‘Equus’ returning to MSU after 25 years

The School of Film and Photography’s annual spring production is nearing its premiere, and for the first time in 25 years, “Equus” is returning to MSU. “Equus,” written by English playwright Peter Schaffer in 1973, follows the tale of psychiatrist Martin Dysart as he works with disturbed teenager Alan Strang. Strang’s unhealthy obsession with horses drives him to a place of insanity and violence. Schaffer’s fiery play — oft controversial yet widely acclaimed — dives deep into the issue of how society deals with passion.

The passion at the core of the play is what speaks to professor Stephanie Campbell, who is directing the production.

“I think it’s really important that we, as a society, get another look at what is the status quo within our society in terms of recognizing and supporting passion,” Campbell said, “and [also] what we do within society to destroy passion.”

Campbell has been a theatre and acting professor at MSU for 32 years. In that time, she has directed nearly 70 productions, including the last production of “Equus” 25 years ago. Her interest in the story, characters, and issues presented in the play compelled her to want to direct “Equus” one last time before she retires in the forthcoming years.

However, this MSU production of “Equus” will be much different than the first. 25 years ago, the play was staged in the Main Stage Theater (what is now the Procrastinator), which was a more traditional theatre setting. This year’s rendition will take place in the Black Box Theatre, the intimacy of which will allow the audience to feel the full intensity of the play. This production of “Equus” also features an avant-garde film directed by fellow professor, James Joyce. Campbell approached Joyce over a year ago with the idea of turning this production of “Equus” into a multimedia event.

“I’m a theatre person, and I’m kind of an island in the big ocean of all the film people,” Campbell said. “We’re always looking for ways to integrate and merge both of those [mediums], and I hadn’t really done it before, so I said to James Joyce, ‘Here’s my idea — what do you think?’”

The film will be running continuously throughout the background of the play and will provide the audience with an entirely unique experience. The film’s purpose, according to Campbell, is to serve “not as an alternate focus, but as a supporting focus.”

Joyce reiterated this. “[The film] creates an element that, from my estimation, speaks to what’s going on internally,” he said. “The purpose is to manifest some of the things that [the characters] are thinking about or the emotions they are feeling.”

Though Joyce is in charge of the project, students are working on the project, allowing — as Joyce put it — the SFP students a “practical application of what they have been learning for several years.”

Campbell decided to do “Equus” for the 2015 Spring Production nearly two years ago and has spent much of the time since doing pre-production work. Three months ago, she began meeting with designers (it’s worth noting that the horse heads worn by some of the actors were sculpted by local artist Jim Dolan) and began working with actors about a month ago. Campbell has a 14-member cast that consists of both student actors as well as professionals from the community.

“I am really, really lucky to work with this group of fine actors. The older actors from the community bring a real sense of stability, and honesty, because the characters are older people. But I’ve got a fine group of student actors, as well. Kyle Downs plays the young boy, Alan Strang, and he’s superb. He’s chilling.”

The marketing for the play has emphasized the fact that it is for “mature audiences only.” This is because the controversy surrounding “Equus” lies in its graphic nudity. Campbell has chosen not to edit out the more dicey aspects of the play and instead present it as written.

“It’s not nudity for nudity’s sake — it’s an integral part of the dynamic of this script.” Wanting to emphasize the maturity of her young actors, Campbell went on, “They’re dedicated, committed actors — if this is what the role calls for, that’s what they’ll do.”

Rumors swirl that “Equus” is potentially Campbell’s last production at MSU. Campbell simply stated that “it might be.” Next year’s production will be directed by Tom Watson, so by the time her slot comes up again, she might already be retired. However, on this subject, James Joyce had this to say:

“Whether or not it’s her last one is irrelevant — it’s the one that was calling to her.”

Equus will be showing at 7:30 p.m. in the Black Box Theatre on the first three weekends (Fridays and Saturdays) of April.