By TESSA CATE
In the midst of final exams last December, the UMW theatre department was just beginning what would be their first mainstage production of the new year: “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.” On top of their group projects, papers, presentations and exams, UMW theatre students prepared for auditions and planned out their next semester – an early testament to the time and effort put into this piece of art. This is a project steeped in passion for many of the students involved who plan on pursuing careers in theatre, and according to sophomore and lead actor Ashleigh DiBenedetto, the number of moving pieces and people it takes to put on the production makes it “a little tough,” but incredibly rewarding.
“I play Jean who’s the main character,” said DiBenedetto, filling in the gaps of the play’s plot. “She goes and discovers a dead man and takes his cell phone and starts on this weird, abstract journey to help comfort and console his family and find some weird, strange purpose in this.”
DiBenedetto’s acting career flourished in high school as she progressively became more active in theatre, participating in theatre classes, auditions, and trying to take part in her school’s productions any way she could. “As I got more comfortable in that theatre department and got to know what theatre was, I thought, ‘You know, this is really cool. I’m going to stick with this,’ and ended up coming [to UMW] and decided that this is definitely what I want to do.”
For DiBenedetto, the specific brand of responsibility required of her for this show is new because this is her first mainstage production with UMW Theatre and her first time serving as a lead character in any production. DiBenedetto is excited to play a lead role for the first time, “but it’s a little stressful because you have to memorize an entire show. That’s a little daunting.” Knowing the show backwards and forwards is essential, because “if you’re focusing too hard on trying to remember what your line is, you can’t focus on being the character. You’re focusing on being the actor.”
In addition to DiBenedetto, there are five other actors honing their skills and characters in “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.”
“We’re a pretty goofy cast,” DiBenedetto remarked with a laugh.
The cast has only been rehearsing for a few weeks, but in that short time they have formed bonds that lend to the quality of the show. However, one of the six actors was not in the picture until recently.
Patrick Regal, the dead man in “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” was unable to attend the first few weeks of rehearsals because of his role in Studio 115’s production of “The Children’s Hour.” DiBenedetto and the rest of the cast decided that instead of serving as a detriment to show, Regal’s absence actually propelled the realness of the plot forward.
“Because he’s not here, it’s like he actually is dead; it just makes sense. So it kind of worked. It worked to help solidify that idea of mourning this person that wasn’t actually there. We all kind of bonded over that.”
While the actors bonded over their rehearsed mourning, another set of vital players helped make this show possible. DiBenedetto has immense gratitude for the behind-the-scenes participants whose efforts truly make the show come to life. DiBenedetto noted the director, stage management team, run crew, lighting designer, sound designer and set designer. Though these people are not seen during the production, they provide necessary expertise and add value to the show and the department.
Each person involved with the production lends their talent not only to the show but to a positive atmosphere where learning can take place, friendships can be formed and art can be created. “I really like the department here… now that I’m really immersed in it and I’m getting through my major requirements and I’m getting to know people and I’m in a show, it’s an amazing experience. Everybody in the department is so kind and they really care, so it’s a very positive environment.”
The art being created is “a little zany,” DiBenedetto warned. Her advice to patrons of the show is to suspend their belief in reality. “When you walk into a theatre, you’re supposed to suspend your belief of realism because it’s a theatre, so if you remember to do that, it will all make sense and it will be really funny.”
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” runs from February 15-25 in UMW’s Klein Theatre. Tickets are available online and at the box office in DuPont Hall.