by PENNY BRANDT
Wagner College Theatre’s latest production, “Used Records,” is a profoundly moving experience with story, conception and direction by Jack Cummings III featuring a cast of 16 actors and a full stage crew. Cummings, artistic director of the award-winning NYC theatre company, the Transport Group, is known for this kind of delicate, experimental work. He and the Wagner company were inspired by a playlist of songs that you might have heard coming from a record player 50 years ago — hence the title. Those songs make up the audio of the play. There is no spoken dialogue; the story is told through a mixture of movement, gesture, and reaction to the music. It’s a bit like watching a silent film with a great soundtrack.
The story follows a woman as she journeys through a difficult period of life, supported by friends past and present, and reminiscing about the moments and people that have made her who she is. There is love. There is loss. There is giddy joy, and there is intense pain. There are also quiet moments of mundanity — the tediousness of waiting in a doctor’s office, or for someone else to pick up a phone. The ensemble makes masterful use of these slow moments to build feelings of anticipation and anxiety in the audience, drawing a few laughs and more than a few tears.
The student actors worked with Cummings and alongside Wagner College Theatre professor Theresa McCarthy to develop deep, inner worlds for the characters they portrayed, producing intricately nuanced performances. Rareș Damșa portrays a surly detective with moments of warmth like tiny rays of sunshine on a dreary day. Madison Garcia and Kevin Luck portray shy young lovers who face the unexpected with naive courage. All of the very human characters wander in and out of the story, sometimes sticking around to offer one more facial expression or to simply sit with another character as the journey continues to unfold.
Devised theater, or “collective creation,” is a process by which a performance group creates a story together. The company developed this story through a collaborative process that started several months ago with just a concept. Devised work can be grueling, as it requires the actors to experiment and accept feedback as they work together to develop the characters, the plot and the flow of the story. Students in theater programs around the country study devised work as part of their curriculum, but it is rare for students to have the opportunity to immerse themselves so fully in the practice under the guidance of award-winning professionals. Presenting this kind of work to an audience requires bravery and vulnerability, and our students rose to the occasion with their raw and honest portrayals of emotion.
The actors were supported onstage with ethereal lighting by Vicki Neal, costumes from Alan Michael Smith, sound design by Julian Evans, technical direction by Brian T. Sharron and a grounding yet flexible set by guest designer Oscar Escobedo. Cummings previously directed for WCT in 2017 and has professional ties to WCT faculty and alumni, including cast member and department chair Theresa McCarthy. In 2011, he directed McCarthy in Michael John LaChiusa’s “Queen of the Mist” alongside WCT alumnae Megan Kelley and Theresa Flanagan.
PENNY BRANDT is assistant professor and director of the Arts Administration program at Wagner College and part of the leadership team for the award-winning Wagner College Theatre program. Previously she held the position of managing director at Golden Hornet, an organization dedicated to reimagining classical music in Austin, Texas. She has taught in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin and the Department of Fine Arts at Misericordia University. Brandt earned her Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Connecticut, her B.A. summa cum laude from the University of New Haven, and a graduate certificate in nonprofit management from the Harvard University Extension School.