In a classroom in New Cabell Hall, a group of students practices choreography for a silly song called "Make an Omelet." They talk and joke between run-throughs where they mime flipping eggs in an invisible frying pan or sprinkling a finished omelet with salt. Around the group sit other cast members of First Year Players’ upcoming production of "Something Rotten!" Waiting to be called up to rehearse, they work on homework, online shop or give feedback on the dancing.
A relaxed, friendly atmosphere is a defining aspect of First Year Players, a club that allows first-year and new transfer students to shine in theatrical productions. Unlike many theater groups, where hired professionals lead shows, FYP is entirely student-run.
"We're all friends since we're all students,” Christian Guinto-Brody, first-year College student and "Something Rotten!" lead said. “[Rehearsals] are very relaxed. The directors expect us to do the best we can, but if you have a conflict, they're very understanding because they have conflicts too. So there's that mutual student-student bond that you wouldn't have gotten in high school."
While rehearsals are fun and low-stakes for participants, the cast dedicates an immense amount of time and energy to the show each week. Rehearsals run anywhere from one hour to four hours Sunday through Thursday and involve singing, acting, blocking, choreography or a combination of the four. Regardless of the structure of a particular rehearsal, every practice begins with lighthearted warmups unique to FYP.
"The warmups themselves are a lot of fun and very, very different from what I would have thought,” Guinto-Brody said. “They're super silly and you wouldn't think that they would help with acting or singing, but they do. After the warm ups, we go through the scenes and develop intentions and learn notes and moves. It's what you'd expect from a theater practice, at least from my experience, but it's also different. It's fun."
Guinto-Brody plays Nick Bottom, who runs a theater troupe with his brother Nigel during the English Renaissance. The Bottom brothers live in the shadow of the wildly successful William Shakespeare until a soothsayer tells them the future of theater is singing, dancing and acting simultaneously. They set out to compose the world's first musical — Omelet: The Musical — and struggle to navigate new financial and romantic situations along the way.
"It's a huge bit of personality that [Nick Bottom] hates Shakespeare a lot,” Guinto-Brody said. “I try to best Shakespeare, basically, in any way I can, and in the process, I stray from myself and my family. Then, as musicals go, I eventually come back around. It's a lot of fun to play. It's different from the roles I've played before in the sense that it's both serious and goofy. It's a challenge, but it's a lot of fun to figure out, and I've learned a lot about acting in the process."
A critical aspect of cultivating the show's mood is its technical elements. With support from the director, FYP’s technical staff develops the visual and auditory details of the performance — everything from costumes to set design to sound.
"We ordered basically double what we've usually ordered for lights, so it should be a really spectacular show in terms of that," John Fitzgerald, third-year Engineering student and Technical Director for the show, said. “Then we have an absolutely massive list of props — probably two-or-three times what it normally is. Since it's a show about Shakespeare, costumes are all Shakespearian attire. Like doublets, corsets, that sort of thing to fit the mood and time period."
While the technical team and cast bring the show to life, its director is its heart — third-year Architecture student Aldi Argante proposed this semester’s show, developed a vision, leads all rehearsals and oversees the artistic staff. Argante elaborated on why he chose “Something Rotten!” and the story's connection to FYP.
"I picked it because it's one of my favorite shows — I also think that the themes really deal with FYP," Argante said. “[‘Something Rotten!’] is about this guy who doesn't feel like he's good enough as he's overshadowed by Shakespeare's works. I thought that was relatable. At U.Va., there's this air that you sort of have to go above and beyond, and I thought that was shown in 'Something Rotten!'"
Argante was also drawn to the humor that defines "Something Rotten!" The show conveys ideas relevant to college students, but is, at its core, a comedy. Argante hopes that "Something Rotten!" will serve as a lighthearted and silly escape to its cast and audience.
"It's just a really fun show,” Argante said. “It's really funny. It has a lot of moments where I feel like you can just bring your day, whether it was good or bad, and let it go and have fun. I knew that I wanted to do this show over other dramatic shows, because I really wanted someone when they see the show to have a nice lighthearted break in their day."
First Year Players’ production of "Something Rotten!" will run from Thursday, April 28 to Sunday, May 1. All shows are at 7 p.m. in the Student Activities Building.