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DeFrantz puts dramatic mark on MIT

Thomas DeFrantz, a New York-based choreographer, director, writer and critic, was recently appointed assistant professor of theater arts. He is currently directing and choreographing Drama-shop's ambitious production of Grand Hotel by Davis, Forrest, Wright and Yeston. Lynn Heinemann of the Office of the Arts spoke with him last week.

LH: What do you teach at MIT?

TD: This year I'm teaching a new class -- African American Performance, a workshop and survey of black modes of performance. In this class we try to uncover the roots of African-American "performativ-ity," as in the "blues aesthetic," black oratory, hip hop culture -- its fashions, language, dances and music -- all through the prism of plays written by African-American writers. It's an exciting class which brings together music, dance, and drama.

Another popular course I've started, which was offered in the fall, is Musical Theater Workshop, where students work on movement, singing and acting, with a focus on the use of the body as an expressive tool.

This semester I'm also teaching Foundations in Theater History, which explores theater practice and theory across cultures and in various periods, and the History of North American Theater. In the fall, we're inaugurating a new class -- cross-listed with Women's Studies -- called "Queer Theater," which will deal with gay and lesbian playwrights and modes of performance.

What do you like about teaching at MIT?

Here I work with exceptionally bright people who are committed to learning. MIT students come with their hearts open and we discover a lot about theater and each other in the process. They are very open to the game-playing and the process of discovery that goes into rehearsing a musical, as well as the pursuit of excellence. This, combined with a basic generosity of spirit from all the students I've met, makes it fun for me.

What's a typical day like for you?

It's too busy. In rehearsals during IAP, we worked from 10am-11pm, usually with a dance rehearsal in the morning (10am-noon), a scene rehearsal in the afternoon from 1-5pm, and a full company rehearsal from 7-11pm. Now that classes have begun, I start the day with a faculty or production meeting at 9am, followed by classes and meetings with students until around 4:30, and then a rehearsal with the company from 7-10pm. In between, I'm polishing off an essay about protest dance in the Black Arts movement, to be included in an anthology titled African American Performance, as well as an article about hip hop dance for an anthology titled Moving Ideologies. I also have two book-length manuscripts in process.

Are you still commuting from New York City?

Yes -- from or to, I'm never sure which it is. I'm choreographer and associate director for a play about Paul Robeson being written by Ossie Davis which will debut this spring and play at the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, NJ, as well as the Newark Performing Arts Center. I'm also still working with Ballet Hispanico on "Crossing Borders," an arts-in-education program that tours elementary and high schools throughout the nation. I am an archivist at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which is in New York City and coordinator of the dance history program offered there. Besides this I write occasional performance criticism for the Village Voice in New York.

Your background is predominantly in directing/choreographing. Have you performed?

I've been choreographing and directing since my undergraduate years at Yale, in dinner theater and regional venues. I don't have an extensive performance background, but I'm often coaxed onto the stage. Two years ago I played Larry in a production of A Chorus Line which I associate directed at Montclair Theatrefest. I danced in productions of Sophisticated Ladies and Dreamgirls which I directed, and I've guested in concert performances as a solo tap dancer.

How did Dramashop decide to do a musical and how was Grand Hotel chosen?

Musicals are what I do most and best, and Dramashop graciously leaned into my strengths. Grand Hotel is a good choice because it has a number of leading roles, and it deals with interesting and layered themes and issues such as class-based animosity, closeted sexualities, the price of ambitions and the lengths to be endured for survival.

It's also a show with challenging music and dance sequences and a highly stylized sensibility. This is a "concept" musical, which means that the idea of life in the hotel is manipulated according to the authors' desire to tell the story as they deem fit. So we switch modes frequently, from realistic episodes, to surrealistic gestural sequences, and into songs and dances. I've staged it on a three-quarter thrust stage with overlapping scenes, so the audience will get a different sense of the show and characters depending on where they're sitting. It's certainly an adventure, for the actors as well as the audience.

Grand Hotel plays Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 19-21 and Thursday-Friday, Feb. 26-27 at 8pm in the Sala de Puerto Rico in the Stratton Student Center. Set in Berlin's legendary hotel in 1928, Grand Hotel explores the glamorous life of the hotel's patrons and the societal disease lurking beneath its mirrored facade. Tickets are $8, or $6 for students with ID. For more information, call x3-2908, e-mail or see the Dramashop web site.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 11, 1998.

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