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Centennial Play Brings Alexander Von Humboldt to Life

Date: May 20, 2013

He traveled around the world and is considered the founder of modern geography. Charles Darwin once called him the “greatest scientific traveler who ever lived.”

Among his other claims to fame: being this university’s namesake. This fall, HSU students and faculty will pay homage to Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt with a play commemorating his life and work.
The original production premieres this November as part of HSU’s 2013-14 Centennial celebration, a year of events and activities commemorating the university’s first 100 years.

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“This is a guy who was a rock star in his day,” says theater faculty member and HSU alum Michael Fields (M.F.A.), who’s heading the project. “His name remains on literally thousands of things from species, to buildings and universities.”
Born in 1769, Von Humboldt rose to fame when he published Kosmos, a treatise exploring his international travels and the relationship between humans and nature.

“Von Humboldt was really the first geographer who saw the world as an organic whole,” Field says. “Our goal with the play is to bring that worldview to life.”

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Fields—who is artistic director of the physical theatre school Dell’Arte—also teaches TA 415, an advanced acting class that meets twice week to develop the play. The course is open to all students and includes lessons in acting, theatrical styles, story development and scriptwriting.

Keith Brown, a junior majoring in theatre arts, says he enrolled in the class to improve his playwriting skills. “I’ve done some writing on my own but I never thought I’d write monologue that could open a show,” he says. “It’s pretty exciting.”

Each week, students research aspects of Von Humboldt’s life and personality and experiment with different acting styles that might suit the play. During a recent class, they explored Commedia dell’Arte, a theatrical style that uses exaggerated masks to depict common archetypes.

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Chris Joe, a sophomore double majoring in music and theatre, said it wasn’t hard to get into character once he donned the Pantalone—a mask with a long, hooked nose and miserly demeanor. “Once I put the mask on, people were expecting me to act a certain way,” says Joe, who began to walk in character. “It was interesting to play into the audiences’ expectations.”

The Pantalone and other commedia masks will appear in the play, which opens at the Van Duzer Theatre Nov. 7-17. Auditions begin next month.
It will also premiere at the 7th International and Interdisciplinary Alexander Von Humboldt Conference in Santiago, Chile Jan. 5-10, 2014. For more on the conference, visit humboldt.edu/wlc/conference.html.


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