When Jeffrey Eisner first started at IU as a musical theater major through the Individualized Major Program, he knew his final project would not be something as simple as a few cabaret tunes. Finally in his senior year and due to graduate in May 2003, Eisner is directing, producing and starring in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."
The critically acclaimed off-Broadway rock hit is a story of an East German rock singer Hansel, who suffers a botched-up sex change operation to get over the Berlin Wall.
"It's a sleazy stand-up night club act by a transsexual rock star in search for the other half," Eisner said.
The story is both moving and exhilarating, bringing up transgender issues, sexual relations, friendship, loyalty, and success.
"The show is racy, risque, controversial. It makes people uncomfortable," said supporting actress and senior Amy Birnbaum. "It gets under your skin."
The play runs today and Friday at the John Waldron Arts Center's Rose Firebay theatre at 9 p.m. The show is free -- the IMP does not allow its students to charge for admission.
"It's my present to the Bloomington community," Eisner said.
The IMP allows students to combine diverse areas of study to create their own major. Students have the opportunity to design their curriculum and select their courses from a diverse range of departments.
"The program we're in affords us opportunities that we would not have in other programs," Birnbaum said. "IMP is not as regimented as other programs."
Through four or less years in the IMP, students work tet-á-tet with faculty advisers, who supervise the curriculum. The culmination of the participant's studies in the program is a final project that showcases everything the student has learned. The final project may consist of a research paper, a performance, or an internship. Along with one of these, each IMP student is required to submit a 2-page retrospective statement in which the student evaluates his or her curriculum and the value of different courses to a future career.
"I hope this show raises standards," Birnbaum said. "I want people to see what the IMP is enabling us to do. The program is working!"
Eisner could have taken the relatively easy way out -- singing a series of unconnected show or cabaret tunes.
"I don't think that they would showcase what I'm really capable of," he said. "This is a real challenge for me as an actor -- it's basically a 90-minute rock soliloquy."
Eisner will receive a grade on this performance. His adviser, George Pinney, a professor in the Department of Theater and Drama, will judge the creative process that went into the show, the performance itself, and Eisner's growth as an actor and director.
"The musical theatre major is a combination of acting, singing, and dance," Pinney said. "The final project should ideally showcase all three."
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Eisner, a Long Island native, started preparing for the show in August. Back then, he spent almost two months trying to find the owners of the rights to "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." It turned out that a small company, Dramatists Playservice, Inc., holds the rights. After some discussion, Eisner received permission to use the book and the score.
Once Eisner secured the rights, he had to find a performance space, a crew, a costume designer, an acting team, and, most importantly, a band.
"Putting this together is the greatest challenge," Eisner said. "I've never directed something of this scope."
With a budding idea in mind, Eisner found a stage manager/assistant director in Alison Cordell, a senior Theater and Drama and English major. Cordell is Eisner's guiding light. When he's on stage, she makes sure that everything goes smoothly.
Next, Eisner found a band to play the show's score -- a rock 'n roll journey to self-realization.
For Eisner, the main challenge of this production is doing everything himself.
"You have to depend only on yourself," he said. "In the theater department, you don't have to worry as much; the costumes and props are easily accessible."
Theater and Drama graduate student Rebecca Jarrell takes care of the costumes. The play requires a lot of sequins, a lot of fine fabrics, and the most important task of all: making a male look like a female with a touch of rock 'n roll class for an hour and a half.
Eisner took on this project hoping to bring something new to Bloomington. Although the Bloomington arts community is welcoming of new ventures, Eisner believes that it could use some new initiative.
"Bloomington needs to experience this play," Eisner said. "It brings up issues that aren't generally addressed."