Faculty News

Breaking a Sweat for Sweat

The cast of Sweat

On the second Monday before opening night, rehearsal for this term’s faculty production—Sweat by Lynn Nottage—started with a fight. Student actors executed a choreographed-but-believable series of punches and holds. They threw each other across the barroom set while the assistant stage manager and fight captain Tennyson Perkins ’26 took careful notes to deliver to the breathless actors at the end of the scene.  

Then they did it again. And again. And again. Each time, they incorporated Perkins’s tweaks, and each time, the action was clearer and cleaner.  

“Sometimes you have to do a scene fifty times to get it right,” said director and drama faculty member Shawtane Bowen. This is Bowen’s third faculty production in three years. The cast and student stage managers rehearse six nights a week. Bowen continued, “To do art, to do theater, to do a play, it takes hard work. It isn’t all just inspiration. "If you're lucky, you do enough work that inspiration hits. But you're never sitting around waiting for it to show up. You're always showing up to work no matter what." 

This attitude and effort are indications of how Bennington has achieved the #3 spot for College Theater in 2024’s national rankings from the Princeton Review

The Work

The play itself is about work and the working class. It examines the changing lives of factory employees in Reading, Pennsylvania, between 2000 and 2008. It was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 2017 Obie Award for Playwriting, and three 2017 Tony Award nominations, including for Best Play.    

Time Out New York called the play “…passionate and necessary…a masterful depiction of the forces that divide and conquer us…Sweat communicates its points with minimal fuss and maximum grit. Along with the rage, despair, and violence, there’s humor and abundant humanity.” 

Working-class people are underrepresented in discussions and art on college campuses, said Bowen, even though many students and Bowen himself come from working-class backgrounds. It’s part of the reason he chose the play. 

I want to bring something different to the table,” said Bowen. “I hope the students get something out of it and feel seen.

And the play’s themes—unionization, race, the wealth gap, government, and the American attitude toward class—are as relevant today as ever. Bowen belongs to the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild, both of which were on strike for much of last year, and Bennington College faculty and staff are currently undertaking unionization efforts. 

"The characters in this play are fictional, but they are based on real people from a real American town, a town much like Bennington,” said Bowen. “The play explores what happens when work disappears and how people become dehumanized, fractured as they're being exploited by big business and the one percent. It doesn't take a PhD to see we're all being squeezed. I feel it, I think many people in the community feel it too. Income inequality on such a grand scale degrades the social fabric. It's rapacious."

Learning Through Acting

The actors and crew are taking the opportunity the play provides to learn about theater while also learning about social dynamics and the period of U.S. history the play recounts. They are developing their ability to reflect empathetically on their characters, even those whose ideas and actions conflict with their own. 

“What differentiates Bennington theater is just how passionate everyone is,” said Anna Feenstra ’25, who studies psychology. She’s grateful to have been given the opportunity to play Jessie, a struggling alcoholic who works with two good friends at the steel tubing factory in Reading. “We do a lot of research. We have a lot of discussions. Shawtane is intent on educating us and bringing in the social-historical context.”

José Rubén ’26 is an international student who studies drama, scene design, and acting. He is playing Oscar, a 22-year-old Colombian-American who was born in Reading. 

“I feel like I am totally different from Oscar. I had to understand what it means to be a first-generation Latino born in the U.S. and all of the assumptions that non-latinos in the U.S. think about him,” said Rubén. “This part allows me to connect with Latino heritage in the U.S., to understand American history, and to fall in love with it in order to be able to tell this story.” 

Drama, acting, and directing student Ryan Fahey ’25 is playing Jason, who, like Fahey, is 21 years old. But the similarities end there.    

“There’s a major divide between myself and the character,” said Fahey. “He’s an irrational young man who acts on his impulses, who does not back down from a challenge, and who is not afraid to say what he thinks, even if that is not the right thing or it’s something that will get him into trouble.” 

Fahey pushes himself to connect with the character by relating Jason’s positive attributes to those of his father. “My father is also a working class guy. He didn’t go to college. He’s been a carpenter for most of his life,” said Fahey. “There’s still a bit of distance there, but I have to try to reframe Jason to connect with his humanity.” 

Expert Collaborators

Students note how fortunate they feel to be collaborating with faculty members Bowen; Michael Giannitti on lighting; and guest artists Debra Booth on set design; fight director and actor Ryan Winkles, and actor Jenny Taher

“These are theater professionals, and we are getting to work with them and create this show,” said Fahey. Feenstra added, “I think that’s part of what sets Bennington theater apart.” 

The students especially enjoy working with Bowen. 

Shawtane is really committed to creating actors who understand the value of working and collaborating,” said Rubén, who worked with Bowen in a previous production. “I wanted to be in Sweat to keep learning from him.

Shawtane enjoys working with the students too. “I love actors, and I love working with young people. Just pushing them and encouraging them to go beyond what they think they can do. That’s my favorite part: trying to teach them that your first try isn’t always your best,” said Bowen. 

As rehearsal continued and scenes were played through, Bowen changed his position throughout the theater to see the action from different angles. He came back to the front row to  discuss details of the set or the actor’s movements: the precise angle of a desk in the opening scene, the volume and speed of footfalls as an actor exited stage left, the precise timing of tying on an apron… 

Before Bowen dismissed the students, just after 10:00 pm, he said, “You guys are hungry for an audience, and you are going to get one.”  

Both Bowen and the students hope that members of the Bennington College community, especially staff members, will come to see the show.  

“The staff at Bennington work so hard to keep this place up and running. They do a lot for the college, and I hope they get a chance to see what we've created,” said Bowen. “This is an important story that explores an economic reality we're all facing right now. I think Sweat is the kind of play that could have resonance with a lot of people here and we hope to share that with the community.”

The play is set to go on at 8:00 pm on May 3, 4, and 5 at Lester Martin Theater. Email the Bennington College Box Office at tickets@bennington.edu for tickets.