I Watched a Play in a College Basement
Or: Live Theatre and Chill
I’m familiar with spending my Saturday nights entertaining myself in a basement. So it wasn’t out of place for me to venture out and go see a free live play in someone else’s basement.
I’m also not a sports fan and I dislike large crowds, so I didn’t want to see the final game at Hughes Stadium Saturday night. I suppose some people might want to cripple me for my lack of school spirit, but my anxiety already does that.
So it was nice for a change to sit and be entertained in a basement that doesn’t have my parents living above it.
This Is Our Youth is not a summary of what you have just read so far, but it is the title of the play I saw that night.
And like any bold project in college, it was produced super independently.
Senior Theatre majors Kyle Phibbs and Sam Otter are roommates that chose to use their downstairs as a place of live theatre. And they were nice enough to let me ask them questions and take mediocre pictures of their artistic endeavor.
“Everybody thinks we wrote it!”, Phibbs says to me after I ignorantly assumed he and Otter did (Kenneth Lonergan is actually the person responsible for that).
It turns out that This Is Our Youth has been on Broadway before. It’s fairly well known to cultured individuals unlike myself. So how can a handful of students put on their own version of a Broadway production — in their house?
Well, for one, it’s completely legal to perform someone else’s play if you’re not charging admission. But also it’s because the show is minimal enough that it only needs a handful of people. There are three main characters: Warren (played by Kyle Phibbs), Dennis (played by Sam Otter), and Jessica (played by Kelsey Richards). Everything takes place in an apartment.
“It centers around three 19 to 20-something kids living in New York…It explores themes of rich kid culture.”
That’s the basic synopsis given from Phibbs, who went on to say that many people thought what they were doing was a joke — as in some kind of prank. People doubted that it was going to be a real thing. There had to be some punchline. Perhaps you would’ve shown up and sat down, only to have Phibbs and Otter say something like “Ha! Fooled you! There isn’t actually a show.” But even then, that would have been too much effort for little payoff.
“To be fair, that does sound like something we would do,” said Otter, recognizing that they both have a reputation for unconventional senses of humor.
After all, these are the same guys that have a shrine of Fred Armisen in their living room. It was made in honor of Armisen’s birthday last year and has been up ever since. It’s hardly the weirdest thing they have on display in their home.
But their peculiar decor is not the focus here. Rather, it is the peculiar production. What these students did was out of the ordinary. It was weird. It was fun. It was risky. And not many people knew about it.
For students like Phibbs and Otter wishing to do a show, the Theatre department at Colorado State University used to have something called the Young Producer’s Organization (YPO). Shows from the YPO were 100% student run. That included everything from acting to design.
The original intent was to do the show through YPO, as Phibbs had been thinking about the idea since April. However, the organization suffered from leadership issues this year that resulted in its dissolution. This left Phibbs and Otter to do it by themselves.
And during this time of the semester, they had the time and they had the space.
“Our roommate moved out,” said Otter, “and we thought this would be a fun place to do a show.”
Both were intrigued by the idea of “found-space theatre”: a type of theatre in which you literally put on a show in a space that isn’t typically used for theatrical productions. So, theoretically, you can put on a show anywhere. All you need is a place to stand and some words to say. And that’s exactly what they did. Perhaps that’s also what the sign-holders on the campus plaza are doing and we just didn’t realize it (maybe one day I should go up and thank them for keeping the art alive).
Though neither Phibbs nor Otter were doing this for school credit, they did get advice from their professors.
“Some of them were pretty supportive, some of them were a little skeptical,” said Phibbs. Otter agreed with similar sentiments.
Their main faculty adviser on the project also had skepticism — the reason being that the show didn’t have an actual director. They never had an extra set of eyes to tell them how their actions looked onstage (or at least, the designated boundaries of the imaginary stage). Each actor had to rely on the other for everything.
Despite some uncertainties, they never ran into any huge problems. The biggest concern, according to Otter, was lighting. The second half of the play required it to be daytime. Surprisingly, it’s hard to replicate daylight in a basement at nighttime. Who knew.
Luckily, their friend Logan Smith (another senior Theatre major) helped them with lighting. They were able to borrow two floodlights from the department, and Smith rigged them into the basement’s window wells, giving off the illusion of the sun shining through.
Their final working set was completed maybe a week before the show. Other last minute student hands came in to play as well: Abby Jordan designed costumes, Lua Frontczak sourced props, and Duncan Port helped with the set. Smith operated all sounds and technical details from a laptop in the back corner of the room. The audience section was filled with chairs and furniture from the home, as well as borrowed chairs from the department’s classrooms.
The third star, Kelsey Richards, had been approached by Phibbs and Otter last April. All three had been rehearsing together for the Spring musical Reefer Madness. Richards was handed a script and was asked to be a part of their show. She read the script, liked it, and agreed to play the third role.
For Richards, there was nothing odd about being asked to do a show in someone’s basement. She loved the idea. Plus, she loved working with both Phibbs and Otter.
“I was thrilled to have such a small cast. It was really an interesting experience to have so few people at every rehearsal. I honestly think it came together super well for only having three of us and five weeks to rehearse.”
Those short five weeks resulted in their one-weekend show. Theatre professor Laura Jones attended the first night, and according to Phibbs and Otter, she enjoyed the show.
“I don’t think [Jones] was lying to us,” Otter commented through laughter. Phibbs chuckled and said he hoped not.
I went during their second night, with an audience of about seven other people that each cast-member knew in some way. After the two hours were up, everyone headed upstairs to the “main lobby” to chat with the actors and congratulate them. It was almost surreal seeing people treat the night no differently than they would have at an actual theatre (but of course some of it was tongue-in-cheek).
Well, I was there do some amateur journalism, so I had to play my part too.
“Give me your impression of the play,” I asked of Fine Arts major Sarah McFadden, unintentionally making a pun that threw her off guard.
“It was fantastic,” McFadden said. “It was really great for basement theatre, putting it on in their own home.”
Otter overheard this and interjected. “It’s home theatre!”
We all got a good laugh out of that pun.
From there, the interview derailed in the best way for good conversation, but in the worst way for getting quotes. I wasn’t even mad.
I went off to the side with Theatre graduate Jack Krause, who has been a friend of the cast members for a while. He too enjoyed the show that night, and was pleasantly surprised with the acting.
“I remember when they were talking about this back in April and I was just kind of thinking ‘How is this going to work?’ But they pulled it off and it was really impressive.”
Krause added that he hadn’t seen anyone else try this during his college career. Otter echoed this thought as well — it definitely wasn’t a common thing for Theatre students at CSU (though the idea itself isn’t new). But, this could perhaps invite other students to try their hand at it too. Phibbs himself said he would like to do it again, perhaps with an original script.
“I definitely encourage everyone if you’re interested in theatre to go out and make your own theatre somewhere.” said Phibbs. “Because it’s pretty easy to do, kind of.”
Otter had one additional comment on that regard.
“Take it seriously, but also enjoy yourself.”
Well, if they do put on another show, all I ask for next time is some better concessions.