As Artists and Teachers, Drama Grads Explore Creative Theatrical Partnerships

U.Va. graduate drama students Sandi Carroll (third from left) and Mike Long (fourth from left) performed in the Virginia Repertory Theatre’s production of \"Other Desert Cities\" this spring. Others in the scene (left to right) are Irene Ziegler, Melissa Jo
U.Va. graduate drama students Sandi Carroll (third from left) and Mike Long (fourth from left) performed in the Virginia Repertory Theatre’s production of \"Other Desert Cities\" this spring. Others in the scene (left to right) are Irene Ziegler, Melissa Johnston Price and Joe Inscoe.
Aaron Sutten)

Top Secret Agent Karen needs a partner to help her save the world – and you can help!

Such was the dramatic intent of “Mission: Implausible!,” a comic exploration of new media and physical storytelling performed in late March at the University of Virginia.

Two graduate students in U.Va.’s Department of DramaSandi Carroll and Michael Long created the play. Both will receive Master of Fine Arts degrees in drama May 18.

Long directed the one-woman show and developed it with Carroll, who starred as Top Secret Agent Karen. Produced in conjunction with Logic Limited Ltd., Carroll’s comedy group, the show was performed three times for the public at the Helms Theatre.

The production incorporated the interface of theater, clowning and improvisation, with the audience invited to participate via technology and social media. (See a promotional video here.)

For example, as the show progresses, audience members get in on the play’s action by suggesting to a guest performer onstage specific ways of dancing with Agent Karen or talking with her by directly sending him Facebook or Twitter comments and instructions.

“Directing Sandi in ‘Mission: Implausible!’ was a real adventure in helping her to realize her own aesthetic vision,” Long said.

“The experience of ‘Mission: Implausible!’ has proven to be more surprising and insightful about individual will and the creativity of crowds than I could have ever predicted,” Carroll said.

A Professional Actress Embraces Higher Ed

Prior to her U.Va. academic career, Carroll worked as a successful actor, educator, director and producer, appearing on Broadway and in such films as “Rabbit Hole” (starring Nicole Kidman), “The Adjustment Bureau” (with Matt Damon), “Next Stop Wonderland” (Miramax, Sundance), among many others. (View samples of her film here.)

Most of Carroll’s theater work has been based in physical comedy. She has written, produced and performed her own shows, including “Faux: An Auto-Spy-Ography,” based on her experiences as an undercover private investigator in Chinatown.

As co-founder of and performer in Logic Limited, Carroll has also created and performed in “Famous!,” “Schaden, Freude, & You: A Self-Help Seminar” and “TiVo La Resistance.”

The Three-Part System

Over the past three years, Long has acted in several of the drama department’s main stage productions (“Romeo and Juliet,” “Rhinoceros,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Crazy For You”) as well as in the Heritage Theater Festival, U.Va.’s summer professional theater (Annie Get Your Gun,” “1776”). He also was the assistant director of the department's production of “Museum.”

Long participated in the Mellon Graduate Teaching Seminar for Excellence in the Humanities, “Writing Within and Against Canons,” an interdisciplinary class at U.Va. focused on developing innovative methods of teaching the craft of writing to undergraduates.

Working last year with Amaree Cluff, another actor in the M.F.A. program, Long co-wrote, co-directed and acted in “The Swiss Swap: A Martin and Margaret Adventure,” a farce that was produced as part of the The Lab Series Program. The program provides a vehicle for students to produce and direct their own theatrical work, mentored by the Virginia Players executive board and drama department faculty.

“The U.Va. drama department provided me an opportunity to completely immerse myself in the study of acting and drama for three years,” Long said.

“It’s basically a three-part system: taking courses, teaching courses and acting in productions. All three aspects allowed me to understand the art form in different ways that combined to inform my personal aesthetic point of view – and the drama department provided me with the opportunity to implement this aesthetic through the creation of two original plays.” 

What Made ‘Mission: Implausible!’ Plausible

Carroll and Long’s “Mission: Implausible!” engaged the audience in Agent Karen’s efforts to save the world, using Facebook, Twitter and Skype to harvest their insights and intelligence and further the action.

During the performances, a male was chosen from the audience to be the heroine’s hero. He spent most of the show onstage with Carroll enduring a series of situations that tested his courage.

As the hero gradually became the star of the show, the audience was enlisted as agents, interacting with the comedic interplay via their smartphones and contributing ideas about how to save the world and help train Karen’s new partner.

In a nod to the ’70s television program “Charlie’s Angels,” Headquarters (HQ) – an actor Skyping in live from a remote location – gave Karen further instructions.

By the end of the performance, the audience member had become a full-fledged hero and the enlisted audience-agents were sent out into the world to help complete the mission and report back via social media channels.

Carroll said the goal of the interactive performance was to establish a higher level of exchange between the action onstage and the audience, inspiring positive action for change beyond the performance space into the outside community.

The Artist as Teacher, The Teacher as Artist

Carroll has taught acting at New York University and Emerson College, clowning at Brown University and movement for The Shakespeare Lab at The Public Theater.  

She has served as the education manager at The Public, producing the Shakespeare Lab (a professional actor-training program), Shakespeare in the Boroughs (an educational outreach initiative), and has moderated more than 50 onstage discussions with artists including Tim Robbins, Sam Rockwell and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

With her acting, clowning and improvisation experience, Carroll brought a great deal of professional know-how into teaching classes at U.Va.

“Through the M.F.A. program at U.Va., I discovered that teaching and being a working artist are perfect complements to each other,” Carroll said. “Each fuels the other. I take the lessons I learn from my audiences into the classroom the next day, and I take the lessons I learn from my students right back onstage with me that night.

“Having to be as fearless and vulnerable in front of audiences as my students have to be in the classroom keeps me in touch with the wide range of challenges they face.

“Because I create, I am a better teacher. Because I teach, I am a better artist.”

A New Partnership

As a transition to the professional world, Long and Caroll are currently performing in the family drama “Other Desert Cities” (preview here) through May 18 at the Sara Belle and Neil November Theatre at the Virginia Repertory Center in Richmond, part of a new partnership forged between U.Va.’s M.F.A. acting program and the Virginia Repertory Theatre.

Colleen Kelly, associate professor of drama and director of the M.F.A. acting program, said the partnership with the center is a great recruiting tool for U.Va. “It offers an opportunity for our actors to perform with an equity company at a professional theater and participate in play development. For Virginia Rep, the partnership provides national exposure and access to a new and very talented pool of actors.”

In “Other Desert Cities,” Brooke Wyeth, played by Carroll, returns home to celebrate the holidays with her politically influential family. When she reveals her plan to publish a tell-all memoir, fireworks ignite.

“Other Desert Cities” was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and received five Tony Award nominations, including Best Play. The show also won the Outer Critics award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play.

After graduation from U.Va. this weekend, Carroll will tour “Mission: Implausible!” nationally and internationally, and teach in the Washington, D.C. area. Long will continue to act and teach regionally.