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Student director takes center stage

Anna Benziger '07: "I feel that I learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of accomplishing."

It may have been a circuitous route, but Anna Benziger ’07 wouldn’t change a thing about her journey to Lehigh—a journey that led her to a rare role as student director of the theatre department’s mainstage production, Inherit the Wind.

“It’s a totally challenging, but completely fulfilling experience,” says Benziger, who transferred to Lehigh from Gettysburg College her sophomore year and overcame a series of medical challenges the past few years. “It’s the kind of opportunity I probably wouldn’t have had anywhere else. It’s been pretty amazing.”

As director, Benziger was charged with the Herculean task of guiding the performances of a cast of 24 fellow students and tending to the long list of details necessary to pull off a production of this magnitude. The seven performances spaced over two weekends in early November required that she spend as many as 10 hours a day in the Zoellner Arts Center.

“I’m meeting with the set, sound and costume designers, holding production meetings, going through rehearsals, and then having individual meetings with the various actors,” says Benziger, who is working toward a double major in theatre and English. “It would be a huge time commitment, even if you weren’t taking classes.”

But the experience, she says, has provided a tremendous opportunity for personal growth.

“To let an undergrad student have this kind of creative control, to have this kind of an opportunity before I even graduate, is the sort of thing I hoped would happen when I came here,” she says. “It’s been a great learning experience just finding the right words to motivate someone, or to get the best performance out of them.”

“Nothing short of phenomenal”

It’s a role that her mentor, theatre professor Pam Pepper, found Benziger uniquely qualified for.

Describing her accomplishments as “nothing short of phenomenal,” Pepper detailed the lengthy process that led to Benziger’s ascension to director of Inherit the Wind.

“She did extensive research and analysis of the piece—spending most of the summer living and breathing the play,” Pepper says. “Throughout the summer and fall, she and the design team engaged in discussions about the play, its historical context and its significance in today's world. These discussions have led to a dynamic production.”

To further help her prepare for the exhilarating and daunting new director’s role, Pepper wanted Benziger to assist on last spring’s production of The Good Woman of Setzuan, which involved a cast of 21 actors.

“Shortly after rehearsals began, Anna had to undergo an unexpected back surgery,” says Pepper. “The recuperation took her away from school for several weeks, and she was swamped with work when she returned to school.”

As a result, Pepper says, Benziger had to do a significant amount of on-the-job learning during Inherit the Wind rehearsals. “But she’s been tenacious in her pursuit and she has excelled.”

Even securing the role was daunting, with Benziger navigating a maze of challenges that included interviews with several members of the theatre department, and the composition of a detailed proposal that she submitted last spring to Pepper and Gus Ripa, professor and chair of the theatre department.

“It was pretty challenging on an emotional and intellectual level,” she says. “But in the process, I feel that I learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of accomplishing.”

Always a high achiever with a flair for acting and performing, the Newburg, N.Y., native was drawn to Lehigh by its well-regarded theatre department, as well as the flexibility and full range of options a larger research university presented.

“I was sort of obsessed with rankings,” she concedes, “and my parents were behind the decision to transfer here. They encouraged me to apply, and it’s worked out great. I found a more ambitious and engaged student body here, and that’s been a real motivating force.”

With an eye toward graduate school and a career in theatre, Benziger is hoping that she could follow in the successful steps of fellow Lehigh alums.

“At my high school, the theatre kids were very different, very ‘affected’ in their mannerisms—flamboyant, dramatic,” she says. “Here, the students see the big picture. If they want something, nothing’s going to stop them. They recognize the opportunities that are provided for them, and they make the most of them.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Thursday, November 09, 2006

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