Benita De Wit Explores The Plight of Refugees In Her Thesis

February 14, 2017

Benita de Wit’s directing thesis, Undrown’d: Seeking Asylum, is being produced at the Connelly Theatre from March 9 through 12. Inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the production follows an immigrant father and daughter as they endure indefinite detention, employing news media accounts and refugees’ personal stories to addresses issues of immigration, imagination and survival.

Originally from Sydney, Australia, de Wit came to Columbia in search of a safe space to experiment artistically and gain experience. She began exploring The Tempest during her first semester at Columbia, when Professor Anne Bogart assigned her class a directing project known as “The Chestnut,” in which students create a 10-minute essay-performance that reflects on a well-known play. De Wit chose The Tempest—but, upon re-reading it, realized that she could not identify any real stakes. “Prospero fixed everything with magic, and I wasn’t sure what the real cost was for him,” she said. “I was more interested in Ariel, Miranda and Caliban, these characters who felt truly trapped in their situation.”

At the same time, she was reading in the Australian media about riots that were occurring at a detention center in her home country. “Eventually these two different islands converged and I felt like I really had something to say, and the structure of the Shakespeare play provided a way for me to say it.”

De Wit began workshopping what would become Undrown’d: Seeking Asylum during her second year. Working with a group of actors, she generated a enough material for a 50-minute performance. “It was really collaborative, everyone bringing in images, articles and ideas,” she said. “We found some great things, but there were structural issues with the show, so I went back to square one and rebuilt the show from scratch.”

She brought in fellow student Emily Comisar to help with the writing, and then added translators and dramaturgs as well. Soon they brought the piece into the room with actors, and began adapting the scenes with them. “The show evolved a lot over the rehearsal process,” de Wit said.

Working with a script that is constantly evolving poses some difficulties, according to de Wit. While devising a work from scratch is a challenging process, she said, part of growing as a director is learning which stories you want to tell and how to tell them. “I wanted to make a piece of work that reflects what I care about and want to say in the world,” she says. “In the process of creating it from scratch, I learnt so much more than I would have from just directing. This piece is also as much about the physical and musical storytelling as it is about the dialogue, so creating it from the ground up allowed us to tell this story with a range of different elements.”

Frustration and confusion are all part of the process, de Wit said, but making the show happen has been a reward in itself. “There have been so many frustrating moments where we have all been there trying to figure something out and then all of a sudden the elements come together and something beautiful happens and we all go, ‘Yes, that’s it!’” she said. “Those moments are so satisfying because they come out of true collaboration, and we couldn’t make that happen without everyone bringing something to the table.”

Undrown’d: Seeking Asylum is being produced at the Connelly Theatre, at 220 E. 4th Street, on March 9, 10 and 11 at 8 pm, and on March 12 at 2 pm and 8 pm. Tickets are $15 for the general public, $5 for seniors and free with any valid student ID.

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