Shakespeare wrote “the play’s the thing.” Of course, he was referring to using a play to catch a murderer, but in Shakespeare’s day, people believed the theater had the power to elicit deep emotion — even move the guilty to give themselves away.
Bobcats are catching on to the power of theater in Merced.
“Playhouse Merced is my life outside research,” said graduate student and protein biochemist Kathryn Fischer, who’s part of the ensemble of “Sister Act,” a musical comedy opening July 13 at the downtown theater. The Solvang native said the theater has presented a good opportunity for her. “It’s where I go to make friends and have a social outlet.”
“Sister Act” is directed by UC Merced faculty member Jenni Samuelson, and features six Bobcats — faculty, staff and students — both on stage and behind the scenes. Samuelson, who promotes theater and the arts to all her students, said productions not only connect the campus with the greater Merced community, they create community within themselves, too.
Samuelson is a Merced native, and theater was her outlet when she was growing up. She lived in other places, such as San Francisco and Chicago for many years, performing with professional music and theater companies, but returned here in 2005 and joined the campus in 2011.
She’s passionate about the theater and takes one class every semester to see a show at Playhouse. For many students, it’s their first trip downtown, and their first experience with live theater. Many of them come back to volunteer or just to see other productions.
“The theater is small so it’s an intimate experience,” she said. “But it also helps the students feel like they are part of the community, which is really important, not just for them, but for the community, too.”
“It’s a great way to meet people outside the campus,” said LaTia Winfrey, a 2015 graduate who now works in the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships. “A lot of students don’t know about Playhouse Merced. I wish I had known about it as an undergrad, because I would have gotten involved. I have a theater family here!”
Michelle Roppeau, the campus’s new director of First Year and Undeclared Advising in the Bobcat Advising Center, also has a role in the play, and said she was impressed with the number and diversity of Bobcats involved.
“It has been fun to witness the dedication and talent of our students and faculty as well as the positive ways in which they represent UC Merced in the community,” she said.
You don’t need to be an arts student to participate, and you don’t have to get up on stage before an audience, either, if that’s not your thing. Samuelson said the theater is trying to make more opportunities for people backstage, but even if you just want to see a show and can’t afford the $22 ticket, you can volunteer to usher and see the play for free.
Izzy Flores, a fourth-year student from Sacramento who’s transferring to psychology from biology is stage-managing the show. She said she has done a little acting, but because she’s a little shy, she prefers working with the cast, organizing and helping manage the production.
“Theater helps you get new ideas and discover the person inside you that you never knew existed,” Flores said. “I can’t be as shy as stage manager, because I have to help the cast and know everything that’s going on so I can communicate with them.”
People might remember the movie “Sister Act” starring Whoopi Goldberg. It’s the story of a nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier, who witnesses a murder and is placed into witness protection in a convent, disguised as a nun. When the killer finds Deloris, he has to contend with her new sisters, too.
The show runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., July 13 through 30. Samuelson encourages people to attend opening weekend productions because later weekends often sell out. Tickets can be purchased in advance online . If you’re interested in seeing other shows, auditioning or just helping out, visit the theater’s website or talk to Samuelson.
Fischer urged people to see the show and get involved.
“It’s really fun, and it’s a great way to come out of your shell,” she said. “Give it a try — there’s a place for everyone in the theater.”