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Inaugural theatre night brings Cornellian tales to the Big Apple

A drunken couple searches for neutral territory in which to fraternize, dismissing such campus landmarks as Clara Dickson Hall—"My parents met here and might have had sex here," the girl says—and Sage Hall (too reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair").

A frustrated sophomore channeling Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass ("I too am untranslatable/I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world") stands on a bridge near Balch Hall, simultaneously wondering whether she's smart enough to be at the University and annoyed that her experience isn't mirroring Dead Poets Society.

Jason Brantman
Show time: Contributors to Cornell Theatre Night included director Jason Brantman '97 (far left)...

Students fall in love in the stacks of Cornell's music library, terrorizing an uptight librarian as they vocalize their romance in satirical ballads.

Two cows fret over whether they're next up for "Frankenstein's plastic surgery"—having fistulated peep holes implanted in their sides for the sake of veterinary science.

Sound vaguely familiar? These and other vignettes—in six ten-minute plays staged at the first-ever Cornell Theatre Night in early June—were meant not only to evoke nostalgia among a Big Red-heavy audience, but to showcase the talents of Cornellian playwrights, actors, designers, and more. The evening was organized by Anaiza Morales '00, ME '01, MBA '02, a theatrical investor who founded the networking group Cornellians in Entertainment three years ago, aiming to offer an East Coast answer to Cornell in Hollywood, which helps alumni navigate the entertainment field in L.A.

Bruce Levitt
professor Bruce Levitt...

Jason Brantman '97, who directed and produced the evening, says a formal network would have helped open doors as he began building his résumé as a director of theatrical and other events such as the U.S. Open opening ceremonies. "I didn't necessarily have a lot of connections in New York City," Brantman recalls. "I had to pound the pavement to reach out to people and make cold calls, which are the hardest things to do." But when he happened to talk business with a fellow Cornellian, he says, "It always felt like there was a closer connection right off the bat."

The playwrights (Sheri Wilner '91, David Williams '98, Lauren Feldman '01, Daina Schatz '03, Tony Hogrebe '04, Danny Ross '06, and doctoral student Aoise Stratford) had their works selected after Brantman and Morales put out a call for submissions. The criteria: that they run ten minutes or less, be set in or around the Cornell campus, and be written by alumni or current students. Of the seventeen scripts submitted, the final six were selected based on the strength of the writing, tone, and feasibility of staging them in a minimalist fashion, says theatre professor Bruce Levitt, who co-curated the event.

Sheri Wilner
and playwright Sheri Wilner '91 (center)

The venue—off-Broadway's Snapple Theater Center, just north of Times Square—came courtesy of Catherine Russell '77, star of the center's long-running Perfect Crime and holder of a Guinness Book record for not missing a performance in more than two decades. Says Stratford, who wrote Open House after concluding that "a cow with a window is uniquely Cornell": "I was thrilled by the level of performance, and didn't feel like people were responding to Cornell—they were responding to a great night of theatre."

For Hogrebe, who co-wrote Cox Library, 2 p.m., the event was more of a chance to indulge his creative side than to market himself. The musical, his first, generated the evening's biggest laughs and cheers. "When I realized Cornell has a music library, it seemed too perfect and poetic to pass up as a setting," said Hogrebe, a speechwriter for New York City Councilwoman Christine Quinn who moonlights as a sketch comedian.

Wilner, a professional playwright who penned the Whitman-inspired Arts and Sciences after considering the homesickness she felt as a freshman, envisions a next-gen version of Cornell Theatre Night held on campus. "It would be really fun to do these plays where they were set, a traveling event from site to site," Wilner said. "People could stop and listen for ten minutes. It would be a blast."

— Jordan Lite

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1991
written by Sheri Wilner, August 31, 2011
This is a wonderful account of what was a fantastic event for all involved. One small correction though... it was Lauren Feldman's Yawper on the Balch Bridge, which was inspired by Walt Whitman, not my play Arts and Sciences, as reported in the article. Thank you!

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