New website honors the spirit of “The Book Store”

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Screenshot of the website for "The Book Store" by Adam Szymkowicz.

Following the shutdown of Occidental’s campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Occidental’s theater department canceled performances of its spring show “The Book Store,” written by Adam Szymkowicz and directed by Jamie Angell, associate professor of the practice for theater. The New Play Exchange website describes “The Book Store” as a play about “a whimsical, almost magical bookstore where people fall in and out of love.” Upon the show’s cancellation, Aubree Cedillo, the scenic designer for the show, created a website to keep the show alive and give members of the theater community and greater Occidental community a feeling of togetherness and a chance to experience the show in a new way. 

“The whole idea behind the show was that it was going to be this immersive community event,” Cedillo said. “When that got taken away from us and we couldn’t perform the show, I really felt very strongly that I wanted to continue the spirit of ‘The Book Store’ in a virtual manner.”

The website has different virtual “rooms” that are a part of the bookstore set in the show. The Great Hall holds video messages from faculty in the theater department, and the Heart Room has video submissions from staff and students reading passages from their favorite book. The Green Room shows pictures of alumni with their favorite books, and the Paris Room has musical performances that range from singing to an oboe performance. The style of the website, where community members submit content, comes from the vision crew members originally had for the performance, according to Cedillo.

“We really want to have an immersive experience. We want to differentiate a theatrical production from a film or TV production,” Angell said. “You can’t be a passive audience member as much. You want to really be a part of this experience that only happens this one time that the audience is there.”

Oli Vorster (sophomore) played Jamie, a lesbian woman in her late twenties who is planning on marrying her partner, also named Jamie, at the bookstore. Throughout the play, they continue to jilt each other at the altar, until they finally go through with the marriage during their fourth attempt, Vorster said. According to Vorster, the feelings of love seen in the show extend to the relationships between cast members and the feeling of community they share.

“I thought it [the creation of the website] was really sweet,” Vorster said. “It was so touching to see that even if we’re not going to be physically there, that the community is still there. I think it’s a really nice message to show solidarity and show that even if we’re not doing the show, all of our hard work has some tangible outcome.”

Jenna Morris (sophomore) played three characters in the show: Marie, the assistant to the antagonist of the show, as well as Alexis, a book finder, and Miss Witherly. According to Morris, she was most excited about the reunion scene between Miss Witherly and the date she was searching for in the bookstore, Greg, played by Jay Marculitis (first year).

“I was very excited for the reunion of Greg and Miss Whitherly, because I was going to lift Jay Marculitis up and twirl him around. I was looking forward to seeing the audience reaction to a 5’5” girl lifting a 6’5” man into the air,” Morris said via email.

Braedon Hatt (first year) played Ted, a nerd who comes to the bookstore to talk to a girl he has a crush on, and “Byron,” who is revealed to be Byron’s friend who is pretending to be Byron on a blind date. Hatt said playing two characters provided a unique challenge: getting the audience to understand it isn’t the same character twice.

“[Playing two roles] gives you a lot of opportunity to experiment with different acting choices, and you really have to work on separating these two characters,” Hatt said.

Sergio Perez (senior) was supposed to use his roles in “The Book Store” as a part of his senior comps. However, because of Occidental’s shutdown, he is using his role in “Stupid F#@%king Bird” last semester for his comps. Perez said he was most excited about the set design.

“Our amazing set designer, Aubree Cedillo, cooked up an elaborate set that would have turned Keck Theater into a fully immersive bookstore, with different rooms and even a cafe! It was going to be fun to play in as an actor, but also I’m certain it would’ve been breathtaking to experience as an audience member,” Perez said via email.

Perez also said he wanted to extend support to his fellow graduating seniors, particularly those in the arts.

“I think right now there’s a lot of pressure on people to keep creating and being artistic, but when it’s hard it’s always great to remind oneself that it’s okay to take a break,” Perez said via email. “These fields we’ve chosen to be a part of will be rattled and who knows when we’ll even be able to gather in a room again, but art will always be there — inside you and out in the world — so now should just be a time to take care of yourself and your people.”

Angell said the show helped reaffirm values he already held and that he thinks the website should work as bookstores function — a place where ideas are not only taken out, but put in. 

“Things that I knew or felt, intrinsically, about how to behave in the world are certainly reaffirmed by ‘The Book Store’ — that people are flawed but worthy of respect and attention, and that you don’t have to be part of a riot in order to be part of the resistance,” Angell said.

The fully immersive experience of “The Book Store” would have aided in expressing the themes of the show, which cast members Vorster and Marculitis described as focused on community and love.

“It was just a very simple message of finding love and living in a community. And just because it’s a simple message doesn’t mean that it’s less valuable,” Marculitis said. “Just because ‘The Book Store’ doesn’t make you question your existence or have a crisis doesn’t mean that it’s any less valuable as a show. Being able to make you laugh and think about love and life and community is just as important.”

If you would like to contribute to “The Book Store” website, email theater@oxy.edu with the room you want to contribute to in the subject line. Submissions are open until May 17.