Innovative College Productions That Thought Outside the Theatrical Box | Playbill

News Innovative College Productions That Thought Outside the Theatrical Box From re-imagined productions to immersive operas, college musical theatre programs are bursting with students who aren't afraid to push boundaries and think outside the box. Increasingly, students are also reaching out to their theatre idols and engaging their help in producing their shows--with well deserved payoff. As part of's Back to School week (#BwayBacktoSchool),here are a few inspired college productions that have caught the attention of our staff.

Stanford University, California

 "We have a phenomenal grant program [at Stanford] called ReDesigning Theater, through which they encourage students to come up with ideas that are innovative and pushing the boundaries of theatre," director Sammi Cannold told in 2013 in the lead-up to her production of Violet. Cannold is a Theatre and History major, and the brains behind such innovative productions as the travelling staging of Violet and the re-imagined Evita, in which Eva Perón reclaims her own legacy.

"On My Way!" A First Look at Stanford University's Immersive Violet, Staged on a Moving Bus

In 2013, Stanford's student-run theatre group, At the Fountain Theatricals, staged the award-winning musical Violet--about a girl who boards a Greyhound – on a quest to heal a terrible facial scar.  A cast of 12 sang and dance in the aisles of the 34-seat bus while it travelled around campus, allowing the audience to literally be in the passenger seats as Violet made her journey. "The show happens around them…so you're seeing a different story depending on your seat," explained Cannold. She said she received a lot of support from many of the original creative team including composer Jeanine Tesori and director Leigh Silverman, who were integral in the show's development. The production garnered a lot of buzz and essentially sold out within minutes; read the full article here.

Cannold also recently helmed a unique staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita, in which she split the central character in half and allowed the new "Santa Evita" to reclaim her own legacy. "In most productions of Evita, the critique on Eva's life is one sided — told by a male cynic named Che. Our production attempts to balance that dialogue and the issues with a male narrator being the final word on our heroine's legitimacy as a female figure by putting a second version of Eva into the piece to defend her choices," she explained in her director's notes. Read more here. Last year, Stanfords' Ram's Head Theatrical Society staged a reinvented production of the Tony-winning musical Les Misérables, which included an immersive element called the Opera-Going Experience Project. The troupe, once again helmed by Cannold, transformed the school's auditorium into Salle le Peletier, the home of the Paris Opéra in 1862. Each night, the 16 actors, dressed as bourgeois operagoers from the period, would meander through the hall and gossip and critique Victor Hugo's work.



Harvard University, Massachusetts

The Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club is often busy dreaming up new ways to present theatre and keep audiences on their feet. Last year, director and student Ally Kiley and her production team were able to receive funding to engage Bat Boy creators Laurence O'Keefe, Brian Flemming and Keythe Farley in redeveloping the musical for their college production. The creators jumped at the chance to re-work the show, which had recently been revived in London but still needed more development. They made an agreement with HRDC that if the students didn't like the new material, they could produce the original version of Bat Boy, but if they did, they could be the first to debut the new show. Kiley, who had assisted on Diane Paulus' Broadway-bound production of Finding Neverland, at A.R.T, was open to accommodating changes during the show's rehearsal schedule.  

"Your first inclination, especially as a student when you're talking to a professional, is to say what you like about something, " Kiley told "But, luckily, Larry, Brian and Keythe are all really welcoming, really down to earth and created a space where I felt comfortable saying, 'This isn't working.'"

Over several workshops and meetings, the students and original creators were able to transform Bat Boy in significant ways, bringing the show perhaps one step closer to Broadway as the creators have always dreamed of.  Read the full interview with O'Keefe and Kiley here.

Pace University, New York

The students at New York's Pace University also like to push boundaries when it comes to theatre. Last fall, Brandon Ivie directed a grungy production of Stephen Schwartz' Godspell, set in an underground hideout. The college was also the first to stage Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's musical Dogfight in 2013, following its Off-Broadway premiere.

"The beauty of teaching musical theatre in New York City is that these [writers] are just a phone call or a subway ride away," said Pace's director of Musical Theatre Amy Rogers, who sent an email to songwriters Pasek and Paul to see if they'd be interested in helping the students with the production. The creators came along to rehearsals and gave the cast and creative team an incredible amount of insight into the characters and the meaning of the piece.

Watch a clip of highlights from the 2014 Pace production of Godspell

New Mexico State University, New Mexico

The students at New Mexico State University impressed the national theatre community when they mounted an unusual production of the classic Kander and Ebb musical Chicago, set entirely inside a modern-day women's prison--a move away from the original vaudeville-style.


"The challenge with a wildly popular musical like Chicago is to not merely copy the incredibly well known previous versions of the work," said Megan McQueen, the show's co-director. She went on to explain how the hit TV series "Orange is the New Black" inspired her to make the changes, like Roxie holding a bouquet of tampon roses, and casting females in almost all of the roles.

Take a look at photos from the innovative staging.

Yale University, Connecticut

Earlier this year, directing student Noam Shapiro was inspired to re-imagine Cabaret within the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp located in Czechoslovakia. "My production aimed to share the relatively untold story of coerced and subversive theatrical performances that emerged from the Shoah, or Holocaust," Shapiro explains on his website. "As a strategy for survival, rebellion, and the retention of humanity."  He replaced the setting of the Kit Kat Klub from the original musical with the camp, an interpretation that was based on an actual visit that the Red Cross paid to the Camp in 1944.


In 2014, Shapiro pushed boundaries again with an immersive staging of The Crucible. It was described as "an actor-driven, highly physical, stripped-down, and immersive production of Arthur Miller's seminal play. The production explored Poor Theater staging techniques, the use of found objects, Puritan hymns and psalms, the actor-spectator relationship, and collaborative Story Theater."

Like this story? Learn everything you need to know about getting ready for the new school year with's special Back to School Week! Read more stories here and follow us on social media at #BwayBacktoSchool.

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