All the world's a stage

Casey Alvarado '17

“All the world's a stage, and all the engineers and actors merely players”

Hi all, my name is Casey and I am currently a junior studying Electrical and Computer Engineering at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, USA. This fall semester I am studying theatre and performance abroad at Goldsmiths in London, UK!

This blog post and the few I write this upcoming semester will focus on how my Olin education impacts my theatre performance or adventures in London!

It was the first day of school here and I was doing a butterfly stretch in one of my acting intensives. Our professor asked us to share our name, our major, our school, and why we are here. This was meant to be a social warmup. I told them my backstory that when I was in high school, I was confident I was going to study performing arts in college. My sophomore year of high school, I enrolled in a computer science course to fill my schedule. Surprisingly, I was so intrigued! The labs were...actually really fun.  Everything I thought I wanted--the stage, the acting, the dancing, the storytelling--was now in question. Under some encouragement, I applied to a handful of engineering colleges but most of them were too boringly rigid for my taste. Then I experienced Candidates’ Weekend at Olin. Candidates’ Weekend can best be described as a huge bundle of energy emanating from everyone and everything in the space, and this energy carried me and my fellow candidates to complete the task of designing a solution to a proposed challenge. The experience was electrifyingly awesome; not only did they blast all of my favorite songs while we worked, but I felt like my creativity and imagination were in full swing and in full demand to design a solution! I chose Olin because I felt that, at Olin, I could take my creativity from the stage to the classroom. My homework included real people problems! Plus, engineering is pretty awesome!

The professor eyed me incredulously. It was weird to her that an engineer wanted to study theatre. She probably thought I was having a quarter-life crisis. My thoughts are that engineers are creative beings, especially the ones hanging around Olin. They’re definitely some of the wackiest, funniest, wittiest people I know! They are also definitely weird, awkward, and order Dominos every night or Thai food (free delivery from Lemon Thai!), but we invent, innovate, and design ideas and solutions. Surely, engineers and actors are equally creative, right?

Framing is one of the most applicable lessons that I have learned. Thank you, Ben Linder! Ben Linder is the professor for Design Nature, a first year class at Olin. I hope I’m not spoiling anything by saying that one day in class he challenged us to individually scribble on a post-it note as many birds as we could think of in 1 minute. I recorded 20, maybe? Post exercise, the students shared their count of total birds. Most of us had around 20-30. Then Ben Linder asked Debbie Chandra, another instructor who participated and swore she did not know the topic beforehand, to share her bird count and she had around 80! AROUND EIGHTY! In his lecture, he revealed that the secret to listing as many birds as possible was FRAMING. Instead of asking yourself to list out all the birds you know, you should frame the problem to maximize bird count. You think about all the places where you might see birds. Then go through each location and write down the birds you see at each location. Instead of focusing on writing down all the birds you can think of at once, frame the problem into categories. Framing is actually the design technique I use to acquire more ideas for my improv scenes or when I'm stuck, I try looking at things from a new angle.

New angles quite literally, actually. We were instructed to move, but keep one or two points of contact with the floor at all times, the goal was to see how many funky positions we could twist our bodies into. Using the heel of my foot and the palm of my hand as my points of contact, I was in mid lunge. So focused on balancing to think about other points of contact, I fell hard and loud on my thigh.  My instructor came over with “I loved what you were doing with your body and you can go so many places from there.”  She placed herself in my position; balancing so much better than I did, and showed me the flexibility I had in that position. She effortlessly transitioned into 5 more positions and left me with the task of finding more. She comfortingly said “Sorry you fell. The floor is the best partner an actor can have, though, for it is unrelentlessly hard.” I had never before thought of the floor as my partner. While in that position, I thought I had exhausted the different positions I could make holding myself up with my palm and my heel.  Since I was blank on inspiration, I started pulling inspiration from water, art, my social media etc. For example, asking myself if someone poured water on top of my head, how could I guide it down with my body, like a water slide? I was willing to push through, let me body guide me, and at every creative road block, frame the problem a little differently. And guess what? I only fell once more that class period!

Additionally, when it feels like improv games are going on forever, I think about what I’m not thinking about, about my Facebook news feed, about my cooking experience, about any films or anything I’ve seen recently. Usually, then I can form an idea for a scene. With improv and with other things, you don’t have to plan out the entire scene. You can have an initial idea and just go with it to see what comes out! I feel like this was an important lecture for me. Just letting go and instinctively reacting with my body and my words. Because acting is about reacting!

Olin taught me how to frame problems and my theatre classes here have allowed me to practice framing scenes and iterate on my skills quickly. According to American Scientific, new studies show that there is so no such thing as left brain and right brain creativity. Instead, during the entire creative process, the different creative sub processes that occur during the entire creative process ask different brain regions for help when they need it. I don’t know neuroscience well, but I am choosing to believe that the creative process for both an engineer and an actor use the same brain regions. Actors and engineers will have a different framing and different outcomes, but the creativity exercises for theatre students also work for engineering student sections.  As a brilliant man once said “all the world's a stage” and actors and engineers both require the same creative muscles to play their roles and help people in their own way.

Here are some pictures of me at famous places for entertainment! Cheers from London! 

Casey telephone box


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