In October, the theatre arts department presented an adaptation of Charlotte Brönte’s classic novel “Jane Eyre” and invited local high school students to attend three special matinees. These performances inaugurated an educational series, Found in Translation: Great Literature in the Theatre. Professor Mitchell Thomas, who chairs Westmont’s theater arts department, developed the program to engage the local community in the arts at Westmont.
Thomas first encountered Polly Teale’s adaptation of “Jane Eyre” at a performance by Shared Experience theatre in London in 2006. Immediately, he wanted to produce it at Westmont. About the same time, fellow theater professor John Blondell became interested in directing “Anon(ymous),” a contemporary interpretation of Homer’s “Odyssey” by UC Santa Barbara professor Naomi Iizuka. Together they created a season of plays based on literature often found in the high school curriculum. With grant money from Venoco, the department invited Santa Barbara schools to visit campus and see the production.
“This was a great motivator for [students] to do the reading,” wrote Jack Hobbs, an English teacher at San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara, after bringing his class to see “Jane Eyre.” “I feel they really ‘got’ the novel after seeing the play.” Moreover, the chance to visit a college campus helped students consider new possibilities for higher education.
The Westmont actors enjoyed the interaction between schools. “We were able to speak with high schoolers after the performance,” says sophomore Marie Ponce, who portrayed the dark and mysterious Bertha Mason. “It was sad on one hand to hear that this was the first stage production that many of them had seen, but it was beautiful for them to come.”
Junior Sarah Halford, who played the complex title character, recalls the unique experience of performing for high school students. “When Rochester said, ‘Marry me,’ a girl in the audience gasped and said, ‘Say yes!’ so loud. It was exciting to see that passion, which adults wouldn’t show.”
Adults also appreciated the show, and the actors played to sold-out audiences each night. Thomas and the actors relished the opportunity to share Westmont’s theatre with new audiences. “We are a community that is able to go out and share with the broader community,” says Ponce.
Thomas believes the theater department is uniquely poised to bridge the distance between communities. He sees the arts as a realm where secular and religious concerns often overlap, and serious ideas can be shared in an approachable way. “Theatre is a place where we can gather round the fire together and tell stories that are bigger than our differences,” he says. “I think we’re in an exciting period for the arts at Westmont, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the theatre arts are going to participate in that renaissance.”