Author: Gabriel Wolthuis
Dr. Daina Robins should not need an introduction.
As a director, professor and administrator at Hope College for thirty two and a half years, she has the skills, talent and experience to be directing productions in huge venues and with budgets that would be unthinkable in a town the size of Holland, MI. Hence why Robins has thrived at Hope.
Her preference for smaller productions is also one of the reasons she has chosen Alabaster, a four-person play by Audrey Cefaly, as what might be her last show directed as a Hope faculty member. “Smaller-scale productions, such as Alabaster, give me more time to spend with the actors and give the actors more time to spend with each other, allowing for a more intimate process and creating a more personal connection with the audience”, she says. Alabaster is a drama that really benefits from that intimacy, as it explores themes of loss, grief, trauma and healing (among other things), concepts that are easier to explore contemplatively when each character is given space in the script for their own story. It’s the kind of play that demands the audience’s full attention be paid to each character to do the stories they have to share justice.
As for why she was drawn to this particular play, there are several reasons. The first aspect she emphasized is that she “likes productions that don’t try to duplicate film”. Case in point: two of the four characters are goats (played by humans), and one of those goats is a significant speaking part. This creative decision alone sets this story apart from other mediums of storytelling, but what’s even more extraordinary is that these goats are also absolutely integral to the story. In fact, one of the goats is the narrator, and both of them play crucial yet nuanced roles in reducing the distance between the audience and June, the deeply scarred and hurting protagonist who does her best to remain isolated from the rest of the world after being the sole survivor of a tornado strike.
This exploration of loss, trauma and ‘scars’ is another reason Robins was so captivated by this story. Both of the human characters in the story (June and a photographer named Alice) have experienced significant trauma, and the play intelligently explores the multifaceted nature of how people deal with psychological (and physical) wounds. Robin’s insight into this core theme is fascinating, “In this play, there are traumatic events that the two women in this play are dealing with. On some level, they help each other, but they’ve both got scars, literally and metaphorically. Looking at how human beings cope with loss in healthy and unhealthy ways, both with each other and alone, the playwright asks some hard questions, and that speaks to me.”
As Robins continued to expand upon her insights into this drama and her appreciation for theater, it became abundantly clear that getting audiences to engage with difficult questions essential to the human experience is one of her deepest-held motivations. In her words, “art humanizes us and improves our quality of life. When you go to the theater to watch a play for two hours, it adds to your quality of life. It makes you engage with different perspectives and different circumstances that are not yours. To engage with theater is to become a more empathetic person.” She was emphatic about the importance of live performance in particular, pointing out that with pre-recorded, prepackaged media, especially film and television (which makes up the vast majority of art that the world engages with), there’s a barrier to connecting with it, whereas live performances have an intimacy and immediacy that allows for a more in-depth engagement. Tragically, live performances and thoughtful reflection have not been high priorities in the current cultural landscape of the United States, which she sees as a clear indication of how little human flourishing is prioritized in this country.
Fortunately, Hope College has not abandoned its commitment to challenging and meaningful art. Many of the plays produced and performed throughout the year engage with challenging and enriching topics, such as Alabaster or Bright Star, the terrific musical that Robins directed in the spring of 22. Not only that, Hope continues to provide free admission for plays performed during the school year (interviewer’s note: if you are a student, Robins wants you to know that you can see Alabaster for free). She is particularly encouraged by the shift in attitudes (for the better) towards underrepresented or marginalized voices at Hope. “I do feel encouraged by the commitment to cultural competence, diversity, and equity, as well as the increased awareness that there is more to this world than Holland, Michigan. I see sincere efforts and commitment to those things, and I see the difference that organizations and establishments like the Keppel House have made for students that feel on the fringes.”
This brings us back to Alabaster. Taking into account Robins’ commitment to supporting marginalized voices, as well as her passion for reducing barriers related to misunderstanding, it makes perfect sense that she would choose to cap off her illustrious career as a Hope drama director with this story. Comprising a small, all-female cast of characters on the figurative and literal fringes of society, it’s likely that a good portion of the audience will not find the play relatable, but that makes it in many ways the perfect story to force each and every member of the audience to grapple with uncomfortable topics. Hopefully, in the aftermath of the discomfort, people walk away from the theater slightly better equipped to see the humanity in each and every person, regardless of identity, circumstance, or defining characteristics.
Alabaster will be performed between the 13th and the 15th of October, with additional showings between the 19th and the 22nd. The play stars Kate Lawrence (‘26), Audrey Kunce (‘26), Kelsey Siverston (‘24) and Sofia Wake (‘26).
Photo credit: Kate Lawrence