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Pulling back the ‘Curtains’: First Year Players finds community amid chaos

The long-standing theater organization preps to perform in person, once again

<p>As a club devoted to welcoming first-years onto Grounds and helping with their transition into the University community, it is important to instill that sense of resilience and love for your environment straight out of the gate.</p>

As a club devoted to welcoming first-years onto Grounds and helping with their transition into the University community, it is important to instill that sense of resilience and love for your environment straight out of the gate.

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First Year Players — or FYP as it is familiarly known around Grounds — was founded in 1977 and is the University’s largest student-run theater CIO. But keeping a performance organization running over the last year and a half hasn’t been easy, especially an organization dedicated to reaching out to new students. Scheduling a changing cast, tech crew and pit is a challenge on its own, but when you factor in the limitations of the pandemic, it becomes even more difficult. FYP has managed to stick it out though. Last year they put on a filmed production of “Singin’ in the Rain,” and this year, they are diving back into the world of in-person performance with the mystery musical comedy “Curtains.”

“I couldn’t stop hearing, ‘It’s an honor and a joy to be in show business … the show must go on,’” said Aubrey Hill, “Curtains” director and fourth-year College student. “At its heart, ‘Curtains’ is about the joy of putting on a musical amidst chaos, uncertainty and fear. Sound familiar? Everyone, whether a first year or a fourth year, is going to be coming to U.Va. in the fall with new expectations for an amazing semester."

After enduring a year without live theatre, Hill said everyone is ready to get back to working on an in-person production.

"‘Curtains’ deeply reflects the values of FYP,” Hill said. “This show is about perseverance and the love for theatre being at the root of all performers … ‘Curtains’  is about falling in love, meeting new people, resolving conflict, solving a mystery and being a show person."

Perseverance and finding community amongst artists seems to be at the heart of FYP and one of the reasons the organization has stuck around for so long. As a club devoted to welcoming first-years onto Grounds and helping with their transition into the University community, it is important to instill that sense of resilience and love for your environment straight out of the gate. But that attitude does not have to end after your first year — there are many ways to get involved after your introduction to FYP. 

“We are a theater organization, but I feel like the primary goal and interest of everyone is to create a safe artistic space and community for first-years,” said Caitlin Woodford, current FYP choreographer and fourth-year College student. “I think past first year, it becomes a way to give back to that same principle that helped you get welcomed into college — everyone wanting to kind of pay it forward, that welcoming environment.” 

Creating such an environment is no small feat, especially when part of the theater experience is auditioning, where you either get a callback or you do not. When it comes to dealing with rejection and maintaining such a positive environment, it seems there is always a space for first-years in FYP, even if it’s not on stage. 

“No matter what section you end up joining — cast, tech or pit — there’s always a way to get involved," Woodford said. "I think everyone knows how hard it is to feel rejection from those sorts of things, so everyone is there to support you and be kind no matter what. And so I think it really creates a resilient community, because having to deal with the stress of memorizing lines or memorizing music or figuring out how to design the lighting for different scenes — it takes a lot of teamwork and collaboration.” 

When it comes to creating such a supportive environment, a lot of the welcoming energy must come from the top down. It would be tough to have an organization that encourages first years to feel comfortable on Grounds without the structure and dependence on upperclassmen who want to stick around. A significant comfort for first years and transfer students trying to get their start in the theater community on Grounds comes from the willingness to make and correct mistakes. 

“We’re all learning from each other, and so even though some of us have a little more experience than others, we’re all still learning through collaboration and having a shared creative purpose,” Woodford said.

For Woodford and FYP, the transition from virtual back to in-person has enabled a reflection on the organization's direction and allowed room for growth.

“There might be some things that weren’t working as well when they started and now we have a blank slate to do things the way we think they should be done," Woodford said.

Recovering from the pandemic together is easier said than done, but finding a community on Grounds that can support you in that process is incredibly valuable. Through the arts here at the University, whether that’s visiting an exhibit at the Fralin, auditioning for a play, participating in an open mic night or going to see an a cappella performance, you might be able to tap into that energy of community, of group effort and enthusiasm. The arts community has made it through the performance drought and isolation of the last year and a half and is ready to start supporting each other even more. 

“The arts community at U.Va. truly loves what they do, and it makes us a resilient group of people," Hill said. "We all love the arts, and we have all been itching to get back into a performance space … It’s truly an amazing community of people, and I feel lucky to be a part of it every day.”

“Curtains” opens Nov. 19-21 in the Student Activities Building.

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