Assignments, Life & Culture, Olivet Nazarene University, The GlimmerGlass

The math of theatre

‘Proof’ challenges student director, carries big impact

The success of a play depends on the impact it has on the director.

For senior Marissa Vander Ploeg, that impact goes back to freshman year when she was first introduced to Proof while taking a directing class. So when she was given the opportunity to student-direct a Green Room play at Olivet Nazarene University, she knew she had to choose the play she fell in love with.

“It’s a snapshot of life and you’re supposed to see the characters for who they are. It’s a lot about people thinking they’re sure about something, but they can’t prove it,” Vander Ploeg said. “It’s finding a better understanding of what belief and proof really mean. The best legacy you can leave behind is the impact.”

Proof, written by David Auburn in 2000, had a big run on Broadway with 900-some shows. It won a Pulitzer Prize, Drama Desk and was overall very well received, especially with the careful consideration of correct mathematical facts.

The play is about a woman caring for her father, a great mathematician with a mental illness. Throughout the play, the main character, Catherine, wrestles with concern about whether or not she has inherited her father’s mental illness.

Student director Marissa Vander Ploeg talks to her cast during a rehearsal.
Student director Marissa Vander Ploeg talks to her cast during a rehearsal.

This play carries an important message dealing with mental illness. It isn’t talked about enough, Vander Ploeg said. “Mental illness is different because you’re still in there, but you’re also not. So it’s difficult for [the characters] because it’s people they love, but they don’t ever know who they are anymore,” she said.

It’s also about math, something we think there is certainty in, but even with math there is no certainty. “That’s what trust and faith are about,” Vander Ploeg said.

As a student-director, Vander Ploeg chose the cast, adapted the play for creativity, and gets to establish her process of directing, which is unique while working with a group of peers.

Assistant director senior Lisa Hartman loves working with students because of the openness to new ideas and the collaborative feeling. Although Vander Ploeg has an “excellent handle” on what she wants for Proof, she accepts input from the cast. Although Hartman admits sometimes they “goof off” too much and “it’s often difficult to draw the line between being friendly and being professional.”

Dan Flynn, who plays Robert, said working with peers gives them the opportunity to bounce more ideas off of each other. “I think that’s actually cultural. Our generation is more open about speaking because we understand critique is subjective,” Flynn said.

Because the cast consists of four characters, they have become very close and get to know each other as characters and people for who they are.

Jenna Vance’s character Claire is sisters with Alexis Smith’s character Catherine. “[Smith and I] have lots of fun,” Vance said. “When we see each other around campus, we say, ‘seester.’”

The play will take place in the round, a theatre where the seats surround the stage. Vander Ploeg chose this platform because it opened up the cast so they don’t have to worry about having their back to the audience for too long. This also creates an atmosphere of being caged in, similar to Catherine’s fear becoming her cage Vander Ploeg said.

“[Vander Ploeg] is a genius,” said Smith. “Seriously, she has thought through everything to the last detail. It really brings the play to life.”

“Don’t let the math theme scare you off. While the math majors out there may get a kick out of some of the math lingo, my fellow humanities students will feel right at home exploring the interesting characters and themes in Proof,” Hartman said.

Proof opens March 31 and April 1 and 2.

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