Mayhem and Non-conformity

Non-traditional student designs set for ‘scandalous’ play to raise eyebrows

9/23/2009 - By: Kathie Taylor
Livernash Photo by Jean Dixon

Nevada Repertory Company’s production of “Ubu the King,” opening Oct. 2, will surely raise some eyebrows. The original play, “Ubu Roi,” debuted in Paris in 1895 and incited a riot in the audience with its one-word opening line. The four-letter declaration literally set the stage for a performance rife with lewd, outrageous satire of the bourgeois society prevalent in France at the time.

Updated and modernized by the cast and director, Rob Gander, chairperson of the University of Nevada, Reno’s Speech, Communication and Theatre Department, Nevada Repertory’s presentation of “Ubu the King” tackles modern issues and current controversies, complete with audience participation and a food fight.

Creating a memorable experience for the audience is part of Gander’s master plan for the performance, and set design plays an integral part. For the right mix of absurdity and aggression, Gander turned to Mike Livernash, a fine arts major minoring in theatre.

Larry Walters, Nevada Repertory’s lighting designer and University professor, said having a student design the set is unusual for the company. “We haven’t had a student design a set for several years,” he said. “Most (students) aren’t ready. Mike’s a little older, he’s been in the military, and he’s done more on his own to hone his skills. And being a visual art major helps.”

Art meets theatre

At 29 years old, Livernash is definitely a nontraditional college student; yet the phrase could also be used to describe his entire school career. Preferring to perfect his graffiti designs in his schoolbooks instead of listening in class, Livernash doodled his way through school. “I barely graduated high school,” he said. “I had trouble with drugs. The Army offered me a way out.”

Livernash served in Bosnia in 2001, then left the Army in 2002 and returned to school, completing his associate’s degree in 2006. The transition from military to college was tough. “I had to start with English 090, and in math I was doing multiplication tables,” he said. “Justifying military life with the social aspects of college life was hard.”

Over time, school has gotten easier. “It’s good to have some age,” he said. “I have an advantage over some of the younger students who don’t have direction.”

In 2008, Livernash was accepted to the bachelor of fine arts program at the University in ceramics and painting. “Ceramics was the only class I got an A in during high school,” he said with a grin. “It’s also the most fun -- shaping a lump of clay into something.”

Specializing in figurative art, Livernash said by casting the human figure in fantasy form, his work turns his personal beliefs and thoughts into science fiction. Having studied art history and contemporary and renaissance art, he said the works he enjoyed the most are those that made him laugh. Of his own work, he said, “I want people to be entertained rather than hit them with philosophy. I’d rather have them smile than have a huge deep meaning to find.”

Livernash said growing up with poor self-esteem inspired his work. “I was scared of who I was,” he said. “I was really small and didn’t develop as fast (as other kids). I was really bottled up.”

He hopes his work appeals to those with similar experience.

“There are a lot of people who are scared of their imperfections and afraid to show them,” he said. His favorite piece, which can be seen in the windows of the ceramics studio in the Church Fine Arts building, is a self-portrait done in ceramics. The work features a male body from the waist down clad in boxers and chucks, all short shorts and skinny legs.

Applying art to absurdity

Part “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” part hockey rink, Livernash’s set revels in Ubu’s vicious, voracious aura of violence and vulgarity. “I took the idea for the set from a hockey rink; how absurd it is having a thin glass sheet separating the audience who’s eating popcorn and drinking a soda from a violent fight,” he said. Cast members serving as ushers will seek out adventurous audience members willing to participate in the revelry and will seat them on the stage.

Despite its prurient appeal, “Ubu” is historically significant. Originally written by playwright Alfred Jarry as a satire of a science teacher he didn’t particularly like, the script developed into a lampoon of leadership and people who find themselves in powerful positions. Highly influential in the evolution of playwriting, the play is studied in theatre history classes but is rarely performed, Gander said.

Nevada Repertory Company, the production arm of the University’s Theatre Department, has entered their performance of “Ubu the King” in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. If chosen, the production will progress to the regional competition to be hosted by the University in February 2010.

Walters said being entered in the festival brings out-of-town adjudicators from universities as far-flung as California, Montana and Alaska, who will give feedback to the quality of what they see; a sort of trial by peers for faculty and students to see their work from fresh eyes. “It means our students get to do a different style of acting; see a different style of design,” he said.

Gander said entering “Ubu” in the Theatre Festival is a bit of a gamble. “We are taking some really big risks,” he said. “Sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don’t. Either way, it’s wonderful to receive feedback from a nationally recognized organization.”

As for the audience, Gander said, “If people bring their sense of humor they will have a very good time. “Our production contains crude language and adult situations--but I don’t think it will get in the way of the fun.”

Life after University

In the future, Livernash would like to work in movies. His dream job would be with Wes Anderson, director of “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic.” He’d like to be a professional artist, in whatever medium, but has a fallback plan. “If all else fails, I’ll just get a day job – something that allows me time to work on my art,” he said.

“Ubu the King” will play in the Redfield Proscenium Theatre of the Church Fine Arts Building on the University campus Oct. 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 11 at 1:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at the School of Arts website or the Lawlor Events Center Box Office. For more information, contact the Speech Communication & Theatre office at (775) 784-6839.


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