage me throughout my academic career. I have loved Theatre, and I have loved English, and my degrees and what they represent in the big picture of my education have only served to enhance that deep, passionate love I have for them both. Theatre and English may be very different in some aspects, but they are also the best things in the universe, and I’ll be making connections between the two long after I leave school.