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The Boundary-Pushing, Political-Minded Musical Coming to Campus

October 27, 2017

The "Mutant Water Babies" cast at rehearsal. Photo by William McKeown.

A dystopian world where environmental degradation has made water a scarce commodity. A walled-off city separating the haves from the have-nots. A political leader abusing her power. The elements of “Mutant Water Babies,” the new play from Drexel University’s Co-Op Theater Company that opens Nov. 10, have clear roots in the issues roiling the American consciousness over the past year.

The show, a joint effort with the aptly named, New York-based CollaborationTown, is a politically and socially relevant musical featuring an all-Dragon cast, but the students’ roles go far beyond the stage. “Mutant Water Babies” is being put on as a workshop, so Drexel students are designing the set and helping shape the finished product as they rehearse, through a method known as devising — rewriting the script and fleshing out the characters and storylines through discovery and improvisation.

“Devising is everything to me. You get to create a world free of convention and institution. It’s freeing and extremely fun,” said Jacob Lucas, a psychology major in the College of Arts and Sciences who is a member of the show’s nine-person cast. “Getting back to the gritty, sweaty work of theater has been the best way to start this year. Plus, the show could not be more timely. We need things like this to heal, to relate, and to stand our ground.”      

Director Geo Decas O'Donnell overseeing the music for "Mutant Water Babies."

Mutant Water Babies,” which gets its name from a mysterious parasite running amok in what little clean water remains in the play’s fictional world, is the latest in a string of collaborations between Drexel students and professional theater companies as part of the Mandell Professionals in Residence Project. The program began 12 years ago when Nick Anselmo, a professor in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and director of Drexel’s theater program, joined the University to strengthen its bonds to the professional theater community and raise the standards of Drexel’s productions.

Each year, as one of Co-Op’s three productions (“The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Godspell” are set for the winter and spring terms), Anselmo finds a theater company with big ideas for a show that will give Drexel’s students room to grow — and fill out the 424-seat Mandell Theater. His focus is bringing in a collaborator that will give the students something the University can’t offer on its own. In this case, a show with an eye on the environment fit neatly into this year’s lineup, and the opportunity to devise a play alongside a boundary-pushing company made “Mutant Water Babies” a great fit.

“The students love that they’re getting to shape it, and to put their stamp on it,” Anselmo said of the students involved in the production. “And because it’s so timely, they’re getting to delve into these really current issues about the environment and the political world we live in.”

Because Drexel doesn’t have a theater major, every student involved in the program is here for something different. Shows like “Mutant Water Babies” give them a chance to experience theater and determine whether it’s a path they want to follow, a process Anselmo described as “magical” to witness. For Mia Capoli, a game design and production student in Westphal, working on the show has been a special opportunity.

Geo Decas O'Donnell of CollaborationTown instructs the "Mutant Water Babies" cast. Photo by William McKeown.

"I'm so excited to be working with a director from outside of the program because it offers a different perspective on how to play, especially in a show that was written by that director,” said Capoli. “It's also very cool to help develop the characters alongside the director. I love seeing how each one evolves as we move further into the rehearsal process.”

The education that comes with that evolution is just what Anselmo prizes about the Mandell program, which is supported by a grant from the Samuel P. Mandell Foundation. Since it began, it has transformed the theater program by giving students a chance to learn what it means to work at a professional level, he said.

“It’s a typical Drexel thing,” said Anselmo. “I like to think of it as, we bring co-op to campus. We collaborate with these professionals, we enable them to do something they can’t do on their own, and in return they work closely side-by-side with our students, treat them as fellow artists and create networking opportunities.”

“Mutant Water Babies” will be in previews Nov. 8 and 9 at 8 p.m. The show opens Nov. 10 at 8 p.m., and also has performances Nov. 11, 12 and 16–19. Tickets are just $10 for Drexel students, faculty and stuff. 

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