The Space to Be Brave W&L’s recent staging of ‘Speech & Debate’ brought its cast, crew and audience an opportunity to engage with an innovative, collaborative approach to theater.
The Department of Theater, Dance and Film Studies at Washington and Lee University recently concluded a successful run of the thought-provoking play “Speech & Debate,” directed by Rob ’76, director of the Lenfest Center for the Arts and adjunct instructor in the department. Mish said he is proud to have this production be his “swan song” as he prepares for his retirement in 2024.
“When I learned that I’d be directing this fall,” Mish said, “I requested to use the smaller Johnson Theatre, our ‘black box,’ and I also knew that I wanted to find a play with a small cast. The one other request I had of myself was to take a risk.”
The play weaves together the stories of three high school students in Salem, Oregon, who start a speech and debate club where students can discuss controversial issues, such as abortion and sexual identity, without adult interference. Throughout the play, the characters bond by confronting truths about themselves and their community. Written by Stephen Karam, “Speech & Debate” has been updated since it originally debuted in 2006 to resonate more with a Gen Z audience. Mish said that during rehearsals, he and the cast had ongoing check-ins about the dialogue.
“Of course, I work with Gen Z every day, but I needed to know if this script really sounded like them,” Mish said. “I told them that my plan was to learn as much from them as they probably would learn doing this play—that was my hope, and that is absolutely what happened.”
Mish has served as director of the Lenfest Center for the Arts since 2005 and has taught courses such as Introduction to the Theater, Acting and Musical Theater, among many others. Throughout his W&L career, Mish has directed and acted in a wide array of plays, including university productions of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” and “The Night of the Iguana,” as well as the musicals “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Assassins” and “Legally Blonde.” Before becoming director of the Lenfest Center, he spent 15 years working with alumni as W&L’s associate director, and then director, of alumni programs. Mish said he was particularly excited to work with a diverse cast with a range of experience levels—which included three first-year students and a senior who had not participated in a theater production before—and he aimed to provide ample opportunity for the students to stretch their wings as performers.
“A director works collaboratively with the cast to tell a story,” Mish said. “I’ve heard again and again that you hand a director a good cast and most of the job is done. I was blessed with having such a diversely talented cast for ‘Speech & Debate.’ This cast had to work with a tough script, tackling delicate issues with a very strange and difficult stage configuration known as ‘alley.’”
In this configuration, half of the audience is directly opposite the other, with the acting space in between. Mish said he had rarely had the opportunity to work within the parameters of this kind of staging, but that the cast adapted to it seamlessly.
“Not once did I hear a word from the cast about how difficult it was. Perhaps this worked because no one told them they couldn’t,” Mish added.
Zuhaira Noor ’27, a “Speech & Debate” cast member, said working with Mish on such complex and thought-provoking material was a warm and collaborative experience.
“Rob encouraged us to find the character in ourselves and then gave us room to explore,” Noor said.
Cast member Taylor Vild ’27 participated in the Leading Edge experience “Home is Where the Art Is,” which invites incoming first-year students to explore theater, dance and film studies and familiarize themselves with the Lenfest Center. Vild said this experience, in addition to her high school theater background, inspired her to audition for the fall show.
“There are many things I will take away from working on this production,” Vild said. “The first that comes to mind is how to maximize what I’m learning in a short amount of time. We only had about a month and a half of rehearsal, and we had to learn a lot during that time, including our lines, our blockings, how to set our props and when we needed them, and how to quickly change between scenes.”
“I have had so much fun learning from Rob Mish with my fellow cast members and improving as an actor because of it,” said Stella Adamopoulis ’27. “The highlights of working on this production were definitely the ways in which I was challenged, and this experience has affirmed my interest in at least being a theater minor, possibly a major. I really want to take as many theatre classes as I can and be in as many productions as possible before I graduate.”
Veronika Kolosova ’25, who worked alongside Mish as an assistant director, said the entire experience on the production has been invaluable—starting from the first conversation she had with Mish about getting involved.
“My professional passion is the entertainment industry, so I’ve tried to get as much relevant experience as possible during my time at W&L,” said Kolosova, who is majoring in business administration and strategic communication with a minor in digital culture and information. “Initially, I reached out to Rob asking if he had a stage manager for the production yet, but after our first meeting, he asked me to be an assistant director. It’s been an amazing experience to really learn the management of performing arts, and I loved seeing the play come to life.”
Kolosova said the hands-on learning opportunities offered through the Department of Theater, Dance and Film Studies have reinforced her career aspirations in the entertainment industry. This production marked her first directing experience.
“Working on the ‘Speech & Debate’ production provided me with an experiential platform to combine management, communications and creative skills I learned in the classroom,” Kolosova said. “I think this play was a perfect option to start my directing journey because it has a very small cast and an extremely dedicated crew. At every rehearsal, the crew taught me something new about the production process while giving me opportunities to share my creative vision.”
Jenefer Davies, chair of the Department of Theater, Dance and Film Studies, said Mish’s engagement and mentorship reflects the faculty’s commitment to the student experience.
“We do everything in our power to provide students with the space to be brave,” Davies said. “For them to learn, with encouragement and support, that there is no failing—that there is just trying and then trying again. This can be a new way of learning for students, and it requires the development of trust.”
Alumni like Taylor Gulotta ’17 attest to the strength of the theater program’s supportive community and substantive leadership opportunities. Since graduating, she has worked in stage and venue management, arts education and higher education administration.
“I’m still discovering how transferable my theater skills are,” said Gulotta. “Somewhere along the way, writing hundreds of nightly rehearsal reports made me a pretty good communicator. Tracking the movement of every actor, prop and set piece on a stage made me extremely organized and detail-oriented. Liaising with a never-ending list of designers, backstage crew, front of house staff, actors and directors—all with different duties and objectives—has evolved into project managing organization-wide events and initiatives.”
Gulotta, who got to know Mish well during her time on campus, said that she often reflects on his enthusiasm and passion for theater and how it inspired her worldview.
“Above all, I believe theater has made me a better human, and I think that work really started at W&L,” Gulotta said. “I came out of there as a more confident, empathetic and creative person. It changed the way I interact with the world and inspired me to reassess my values. I think that’s one of the most significant things that art can do, and to have been a part of a program that did that for me, often without me even knowing it, will always matter to me.”
Mish said that this final production, like so many others he has been a part of during his W&L career, is as reflective of the W&L theater community’s collective commitment as it is of the cast or director.
“A director is but one among many,” Mish said. “The most important factor in the life of a director, especially in mine, is the collaboration of so many people—the technicians, designers, stage manager and so many others—working toward one goal: to create a work of art that can move an audience, a group gathered in one place combining its energy with the energy on stage and in the wings.”