Meet the Teacher: Molly Seremet
By: Amber James
Molly Seremet joined the faculty of the Mary Baldwin University Shakespeare and Performance program this Fall 2019 semester. According to her professional bio, “Molly is a theatrical magpie and happily identifies as a director, devised theatremaker, costume designer, dramaturg, and scholar in equal measure. She holds an M.Res with Distinction in Performance and Creative Research from London’s University of Roehampton as well as an M.Litt/MFA in Shakespeare and Performance from Mary Baldwin University.” She is famous among the halls of the S&P program for being the first ever two-time winner of the Andrew Gurr Award for Outstanding Thesis. I had the opportunity to sit down with Molly to ask her some questions about her background and unique career.
Q: What is your theatre origin story?
MOLLY: I’m an only child, so when I was a little kid I grew up in a house with lots of art in it. My mom is a teacher and my dad was an actor when I was a little kid, and I was a relatively theatrical little kid. I spent a lot of time going to rehearsal with my dad, partially because of two working parents and no childcare, right? So, I spent a lot of time in rehearsal with my dad. But also, books were such a big part of my childhood – I always grew up being read to and then reading to my parents and that sort of became performance in our house. I remember as a little girl my dad reading me A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a bedtime story, and he would do all the voices (he’s kind of over-the-top anyways) and that was just really lovely and then we would read it together and it kind of evolved from this thing that just happened in our house to something that I really wanted to do, so I started doing plays. I was in my very first play in 3rd grade and my dad directed it for my elementary school – it was A Midsummer Night’s Dream actually. I played Oberon and I was tiny and it was awesome. At my elementary school we did a couple other Shakespeare plays – we did Comedy of Errors one year – and it was just not unusual, right? It just became familiar. And then, probably predictably, I just grew up wanting to do more of that.
I was a theatre major in college, but I went to a liberal arts college kind of like Mary Baldwin in that I did specialize in theatre but inside of that I didn’t really have a specialty because it was a small college so I was onstage, I learned how to direct, I learned how to do costumes. In fact, my very first job right out of college I did an internship with the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in their costume shop that turned into a job with the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in their costume shop. I joined the Costumer’s Union that way and I was only 22. It was kind of crazy how it happened, but by growing up always surrounded by theatre and art in general, and then by being encouraged throughout college to try my hand at lots of things within theatre, that’s what led me to being here, because I never really felt like “You have to define yourself as an actor” – no you don’t! Being a little bit of everything helps you understand everyone you’re in the room with and helps you just be a better human, and being a better human makes you a better theatre-maker.
Q: What drew you to Mary Baldwin University, first as a grad student and then returning now as a professor?
MOLLY: Sometimes I think that my career path has kind of run in reverse. I graduated from undergrad a number of years ago and first I moved to Pittsburgh and then I moved to New York City and I lived in New York for seven years working in theatre and working in restaurants to support my theatre habit. For me that was absolutely the right choice, I wasn’t ready to go to grad school – a lot of my college classmates did and got MFAs right away – but I didn’t, that wasn’t for me. I wanted to explore and I wanted to play and I wanted to figure out who I was before I could sort out what my professional identity was going to be. And while I was in New York I decided to do a master’s degree in performance and creative research, which is basically devised theatre, at the University of Roehampton in London. So, I moved to London for a year, which was great – I was super excited about the program and it also meant I got to live in London for a year. Then I went back to New York and I continued to work as a theatre-maker, but I had kind of figured out during that time, as a virtue of getting a little bit older, that I really wanted to teach. And in order to teach, outside of teaching workshops or teaching as an artist educator, I needed a terminal degree. And that’s what drew me to Mary Baldwin. Like I said, I grew up with my first real taste of theatre being Shakespeare, so even though I really hesitate to call myself a Shakespearean because I mostly like what you can do with Shakespeare, that really drew me to Mary Baldwin because the program was so welcoming to even someone like me who doesn’t primarily think of herself as a Shakespeare scholar. I felt that I would be happy here as a student, and I was because I was able to pursue my interests in what we can do with Shakespeare and how we can treat the text in ways that don’t break it, which I thought was pretty cool. And then while I was here as a student, I just fell in love with the community. The faculty here is so incredible and I started out by getting to know Dr. Menzer and Doreen primarily as mentors and as advisors, and then that relationship just continued. Doreen and I work in collaboration a lot, we co-direct and I assisted her when she directed Antigone for the American Shakespeare Center – and that just made it such an attractive place to stay, to get to continue to be a part of this community and to get to continue our work together. So, I’m really thrilled to be here and to get to work with the students who are attracted to this strange, wonderful little program.
Q: What do you love most about devised theatre? How is the devised process different from a more standard production?
MOLLY: My favorite thing about devised theatre-making is that a devised theatre process becomes a love letter to the people who are in the room together. Devised theatre is always more than the sum of its parts, but can never be the same if you change out the people who are working on it. So, I think in that way the responsiveness and the reflexivity of devised theatre really appeals to me. People sometimes ask how you start a devised process because you don’t have a script necessarily – I guess sometimes you do – and I like to think of it as the material is already all in the room, because it’s the people. It’s the collection of people that you curate around a concept or around an idea – and I love that process, partially because I think I like being in a room with people who are smarter than me, with people who come at the world from a different perspective. I think inside of a normal rehearsal process that can sometimes be frustrating and it can sometimes be infuriating when you just need to get through the unit that you said you were going to do that day. Inside of a devising process though, it is not just important to pay attention to all those ideas, it is imperative because that moves the work forward.
In terms of how a devised process differs for me from a text-based process, I suppose I’m not entirely sure they’re super different because, particularly when I’m working on classical theatre, I tend to think of the play as material rather than a mandate from a playwright. Of course, this is different if you’re working on a play with copyright or in a state that will hound you, but I do tend to think of the text as material just like everything else. I always tend to start a process from a place of putting all the material at play on the same level and then grabbing what we like, working our way through what we don’t, and trying to see what the aggregate of that becomes. I suspect that’s probably how it would work all the time. I like putting physical material into play with text as well so, probably inspired by my frequent collaborations with Doreen, I’ll often have actors make physical scores based on text or inspired by ideas from the text and then that sort of physical script becomes a parallel text.
Q: What would you say is your favorite early modern play and why?
MOLLY: I have two answers and the first is that I continue to be obsessed with the first quarto of Hamlet, both as a performance text because I think it’s an incredible tool for performance, but also because it’s a text that scholars have twisted themselves into knots trying to explain where it came from and I think that’s so interesting. We call it bad, but we can’t stop ourselves from wanting to know what created it and I get really excited about all of that. I don’t particularly care where it came from in academic terms because I think it’s useful in and of itself as its own kind of thing. I’m kind of obsessed with the simplicity and directness of the language – “To be or not to be, ay there’s the point” – I actually think that’s better than “that is the question” and it gets me excited. So that’s my favorite Shakespeare play.
In terms of other texts though, I really love The Sea Voyage. I had the opportunity to direct it for the American Shakespeare Center’s theatre camp a few summers ago and it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in my life because it’s Amazons and cannibals and shipwrecks. One of the coolest things about it is that it’s in conversation with Shakespeare’s The Tempest but something that is does really well is that The Tempest is all about magic and so there are magical solutions proposed in the text for all kinds of theatrical problems. For example, all the shipwrecked sailors wash up onshore but because of magic their clothes are perfectly dry – that’s the theatre talking, that’s Henslowe or Burbage saying “Yeah, we can’t have wet actors. You can’t get their costumes wet.” In The Sea Voyage, not only do they wash up onshore, but in their embedded stage directions they tell us that they’re sopping wet. And I think it’s kind of wonderful that The Sea Voyage is also magical, but in anti-theatrical ways, in ways that don’t make the theatre-making process easier, but rather a really fun challenge. Because everyone has to be sopping wet but then they have to be dry by the next scene – I think that’s really exciting, I think it’s fun, and I always want more Amazons and more groups of women onstage.
Q: What is the worst and/or weirdest job you’ve ever had?
MOLLY: Fortunately, my weirdest and my worst jobs are not the same. My weirdest job was fun. I used to work at a museum doing museum theatre, at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, and they had some sort of community event because Mr. Rogers is from near Pittsburgh (he’s actually from my hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania) and he was doing a special event at this museum where I was working. It involved Mr. McFeely doing a presentation for kids – Mr. McFeely has a sidekick called the Purple Panda – and I wound up being the Purple Panda for the event. I was my high school mascot and I also did it in college, so it was something that was familiar to me, so I wound up being the Purple Panda for some events with Mr. McFeely, which was fun for me because, as I said, I’m from Latrobe so the connection with Fred Rogers was fun for me.
My worst job was pretty much right out of college when I worked as a legal assistant in a corporate law firm. I thought for just a hot second that at some point I wanted to be an attorney, and that just really reinforced that that was just not the way forward for me. I’m grateful for the job in that nothing refines one’s writing skills like proofreading documents for three really picky attorneys, but I was really grateful that that job lasted for about a year and then I was able to move onto the next thing. Just too much stress and pressure and yelling for my introverted heart.
Q: What is your favorite place to eat in Staunton?
MOLLY: Ooh, I like that question. I’m really fond of The Green Room which is a new business in town owned by Ben Reed and his wife Lauren Ballard Reed. It’s great particularly because they have local stuff, the beer comes from the area and the food on the menu comes from the area, and I think that’s really cool and really fun. But I’d also be remiss if I didn’t say that Yelping Dog and their grilled cheese menu feels like it came right out of my brain, because all I ever want is cozy food and cozy wine, and preferably the two together.
Q: What was your favorite project/production that you served as dramaturg on?
MOLLY: I think my favorite was a project that I worked on in a couple different capacities. I didn’t call myself a dramaturg at the time, partially because I’m not sure I ever really understood what that word meant. This was seven or eight years ago now in New York City, a good friend of mine Anna Bridgforth and I were working with a burlesque company that asked us to do an adaptation of Moby Dick for a burlesque show. Anna was a part of the company, Storybook Burlesque, but I was not a company member, they brought me in from the outside particularly to put together the script, so it would be scripted with some burlesque acts to punctuate. My job was to take the entirety of Melville’s novel, which I had started to read a number of times but never actually finished (like a lot of people, I think), and to break it down not just into an easily digestible text but also to think about how burlesque acts could punctuate or could work inside of that plot to tell a story. I spent a lot of time trying to wrap my head around what that would be. The end product wound up being this incredible piece where, of course, some of the performers in the company portrayed characters. There was a woman who did an act based on Queequeg who is covered in tattoos, so her act wasn’t so much a striptease of taking off her clothes, it was about revealing tattoos – the performer began all covered up and as it went on we got to see how much of her skin was covered in tattoos. Another performer in the company portrayed the shipwreck inside of the typhoon with this crazy skirt that stretched out over the stage and she had this ship hat that she built. For me, that project was compiling the script, but I think I was maybe helping with the dramaturgical thinking, thinking of how to create the frame for what they wanted to say about the novel and package it in a way that someone who had never read the book would understand, but maybe also people who have read the book would love. So that was a weird project, but it was probably my favorite thing that I’ve ever made, particularly because I was working in collaboration with a dear friend, but also because of what it was that we made, the piece that came from that.
Q: Do you find that dramaturgs often accidentally figure out that they are dramaturgs in the way you described?
MOLLY: I think so! I think that, you know, there are wonderful people in this world that have the title of dramaturg, but then there are other people who are just good at dramaturgical thinking. Most productions wind up having a dramaturg even if there’s not somebody with the title who does it. I think that people who are good at dramaturgy tend to be people who can hold onto the big picture inside of a process, and that is a benefit to any production whether or not someone has the title or not. More people should get to have that title because I think theatre is better for it. Theatre is better when people let go of their need to be in control of everything.
Unfortunately, that was all the time I had to speak with Molly, but it was a true pleasure to learn more about her amazing life and work thus far. We are very lucky to have her on the faculty of this program and I, for one, can’t wait to see all the incredible work she is going to accomplish with our student body during her tenure with Mary Baldwin University. Welcome, Molly!