By: Lindsey Medwin
A shuttered major, slashed budget and challenging material did nothing to slow the drama students at County College of Morris as they mounted “The Elephant Man” to close out the semester in May.
The play, the true story of Joseph Merrick, an elephantiasis patient in the 19th Century, and his relentless devotion towards love and acceptance. Merrick’s story pushed the plotline of the drama through scenes that displayed significant moments in his life up until his death.
“The subject matter was hard to get through some nights,” said Liam Young, a former drama major who played the elephant man himself, describing the extensive preparation he went through to take on the role. Young went on to describe how he spent hours in the mirror, mastering the contortions and voice the part asked of him.
“That’s why I love the character so much because it’s a full body experience,” Young said, noting how much this differed from other CCM shows he’s acted in.
Also performing in prior dramas at CCM, Kira Gumbinger, who played Joseph’s friend Mrs. Kendal, expressed a sense of embodiment towards her role in this particular production.
“I think I grew as an actress to really be able to become that role,” Gumbinger said.
Gumbinger and Young not only showcased their talents on stage, but also took on additional responsibilities behind the scenes. Traditionally, actors’ jobs consist of delivering a performance while backstage positions are delegated to others.
Gumbinger not only played two parts on stage, but she also served as stage manager for the production. Young was extremely hands-on with technical work for “The Elephant Man” as well. Their willingness to fulfill these outside obligations allowed the show to thrive.
With a small cast and even smaller budget, the play enhanced the skills of the actors by performing the show ‘in the round,’ where the audience members are seated around the stage area, rather than in front. This use of setting allowed for a far more emotional and intimate experience and an even higher quality production.
“It was such an intense experience because you really felt part of the story,” said Dr. Robert Cioffi, professor of English and director of the show.
Throughout the performance, the simplistic execution of “The Elephant Man,” in terms of set and props, efficiently used the limited resources the drama receives to put up the show each semester.
Cioffi said that he’s had to teach numerous drama and English courses in a variety of settings, thus finding space in the Davidson Rooms at times.
“Many students have commented in the past several years that our facilities are inadequate,” Cioffi said.
In May of 2016, the Board of Trustees made the decision to remove the associates in fine arts as a major and only a concentration in drama under a liberal arts degree would be offered. This change became effective Friday, July 1 of that year.
“In the economic crunch, the college decided it was no longer economically feasible to stay with the program,” Cioffi said. “There are several other programs being looked at, but our’s was the first to go.”
Students already enrolled in the program who only needed a few short classes to earn their degree were given the opportunity to finish out their remaining courses.
“We worked to help them complete the degree before we stopped offering a number of the classes,” said Dr. Bruce Dutra, dean of the division of liberal arts on campus. Dutra said that the board and liberal arts department decided to continue the dramas themselves each semester.
“Obviously, we thought it was extremely important that we continued to offer at least some classes in drama and have the performances, the very high quality of performances,” Dutra said. “And fortunately, we’ve done that because Dr. Cioffi is an incredible leader and teacher.”
Young said that the program being cut has curbed his ability to learn.
“I want to study; I want to learn more,” Young said. “The whole program feels crippled.”
Costar Gumbinger echoed those sentiments.
“I think it’s really shameful of a community college,” Gumbinger said.
For his part, Cioffi said the program cuts are tragic.
“I think it’s a tragic thing what’s happened to the drama program,” Cioffi said.
Despite the challenges, members of the production have, in part, credited the show’s quality and success to the passion derived from these circumstances.
“One of the reasons our show was so good was because we were so furious that this was happening to our major,” Gumbinger said.
Figures regarding the program cut and budget itself were not stated in the meeting notes. When contacted about this, the department of business and finance on campus did not respond for comment.
Going forward, Cioffi aims to keep the dramas alive by encouraging new students to participate, as the shows are open to not only students across campus but anyone in the community. The “Elephant Man” alone illustrates the standard of theater students and faculty are willing to work for, in spite of any circumstance.
“We showed them the past two semesters that we don’t need their money,” Young said. “But it could just be so much better if we could have more backing.”
Members, however, did acknowledge their appreciation for allies of the program on campus.
“I know there’s some really great supporters of arts who saw the show,” said Gumbinger.
Cioffi said he wanted to thank Dutra and Dr. Janet Eber, professor of English and chairperson of the English and philosophy department specifically, saying without their support, “The drama department wouldn’t have lasted as long as it had.”
Students and faculty can look forward to another great performance in the fall, for they will be putting on “East Of Eden”.
“It has family, it has a little bit of sex, it has some darker undertones…There’s some minority characters in it, which is awesome and it’s going to be great.” Gumbinger said.
Auditions will be held at the start of the fall semester.