Dale winner will mount a season of drama at hometown theater

by Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

The summer after his freshman year at Princeton, Christopher Simpson returned home to South Kingstown, R.I., where he had lined up a part-time job at a hotel. But when he learned that a local art center was going to sit vacant all summer, he gathered some high school friends and, in a moment of impetuosity, said to them, “Let’s do a play!”

Christopher Simpson
Christopher Simpson (photo: Brian Wilson)

The production of Neil Simon’s “Rumors,” which Simpson directed, was so successful that he established the nonprofit Courthouse Theater Company at the center and, serving as its artistic director and CEO, spent subsequent summers directing plays there. Now, as he nears the end of his senior year, Simpson is poised to direct again — the first time the theater will put on a full season — as the 2009 winner of the Martin Dale Fellowship.

The $30,000 fellowship is awarded annually to a graduating senior to allow him or her “to devote the year following graduation to an independent project of extraordinary merit that will widen the recipient’s experience of the world and significantly enhance his or her personal growth and intellectual development.”

“This is an opportunity most theater artists don’t get,” Simpson said. “Thanks to the Dale, we have the chance to do these shows without worrying, ‘What if a play is a failure?’ It’s a great safety net.”

Simpson always has loved performing in and directing plays, but it wasn’t until he took a directing workshop with Tim Vasen, a lecturer in theater and dance and the Lewis Center for the Arts, that his approach to theater began to crystallize for him.

“The class confirmed for me that the way I think of directing — as a collaboration — is a valid approach that actually works,” Simpson said.

To Simpson, a director’s job is “is to take the good things that are happening among the writers, the actors and the designers and expand on them, pushing the group to greater heights,” he said.

Robert Sandberg, a lecturer in theater and dance and the Lewis Center, said, “All over the country, theaters are laying off staff, downsizing their seasons and even going out of business. But here’s Chris, with his Dale Fellowship, transforming a small summer theater into a full-fledged, year-round operation. ... It shows how gutsy, determined and forward-thinking he is. He’s turning the Dale’s generosity to him into a gift for his entire town.”

In addition to directing 10 plays at the theater in Rhode Island, Simpson has directed several projects at Prince-ton, including a 2008 production of “Hamlet,” the annual Student Playwrights Festival and the University’s 24-Hour Play Festival, a theatrical event for which new work is written, rehearsed and performed in 24 hours. He also worked on productions with the Program in Theater and Dance, the Princeton Shakespeare Company, Theater Intime and the Blacks Arts Company: Drama.

“The toughest thing to do in the American theater is to set oneself up as a director,” said Michael Cadden, director of the Program in Theater and Dance. “Now Chris will be able to do what it is a young director needs to do most — direct. And he’ll be in the happy position of directing plays he has chosen for an audience he already knows, many of whom are already familiar with his work from the summer seasons he has staged.”

Simpson is majoring in comparative literature and earning certificates in African studies and theater and dance. He has combined those interests in original ways, such as when he directed a Princeton production of the East African play “Amezidi,” which originally was written in Swahili by Tanzanian author Said Ahmed Mohamed. The play explores the lives of two characters who embrace fantasy to help them in their struggle with poverty.

Simpson began studying Swahili as a freshman. While taking time off from the University during the 2007-08 academic year, he traveled for three months in Kenya, where he worked with development organizations and with a theater company that allowed him to direct a production of “Amezidi” in Swahili. After his return, he translated the play into English and directed a production on campus last October for his senior thesis.

In the coming year, Simpson plans to expand the mission of the newly renamed Contemporary Theater Company so that it eventually will operate as a community arts center, offering musical and visual arts programming, a summer camp and night classes for adults.

“I want to fill a need in the community and to help people find a means for self-expression in their everyday lives,” said Simpson, who may pursue a master’s degree in directing after the Dale Fellowship. He also hopes the theater company will demonstrate “that high-quality art is attainable on a local level, and can be available for everyone to enjoy, not just the wealthy and the elite.” To that end, the top price for tickets to performances will be $10.

The seven plays Simpson will direct over the next year will be in a diverse range of styles and historical periods, all of them examining the theme of what happens when one’s identity is tied up in material possessions that are lost. That subject will resonate with audience members during the current economic downturn, Simpson said. Among the plays he will direct are “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Melancholy Play” and “The Metamorphoses.”

“I want to present real-world issues through these texts, but at the same time make it entertaining,” he said.

Nine sophomores win Dale Summer Awards

Nine sophomores are winners of this year’s Dale Summer Awards, which provide a $4,000 stipend to pursue a summer project not connected to their academic coursework. The recipients and the titles of their projects are:

• Jacob Aronson, “The Long Path Back to the Basics.”

• Mohit Agrawal, “Kids Press Their Case: Effecting Community Empowerment Through Citizen Journalism.”

• Madeleine Douglas, “States of Grace: Flameworking and Glassblowing at the Corning Museum of Glass.”

• Sophie Jin, “Summer in Shuxing.”

• Simon Krauss, “A Summer of Laughs.”

• Theodor Popov, “Theremin Studies and Composition.”

• Claudia Solis-Roman, “Fire in the Desert — A Memory for Forgetfulness.”

• Eva Marie Wash, “Serving Through Dance in Chiang Mai.”

• Jane Yang, “Lives of Ashaiman.”