Eliot Circular

Theatre–Lit Major Stages Spring Crisis

Photo by Caleb Codding ’18

Reed History and Culture take Center Stage in a Devised play by Ashlin Hatch ’17.

By Katie Pelletier ’03

As every Reedie knows, spring is the season of junior quals, sunshine deprivation, and the inevitable eruption of some campus controversy known as the “spring crisis.”

In the spring of 1972, the crisis was triggered when President Richard Nixon ordered B-52s to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong, escalating the Vietnam War. Waves of outrage rippled through campuses around the nation. Police confronted demonstrators at Stanford and the University of Michigan and used tear gas and batons at the University of Texas. The governor of Maryland called out the National Guard. Reed students were outraged.

What happened next is the stuff of Reed legend. It is also the subject of an original play play by theater–lit major Ashlin Hatch ’17.

This Must Be the Place is a devised play that examines Reed traditions, stories, and culture through the lens of the spring crisis of 1972.

Ashlin Hatch started thinking about campus crises during her tenure as student body president, as she observed several controversies swell and ebb. She noticed that the campus reaction often played out according to a familiar script. She wondered whether these habituated responses were limiting the community’s ability to have productive conversations. “Why do we do it this way?” she wondered.

Prof. Elliot Leffler [theatre 2014–] encouraged her to think about these community tensions in terms of art. “Is there a show to be made about this?” they discussed.

“There was an idea in the back of my head about the relationship between Reed community governance and collaborative theatre making. I’d seen so many of the same tensions, so many of the same areas of caring, and so much of the same passion in those two areas of campus. They felt so compatible,” Ashlin says.

As she began to work on her thesis proposal, she scoured old copies of the Student Body Handbook that were stored in the student body executive office until she came upon the story of the spring crisis of ’72 in a section titled “Anti-History.”  Incensed by Nixon’s actions, 400 Reed students gathered in commons to discuss their response. One faction staged a takeover of Eliot Hall (but allowed access to the basement, so that the psych department could take care of their rats). Later a group went to the state capitol and demanded to see Oregon Governor Tom McCall.

To Ashlin this spring crisis seemed like a good subject for exploring her ideas because it was remote in time, so lingering tensions might not be a concern. Further, she says, “The way it’s told is abstracted enough that it read to me as this thing that could have happened yesterday and could happen tomorrow.” As she researched further and conducted interviews with alumni, she found a number of surprising parallels. “It was really quite eerily similar to what’s going on on campus right now, and in the world right now.” She adds, “The things that students were arguing about, and were passionate about, and that faculty and administration and everyone on campus were trying to sort out and communicate with each other about, I think are incredibly resonant today.”

Ashlin and her crew set to work devising the show. Devising is a process of theatre making in which there is no script before the cast and crew get together, and all are involved in the creating process. “Everyone is invited to bring ideas to the table and help mold the content of the piece,” Ashlin explains. Hierarchies are dismantled and a combination of improvisation, creative exercises, and other collaborative tools are used to build the work. An Opportunity Grant last year gave Ashlin the chance to study devised theatre at the Under the Radar festival, which showcases devised work from all over the world.

When asked about the challenges of devising, Ashlin is effervescent about its success. “This group in particular has really shown up,” she says. “And for me, I have had moments of sheer joy where [I see that] it works, it really does work! We are sharing the creative power: I’m not fully in charge, and neither is anyone else. We are making this thing together.”