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reed magazine logoMarch 2010

Hum Play

cartoon

Program cover from 1997 Hum Play, by Susan Reagel

The lights go up. The house is packed—so packed that the audience spills out of the aisles onto the stage itself. Trying to remember your first line, you can’t help but fixate on the breathing wall of Reedies in front of you. Their anticipation hangs heavy in the air. Glancing at the sheet you’re wearing and the cardboard spear in your hand, you take a deep breath, silently praying that the script is as funny as it seemed during all those late-night rehearsals.

The next two hours are a blur. You journey through the best of classical and pop culture—from Troy to Greek tragedy, Star Wars to St. Augustine. Your travels are interrupted only by riotous peals of laughter.

Welcome to Hum Play.

Hum Play takes place in Vollum lecture hall a week before Renn Fayre. Ostensibly, the performance is an opportunity for students to review for their imminent Humanities 110 final. The play opens with the protagonist, a freshman known by the moniker “Student,” frantically cramming the night before the exam. Through a highly implausible series of events, Student finds herself in the middle of the Trojan War pleading with Homer to guide her through a live-action crash course in Hum 110. Several times along the way, Student demands of her guide, “Why is this guy significant? Why should we have to study him today?” An entertaining romp through the humanities syllabus, Hum Play is also a reaffirmation of a community’s raison d’être—a celebration of the intrinsic value of knowledge.

The first Hum Play was staged over Reed Arts Week in 1994. Its creator, Greg Lam ’96, recalls that the first production was “willfully shabby” and that his goal was simply “to put on a funny play.” For sets, they borrowed shamelessly from the theatre department; for costumes, they took the sheets from their dorm beds. Vollum was only about half full for the first performance, but even this modest crowd exceeded expectations. The next year, Greg entrusted the project to sophomore Francisco Toro ’97, and the play has been handed on from student to student ever since.

Hum play

Hum Play ’08: God (Joseph Genser ’10) and Jesus (Kent Coupe ’10) commiserate over God’s Bag O’ Plagues.

In that time, the script has undergone so many rewrites that it bears little resemblance to the original. Central elements endure, however. The cast still raids their twin extra-longs for costumes. Another constant is cameos by humanities faculty. Classics professor Wally Englert has appeared in almost a dozen Hum plays in various roles. One year, Wally’s character delivered a pizza to a dorm room full of students and then chastised them for not studying. Wally likens Hum Play to an Aristophanic comedy. The production, he says, is a “hilarious celebration of Hum 110,” which simultaneously criticizes the course while also bringing the community together. “Hum Play makes me really happy,” he adds with a smile.

Like Homeric epic, Wally continues, each retelling of Student’s adventure changes to keep up with pop culture. For instance, the story of Dido and Aeneas was recently retold with Dido bemoaning her hardships on LiveJournal. The script also changes along with campus controversies, such as the introduction of the drug and alcohol policy, the comings and goings of celebrity professors, or rare changes to the syllabus. One year, while Wally was on leave, the directors projected a Photoshopped picture of him wearing a red-and-white striped hat while the cast yelled “Where’s Wally?!”

To return to Student’s constant question, then, why are the historians, playwrights, and philosophers on the Hum 110 syllabus significant? Why do we study them? Hum Play begins with these questions, but ends with laying them aside. There are probably as many answers as there are students who have survived the monster reading list. In the words of Leigh Walton ’07, who codirected the performance in 2006, Hum Play is “an occasion for the community to laugh at, understand, and celebrate itself.”

—Rebecca Ok ’09

Special thanks to Gay Walker ’69, Mark Kuestner, Kris Frye ’97, Megan Labrise ’04, Wes Hilton ’09, Laura Birek ’03, Nick Brody ’09, Devin Bambrick ’08, Gavin Kentch ’04, and Paul Burdick ’01.

reed magazine logoMarch 2010