My W&L: Eileen Small ’15
“My journey through the world of theater has been one of the most formative aspects of my college career.”
Although I love everything Washington and Lee has to offer, it is the experiences I have had outside the university over the course of my college career that have truly shaped me into the person I am today. The opportunities that I have been awarded over my time at W&L, from studying abroad at Moscow Art Theatre School to interning at Telsey + Company Casting right in the heart of Broadway, have lead me to discover what I am truly passionate about and develop lasting and meaningful relationships with both students and professionals in my artistic field.
2013 was an especially formative year for me. In January I entered my second semester as a sophomore dead set on becoming a professional actress. I had just come off my role as Ursula in the 2012 Bentley musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” and after a refreshing winter break, I was eager to get back into the rehearsal room. Auditions quickly rolled around for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a musical I had helped produce, and my hopes were high. I sang and read well, and left the theater feeling confident I would be headed back to start the rehearsal process the following week. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but the role I ended up playing over the course of the next four weeks was certainly not what I expected.
The day before rehearsals were set to begin, I got the call from the director that all actors dread. After politely listening to what he had to say, I quietly hung up the phone and let the realization that I had not been cast wash over me. Although I began auditioning for musical theater roles when I was 8 years old and have experienced rejection many times since, this particular casting decision was especially heartbreaking to me. I had been heavily involved in the preproduction phase of the project and fully expected to see it through to the end. Now, completely unsure of my role in the process, I spent the next few days questioning whether or not there was a place for me in the professional world which I so badly wanted to be a part of.
After talking things through with several professors in the theater department and a few of my very close friends, I resolved to become as involved as I possibly could in the production process. Having already spearheaded the budget proposal and the selection of the show and the creative team, I was intimately aware of the details of the production and the challenges that lay ahead. From then on, I began to attend rehearsal every day. While there, I did everything from taking notes on the performers, to discussing and implementing lights and sound with the stage manger, to creating props from scratch at the last minute. By the end of the four-week rehearsal period I had handled everything from booking the space to selling last minute tickets at the door. When the show finally opened, we enjoyed sold out houses every night of the run. Although I was not cast as an actress in the show, producing “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was truly one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my college career.
Over the course of the rehearsal process, I became increasingly close with musical director, Josh Harvey ‘00, whom I had met several months earlier as the stand-in accompanist for “Bye Bye Birdie.” Following the overwhelming success of “Spelling Bee,” both Josh and I were eager to continue producing musical theater in Rockbridge County. In the months following the production, we began to discuss the possibility of another musical and even a production company. In June of 2013, an opportunity became available to produce a site-specific performance of Rodger and Hammerstein’s classic musical “Oklahoma!” on a farm just outside of Lexington. Over the next few days we discussed the pros and cons of a production such as this and, by the end of the weekend, (540) Productions was born.
Since its creation in 2013, I have served as the Executive Director of (540) Productions. As Executive Director, I have overseen the production of five shows over the course of roughly one year, four of them being musicals. Since our earliest production, “Oklahoma!,” we have become an offshoot of the community arts organization Fine Arts in Rockbridge. We have also played to over one thousand theatergoers and been host to guest artists, directors and choreographers from New York and beyond, including W&L alumna Jenna Worsham ’10. This summer, we closed our season by bringing theater back to Lime Kiln, a popular community arts space, with our production of “Spring Awakening.” We were publicly recognized for this performance not only in Lexington, but also throughout the state of Virginia, in Waynesboro, Staunton and Roanoke.
My journey through the world of theater has been one of the most formative aspects of my college career and none of it would have been possible without the support of the Washington and Lee department of theater, dance and film studies and the wonderful professors who have encouraged me to do what I love and follow my passion every single step of the way.