UWF curtain calls: Reflecting on some amazing projects done by theater majors

The university’s theater students made up for lost time this semester, from acting, singing, and dancing, to directing shows and designing and constructing sets.


Chloe Cuyler, Staff Writer

The spring 2021 semester is finally drawing to an end. Summer break and graduation are approaching. Speaking from my own experience, it has been a long and very stressful semester. I think that we can all agree that, at times, we felt like we were drowning in a quicksand of homework. Now, though, in the final week of this term, we can all begin to breathe a little easier and – hopefully – sleep a little more. It’s the perfect time to not only plan for our summers, fall semester, and/or future careers, but to also reminisce about what happened earlier in the year.

For myself, I got the opportunity to work on some incredible projects for my film production class. I also enjoyed my time writing for the Voyager. Through both of these experiences, I have had the pleasure of meeting some really awesome and talented people, who are passionate about what they do. Two of those people happen to be from UWF’s theater department – Katie Smith and Brittney Barton.

University of West Florida’s theater department faced a tumultuous year in 2020. Like many other theaters across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to close its doors far too early and cancel its spring 2020 musical – Urinetown. Imagine working on a project for months on end, learning music and choreography, ingraining line after line of dialogue into your memory, only to find out that – due to uncontrollable circumstances – you could not open the show. That is devastating. 

A year later, the department is more than making up for this tragedy – opening both a straight play (Clybourne Park) and musical (Big Fish) within the same week. And it’s not just the department as a whole that has been making a splash this spring. The students worked on some awe-inspiring projects, like directing an entire production and designing and constructing a show’s set. 

Katie Smith is a Pensacola native and senior at the University of West Florida. As an acting major, it’s no surprise that she’s been featured in several UWF productions, including The Little Mermaid and this year’s musical, Big Fish. This spring, though, after spending years performing on stage, Smith found herself on the opposite side of the director’s table- something that she said gave her a much larger perspective of the shows – as she took on the job of directing a production of Rabbit Hole.

Brittany Bartow also a senior, hailing all the way from the golden state of California. While Bartow is a double majoring in theater and communications, her true passion lays in technical theater/design. This love, fueled by years of quilting, woodworking, and painting, is what led her to designing and constructing the set for UWF’s production of Clybourne Park.

Theater is an art that many people recall loving and participating in from early childhood. Both of these women note that they were bitten by the theater bug a little later than some. 

Growing up, Smith loved music and movies, though it wasn’t until high school that this love led to the beginning of her theatre career. She had fun working alongside her fellow drama club members, both on and off the stage. During her sophomore year at Booker T. Washington High School is when the former member of Florida Thespians Troupe #3935 started to feel like this hobby of hers could become something more. Realizing that her passion lied in performing arts, Smith decided that she didn’t want to end her theater career with high school. This is exactly what led to her decision to audition for and get accepted into the University of West Florida’s musical theater program in 2017.

Brittany Bartow got involved in the art of theater during middle school, taking acting classes. As she continued her theater career throughout high school, Bartow unknowingly began her career in technical theater. “I would volunteer to help with building and painting the sets in high school,” said Bartow. “I just loved the idea of creating a new world that others could enjoy and lose themselves in”. 

While Smith realized right away that theater was something she wanted to spend her life doing, Bartow took a little more time to discover her passion for the art. 

“I was a wandering human for a long time,” said Bartow. “Most of my 20’s in fact. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so I never finished college. I didn’t want to get a degree in something that would make me miserable, so I just didn’t decide for a very long time.” 

So what made her decide to pursue a degree in technical theater? 

“It took a lot of soul searching,” Bartow began. “And I decided on theatre because I remembered how much joy I had working on those shows, even when it was on the side-lines.”

People find inspiration in many different areas of their life. Both of these talented women credit their parents as the backbones of their theater careers. 

“I was raised by my mom,” said Smith, “who always encouraged me to do what I loved, not what I felt like I had to do.”

Bartow credits her creative genes to her father. “My dad has great artistic ability, so he has always inspired me to do it, even if I wasn’t that great.” 

As a graduating senior, this spring marked the time for Smith to complete her capstone project. She decided to direct a show – her first real directing gig. “I had directed a few small scenes and a one-act prior, but this was the first full-scale production that I had directed.” 

Given the freedom to select a show to direct, Smith knew it needed to be something she was passionate about. She recalls that while the one-act show she directed in her junior year of college was fun, she had no connection to it. So Smith set to work to find the perfect show – one that she felt an emotional connection to. She searched through all the scripts she had previously read. Finally, she remembered Rabbit Hole. Smith had the following to say:

“I had actually read the play for a class. The story was so compelling. It was emotional. I cried, when I read it. The material and the context of what is going on with this family really touched my heart. I was told to choose something for my senior project. I was looking back at the shows that I know and would be passionate about directing and this show definitely came to mind.”

Rabbit Hole is a drama written by David Lindsay-Abaire. This two-act play tells the story of Becca and Howie Corbett, a couple mourning the sudden loss of their young son. 

“This is a sad show,” said Smith. “It talks about grief, a lot. Lindsay-Abaire wrote this play which dives into the concept that no one’s grieving process looks the same, and we cannot judge the way others mourn. It is something that you cannot escape from. Rabbit Hole explores relationships and what those relationships look like under significantly extraordinary circumstances. We discover if Howie and Becca’s marriage will fall through the cracks, or if they can find hope at the end of all of this.” 

A show with such intense and delicate emotions requires a cast of actors who are willing to not just play the parts, but become the characters. They would need to be dedicated to their craft and willing to show a level of vulnerability that the average person may not feel comfortable displaying. This is something Smith considered when casting her production. 

While Smith was able to go into her project with a familiarity and appreciation for the show, Bartow had to adapt to the show she was given. 

“When it comes to Clybourne Park,” Bartow began. “I really had to understand the vision the director had for the show in terms of mood and the message she wanted to send. I read the show probably 4 times before I had any kind of solid ideas come to me. While I read the show, I took note of the kind of emotions I was feeling and any key words that would pop into my head.”

With these ideas and plenty of research, Bartow set to work designing the set for Clybourne Park, a straight play that acts as a sequel to A Raisin In the Sun.

The results of both Smith and Bartow’s hard work and dedication were amazing productions that were no doubt enjoyed by anyone who had the opportunity to view them. That being said, those results didn’t come sans challenges. 

With Rabbit Hole, Smith’s largest obstacle came in the form of COVID-19 restrictions. Up until the dress rehearsal period, masks needed to be worn and social distancing maintained. Both of these, while necessary in the present climate, are less-than-ideal ingredients for a successful production. Theater is often a very intimate art, requiring actors to be within close proximity of each other. Due to COVID restrictions, Smith also said that only 10 people were allowed to be in the audience of her production. For anyone involved in theater – especially a director – this is without a doubt disappointing. After devoting weeks to transforming a script and your ideas into something tangible, it’s only natural to want as many people as possible to experience your work.

Thankfully, Smith was able to record her production of Rabbit Hole and has potential plans to broadcast it. 

Bartow’s biggest challenge for her project came from a different source. It was one of monetary constraints. 

“The biggest challenge with designing and constructing was the extremely small budget that we had to work with,” Bartow said. “Some of the things that I wanted to do were simply not possible because we didn’t have the money. There were a lot of compromises that I had to make and design changes. I am still happy with what we did, but that was probably the biggest obstacle that kept hitting me in the face.”

With Clybourne Park being the first show Bartow had fully designed and constructed, it no doubt holds a special place in her heart. Despite the obstacles she had to face, she found it to be a rewarding experience, one that was more than worth it, when she got to see the set come together. 

“It’s surreal in a way,” Bartow said. “Everyone else can see what was in my head, and that is not something that happens a lot in life. Seeing it all evolve and come to life has been simply incredible.” 

Being able to meet and speak with both of these talented female artists was an amazing experience. When someone is truly passionate about what they do, you can tell. Their face lights up when they speak about it. Their voice fills with an excitement that not many other things can invoke. That is exactly the case with Katie Smith and Brittnay Bartow. While I sadly was unable to attend Rabbit Hole, when I spoke with Smith about her directorial project, I could feel her excitement through the phone. The way in which she described her thoughts and perception on the show is something that can only be done by someone who has a true connection with what they are doing. With Bartow, I was actually able to visit the theater department and watch her construct her set. As she and her crew transformed a copious amount of fabric into what would become the backdrop/walls for the play, they did it with such determination and attention to detail. They didn’t shortcut. They devoted countless hours of their Saturday to work on this single component. That is something only someone with a passion for their work can do. 

With the curtain closing on the spring 2021 semester and graduation and fall semester preparations approaching, I wish the best to Smith and Bartow. I hope they both continue doing what they love to do, and that I get the pleasure of witnessing their work in the future.