Drexel theater group leads tours through acts of heartbreak, bravery, illumination
Now is the time of year when colleges across the country open their campuses to next year's freshmen and their parents. The tours usually take them through tidy dorms, a shiny gym, and the state-of-the-art computer labs to show them what they can expect for the next four years -- and far into a successful future.
A Philadelphia theater company has created an alternative campus tour that tells kids what they "really" need to know.
"Nobody cares. You are a freshman among 3,000 freshmen," said Camilla Kronenwetter, a senior graphic design major at Drexel University playing a version of herself as a tour guide in "Welcome to Campus."
"No one is going to work around your schedule," she said.
Kronenwetter laid down this truth while walking backward down Market Street in University City, with 15 audience members in tow. The preview performance was a rehearsal for the immersive theatrical work generated by the students that opens Feb. 19. It was shaped into a walking play by director Adrienne Mackey.
Mackey is the founder and artistic director of the experimental theater company Swim Pony, and an adjunct theater professor at Drexel University. Since last fall, her students have been writing monologues about their own life-altering experiences at college.
"Welcome to Campus" is structured like an actual campus tour, but in this fictionalized version the guides quickly admit the futility of the official tour.
"It shows a lot of the resources and structure. It shows the potential opportunities," said Mackey of Drexel's official tour. "Whereas our show is a lot more about the intimacy, the stuff that happens in between the stuff you officially sign up for."
Tour stops at unmarked milestones
The tour guides veer off into their own perspectives of college life – bad first dates, long-distance breakups, second-guessing your major, and coming to terms with failure. "It's mostly based on big life events that happen when you leave home and become an adult in this simulated environment," said Mackey.
"Welcome to Drexel," announced Dean Bloomingdale to the audience, performing as himself as a campus tour guide. "Or, more specifically, your life at Drexel."
Bloomingdale, a music industry major, led the audience to a sidewalk curb outside of Drexel's URBN Center on Market Street (the audience – limited to 15 people per performance – will walk almost two miles during the 90-minute show). He sat them down on the curb and told them how they can expect to realize that a long-term relationship must end, just as he did in this exact spot.
"You were worried about what would happen when you both went off to college, but you were going to make it work," said Bloomingdale in the 27-degree chill. "You realize you can't be with this person. Things can't go on the way they are, and you know that."
Drexel University does not offer a theater major. These performers are studying biology, economics, international affairs, and graphic design. In lieu of a degree, the university offers stipended scholarships to selected students interested in theater.
Mackey was invited to create an original theater piece with these students through the Mandell Professionals in Residence Project. She designed the experimental theater tour to show what live theater can do, that TV and movies cannot.
"When you go to Gettysburg, part of the power of being there is knowing this amazing thing happened," said Mackey. "Here, you're going into a classroom where somebody had a life-changing moment because they read a text. It changed this person's life, and it's just this boring classroom."
One of the theatrical tour guides is an actual tour guide at Drexel. Aman Milliones-Roman is a sophomore studying biology and Japanese. He also has a theater scholarship and went through the lengthy training process to be an official tour guide representing the University.
He says being a fictitious tour guide makes him a better real tour guide.
"It's a lot more what I would like tours to be," said Milliones-Roman. "They tell us to give our own experience, but you can't do that fully. The show really helps me to give people a sense of what Drexel actually is, instead of just the shiny surface. It's refreshing."
"Welcome to Campus" begins Wednesday for a limited run. There will be 10 performances, each with a maximum of 15 audience members.