There were no elaborate costumes, as the actors dressed in black, white and shades of gray. The props were rudimentary; the sets consisting mainly of a table and folding chairs.
“Piece out our imperfections with your imagination,” director Sharon Andrews told the audience.
It wasn’t difficult. The 12 actors, who were cast in ways that ignored the boundaries of age and gender, were believable and compelling. Most important, the message they wished to convey through a series of plays was clear – running a family business is often rewarding yet always challenging.
The actors are students in Andrews’ Acting II course at Wake Forest University, and the event was part of the University’s Family Business Center quarterly forums. The brainchild of Andrews, an associate professor of directing/acting for the Department of Theatre and Dance, and Kathy Baker, FBC director, the Family Business Theatre was held Friday, Nov. 13, in the the Ring Theatre of the Scales Fine Art Center on campus.
“One of the goals was that we wanted to come up with ways to illustrate the family business dynamic in a new, thought-provoking way, and I think we really accomplished that,” Baker said.
The unique theater event featured dramatic interpretations from William Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and “All My Sons,” and “Other People’s Money” by Jerry Sterner. The evening’s performance also included an original play — “Bananas,” written and directed by Wake Forest acting student Jacqlyn Phillips.
FBC members in attendance discussed the issues and situations brought to the fore by each performance. Led by Andrews and Baker, the members and others in the audience, for instance, talked about the difficulties and ramifications associated with firing a member of the family, about maintaining one’s integrity through honesty and an unwillingness to compromise, about conflicts of interest and correcting mistakes, about the importance of effective communication as it relates to the business, and about loyalty and persevering through difficult times.
Jack Geis of Salem Kitchen is a FBC member. He was impressed by the students’ talents and the quality of the production.
“I thought it was great,” he said. “I could identify with several of the scenes. We have a family business, and the issue is succession; how we’re going to handle it. My wife and I are getting older, and we’ve got to handle it rather quickly. I thought the students did a super job of acting.”
One of the missions of theater, Andrews said, is to provoke conversation. “That’s why it’s been done for thousands and thousands of years.”
Andrews has directed for Wake Forest Theatre, University of North Carolina at Greensboro Theatre, Winston Salem Little Theatre, Theatre Alliance and the N.C. School of the Arts and most recently for the Paper Lantern Theatre. She said the Family Business Theatre was a great experience for the students.
“For them, it was basically an acting exercise,” Andrews said. “Their job was to read the plays, know the characters and play the scenes. But they had some interesting challenges,” she said, referring to the way ages and genders were scrambled. The experience, she said, became about the dynamic of the scene and its relation to the subject matter.
Brittney Holmes, a junior theater major, said a lot of work and research went into the production, which lasted about two hours. She played Anne Harper in Phillips’ “Bananas,” which is based on the TV comedy “Arrested Development.” It was added to help bring some levity to the program.
“We were rehearsing our scenes and Sharon looked at all of us and said, ‘Guys, this is pretty dark; we need some comedy,” said Phillips, a senior majoring in English who also played Goneril in the “King Lear” scene.
In that scene from the Shakespeare play, an aging Lear, played by Maggie Choumbakos, is preparing to divide his kingdom among his three daughters – Regan (Lizzy Thomas), Goneril (Phillips) and Cordelia (Kate Miners), whose honesty costs her a share of the wealth.
“For me, all I know about business is basically what I’ve done or seen in plays. It was definitely educational to hear the comments and the feedback of everybody who came to watch,” said Choumbakos, a senior majoring in theater.
Miners, also a senior theater major, said, “It was interesting for me to see how closely so many departments can relate to small businesses. Really, our department is run as a small business, and each separate production is run that way.”
Carlos Salmon, a senior communications major and a member of the Wake Forest men’s tennis team, knows about family business. Salmon’s family is in the grocery business, and he is working to develop an online grocery delivery venture.
“This is actually very different for me,” said Salmon, who played Willy Lowman in “Death of a Salesman” and Gloucester in “King Lear.” “I do want to pursue acting after I graduate … I’ve never had the opportunity to actually ‘act,’ at all. I’ve taken classes, and this was the first opportunity I’ve had to present to an audience. I came out really nervous, but I think I was able to use my nervousness to kind of strengthen my character.”
Dan Li, who is studying communications in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, appeared in three of the five plays, including as Lawrence Garfinkle in “Other People’s Money.”
“I really liked the opportunity to perform these for an audience that really has an insight,” Li said. “It was one of the better experiences I’ve had in acting class here. First of all to get in front of the public, but also an informed public, an informed audience. It was really great.”
Brittni Shambaugh, a senior theater major, had never thought about the scenes outside the realm of the theater. “The discussion was really interesting … I was looking at the scenes and I was invested in the scenes as a theater practitioner, but hearing comments from people who think about things differently than I do, and were able to offer input, kind of from this whole different world, was really interesting to me.”
Also performing in the FBC Theatre were Wake Forest students Mike Discepolo, Lucy Hillman, J.C. Bobbitt and Aleshia Price.
Family Business Center forums are only open to Family Business Center members, sponsors and their guests. For information on FBC membership and guest policies, please contact Baker at (336) 758-3568, or visit the FBC website. Member dues and corporate sponsors BB&T Wealth Management, RSM McGladrey and Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice fund the Family Business Center — Triad.
The Family Business Center, established in 1999 under the Angell Center for Entrepreneurship in the Wake Forest University Schools of Business, addresses issues faced by closely held and family firms. The member-based organization uses the capabilities and educational resources at Wake Forest, in the community and beyond to provide closely held and family firms the assistance they need to grow and succeed from generation to generation.