Student-run production breathes life into Baruch’s theater scene
For performing arts students, trying to find rehearsing space in Baruch College can be the toughest element of putting on a production. While renting the rehearsal studio is possible, the space is only available between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., excluding times when professional companies are renting it. There is also the option of using the music room, which 19-year-old Ruthie Ostrow described as being “the size of a wheelchair accessible bathroom.” A group of students from Baruch decided to take a more creative solution to the space issue. Once the group knew what the set would look like, it moved the rehearsals into the racquetball courts, which provide much more space and stay open until 9 p.m.
“It’s so silly to have, like, performing arts in a racquetball court. Because it’s not meant for that, so we have the security guards giving us the funniest looks as we’re trying to steal couches from [level] B2 in the gym and bring it in. Or taking music stands and there’s like 15 people walking directly into a court meant for two,” Ostrow said.
The group comprised the cast and crew of The Last Five Years, which was performed in the Bernie West Theatre between Feb. 15 and Feb. 17. Unlike most other performances put up in Baruch College, The Last Five Years was a completely student-run production.
The journey to get The Last Five Years onto a Baruch stage was long and twisted. In August 2016, Ostrow and 21-year-old Zeynep Akca put up a GoFundMe project to raise the money that went toward purchasing the show’s rights. That was only the beginning, however, as the two still had to pay for the costumes, props and space.
“If you want to rent, for example, the Bernie West Theatre for the weekend, it’s actually closer to like $3,000 or $4,000,” Ostrow said. “So we were looking at a $7,000 show for two actors and maybe a 10-person set and crew, which was ridiculous.”
In order to decrease the price for renting the theater, Akca and Ostrow asked several art groups on campus to “sponsor” them, so that the group could be associated with a club or organization and receive a discount. However, Ostrow recounted that while a lot of clubs were willing to help, it was the Gender, Love and Sexuality Spectrum that agreed to sponsor the club.
During the Undergraduate Student Government’s Feb. 7 meeting, Akca and Gabe Roman, president of G.L.A.S.S., pitched the play to the senate table and requested a $1,920 co-sponsorship agreement to fund the renting of the Bernie West Theatre, costumes and props. After a debate, USG agreed to support the group.
“We were going forward with the thought that USG wasn’t going to help us,” Ostrow said. “I think myself alone has paid maybe $300 on props and just different pieces and trying different things. We’ll buy a dress and put it on the actress thinking it will be beautiful and it looks terrible, or we’ll buy a prop and think it’s worse and it will just break on us.”
In October, the two directors held open auditions for the roles of Cathy and Jamie. After two rounds of auditions and chemistry tests, two pairs were selected for the roles. During that time, the crew was selected from a group of people who either helped in previous plays or participated in art groups around Baruch, including the Blue Notes.
“They’ve been very helpful. I think I owe the Blue Notes a leg and an arm and all the affection I could ever give,” Ostrow said.
The show’s set design is simple but effective in pushing forth a veil of nostalgia that arguably surrounds The Last Five Years’ entire plot. Set designer Eileen Makak recalls the origin of the set’s youthful color scheme.
“The first time [the directors] spoke to me, they said that they wanted to reach out to Baruch students, so how can we get that young audience and not make the show too old? … That’s when we thought of the color scheme for the show, which kind of sparked up everything else,” said Makak, a graphic communication major.
Makak’s choice of royal blue and pale yellow reflects a color scheme commonly used in schools, adding to the show’s youthful spirit. An audience member glancing at the outer edge of the set may notice several photos of a sort of bridge, train and tunnel with the colors painted over them. Makak added this artistic flair to the set to bring out the artistic personalities of both Cathy and Jamie.
Cathy and Jamie certainly take advantage of the set pieces throughout The Last Five Years’ unique and unsettling timeline. A chest, coat rack, futon and a messy desk are all utilized by the cast throughout the shows. For example, during Jamie’s “The Schmuel Song” and Cathy’s “A Summer in Ohio,” the actors interact with the set, taking accessories from the clothing rack. This ensures that the set does not just settle into a stagnant existence—it is a living and crucial part of the show.
Freshman Elina Niyazov, who played Cathy as part of cast, explained that fulfilling her role in The Last Five Years was unique in that the show featured no dialogue between characters.
“Usually, you understand the character through conversation with other characters,” Niyazov said. “That was really difficult to find the traits of Cathy herself. A lot of the process consisted of making things up.”
“We were like, ‘What would Cathy’s past look like?’ ‘What would she have done on a Saturday night?’ There are a bunch of hypothetical scenarios that we put our characters in and by doing that we developed our character,” she continued.
Niyazov and her co-star Anton Kurdakov, who plays Jamie, both agreed that working with each other was far from stressful. The two did not know each other prior to auditions, yet their friendship flourished as they practiced together, even though their characters do not interact. Both Niyazov and Kurdakov admittedly struggled with the show’s wedding scene, where they were required to waltz.
“I think that as actors we have to understand that we have our strength and our weakness. We’re trying to make our strength shine and our weaknesses irrelevant,” said Kurdakov.