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Ally Duvak ‘22 brings a 2016 college newsroom to the stage with “-in-chief”

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The cast of "-in-chief" rehearses. Photo courtesy of Ally Duvak '22.

“Contradictory, challenging and multi-faceted” are the words of playwright Ally Duvak ‘22 when describing “-in-chief.” The original work is one of the two new plays featured in the ‘Berg New Works festival with the theatre & dance department. “It’s not all one thing. It’s comedic…,” continued Duvak. “And [people] find out what happens and think it’s this dark and serious thing and it covers serious topics, but I think the best art can do both.”

“-in-chief” is actually Duvak’s second original piece to be performed in the Studio Theatre after her play “Wake,” which premiered as a Muhlenberg Theatre Association (MTA) Studio in spring 2022. Olivia Thiemann ‘24, who plays MNG, commented, “The cast, crew and director are all the most loving, fun and supportive people to work with. I am honored to have worked on an Ally Duvak original both as my first show at Muhlenberg (‘Wake’ 2022) and now my last show at Muhlenberg (‘-in-chief’ 2024).” 

“-in-chief” takes place in a college newspaper room run by students during the 2016 presidential election. Duvak has had her own experience with a college newsroom after being involved with The Weekly during her time at Muhlenberg.

“I think when I was in that space, I always knew there was like a story there. I don’t know that I necessarily knew it was this one. But it’s such a dynamic space, there are quite literally stories happening live in that room, as well as the overarching story of the room,” Duvak stated.

The dynamics of the newsroom extend to the themes of power in the play. “It’s the inherent power structures of when you have people reporting to other people,” mentioned Duvak. The element of power is seen in various dynamics thanks to the 2016 setting and the hierarchies in place. The idea of power is represented “both on a national scale and a micro scale when it comes to the newsroom. And I think I wouldn’t have been able to tap into that if I hadn’t seen it with my own two eyes.”

The idea of power in the rehearsal room was more of a communal experience where actors and other collaborators could share feedback on the script and allow for it to develop and grow. “[Duvak] is such a wonderful collaborative spirit that we were able to structure our beginning rehearsals as exploratory-using improv techniques and games to lead to a deeper understanding of character and given circumstance,” stated Director Jessie Dean, visiting assistant professor of directing, acting process and Shakespeare.

“The characters that exist in the play now are much richer because of the ideas and work that our actors brought to our initial rehearsal weeks,” continued Dean. “I think that’s what makes this type of work so exciting – all of us must be in an active state of collaboration together in the room, we must all trust each other and the work. Ultimately, [Duvak] writes the play that is in her head and we are all there to support her process.”

Isabelle Peters ‘24, who plays EIC, commented on how the characters and the text have grown. Peters stated, “I am so happy with the level of detail and development all of the characters in the show have gone through, and I couldn’t be more proud of the whole cast and production team. I also want to give a huge shoutout to Ally Duvak, a Muhlenberg alum, who has worked closely with us throughout the process. It has been so much fun bringing her vision to life.”

Dean described the joy of developing a new work when having a trustworthy connection with the playwright during the process. It’s “very different from the way that we approach a published script and the innate trust that it takes a playwright to enter a development process with a director is both thrilling and terrifying,” stated Dean. “My hope as a director is that I do no harm to the existing script but instead shine a light onto the path of the work so that the playwright, actors, dramaturgs and I can explore our surroundings with care and consideration.”

Anna Item ‘25, the associate director, intimacy captain and a Voices of Strength (VOS) peer educator, highlighted the importance of collaboration and trust during this experience. “It’s an absolute privilege and joy to watch [Dean] work and observe her unique, holistic, caring process for theatre-making. I have learned so much from her about holding space, encouraging actors to play and make discoveries, and how to balance fun with efficiency,” stated Item. 

Item also shared how Duvak has been “excellent at ‘killing her darlings.’” This phrase refers to when a writer may have to cut an element of the piece that they love because it is not working for the overall story. 

Resources for audience members will be available before and after the show thanks to VOS. “‘-in-chief’ contains some intense discussions of sexual assault, and I’m so grateful to my fellow VOS members who are tabling during and after the performance to support audience members. We will also have space reserved for audience members to speak privately or debrief as a group,” stated Item.

“I hope audiences come away from this production with active questions and begin to have deeper conversations in the community about the ways in which we support women, victims and survivors and each of their narratives. We can’t hide these stories and pretend they don’t exist,” shared Dean.

“-in-chief” opens tonight, Feb. 29, as part of the ‘Berg New Works festival in the Studio Theatre. Tickets also include the original work “The Haunting of Hartfield Hall” and the festival runs until Mar. 3. 

Duvak concluded, “I think the end of the show begs the question of what will you do? I think we’ve raised a story that is so unfortunately familiar. And we have sort of the case studies displayed of how many times we’ve heard a story like this. The play said that enough is enough, what are we going to do to take action?”

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