It was spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had begun and Makaela Vogel ’21 was taking classes remotely at home in Dixon, New Mexico. Vogel said she was envisioning her senior comprehensive project as a theater major and after much thinking, she decided to interview her eight aunts about their life stories. Vogel said she studied their speech patterns and mannerisms, designed the scenes, wrote the scripts and acted out all eight people as if Vogel was interviewing them. The result? A 45-minute, one-actor play, “Flying the Nest.”
Two years later, along with the artists and associate actors at The Echo Theater Company, her original play is being directed, produced and performed again, this time under the name “Mother Sisters.”
David Crabb, Occidental’s Wanlass Guest Artist for 2018-19, taught Vogel three theater courses on nonfiction solo theater, devised theater and new theater forms. According to Crabb, it is uncommon for undergraduate theater students’ plays to be remounted outside their colleges, as students may have connections to fewer resources once they graduate, or they may take on a new project.
“It’s the first time in many years that I can think of where a project that was created and nourished at Occidental is going to a playhouse of note,” Crabb said. “It’s exciting.”
Crabb said in his classes, Vogel was unafraid to experiment with new theatric techniques and did great character work.
“It can be daunting to have a professor tell you to create a 15-minute theater experience in a storage closet or a bathroom,” Crabb said. “Mak was always ready to jump right in — if you give her a trunk with 30 wigs and a stage, she could probably show you 30 very different people.”
Vogel said that when the pandemic started, her father started talking to his three brothers and eight sisters over Zoom. Inspired by the Zoom calls and her passion for theatrical character study, Vogel began drafting interview questions for her aunts.
“I like to find differences between people, diving into what makes people, people — their experiences and their downfalls,” Vogel said. “It was a perfect time, because everyone was staying at home anyway.”
Vogel said she initially joined Echo Theater after graduation as the audience service manager, but later moved up to be the company manager. As the company manager, Vogel said part of her responsibility is to cultivate a sense of community. Given this, she came up with the idea of turning “Flying the Nest” into to an ensemble play that would allow many artists, staff and actors at Echo to collaborate.
Vogel pitched her plan to Chris Fields, the artistic director at the theater. Fields agreed, and Vogel then approached Sky Paley, the director of Echo Theater Truck, to ask if he would like to direct the play.
Paley said as director, one of his challenges is overcoming the age gap between the 16 actors and eight aunts that they portray.
“When [Vogel] interviewed them, the women were all in their 60s, 70s, but we cast women in their 20s and 30s,” Paley said. “What we’ve decided is to have the actors more resemble the age of the characters when they left home, as opposed to dressing them up and making them behave like older humans.”
Hilary Oglesby ’22 is one of the 22 associate actors at Echo Theater whom Vogel invited to audition for “Mother Sisters.” Oglesby said she first met Vogel when they were first-years in an introductory theater class. According to Oglesby, they took a number of theater classes together while at Occidental, and they both performed in the 2019 Keck Theater play “Men on Boats.”
Oglesby is portraying Vogel’s fourth aunt, Cathy Gregory, who was born in 1950. She said, in regards to her key monologue, that she wants her character to feel present, as opposed to being historically distant.
“I want to be talking about [Cathy’s experiences] as if they’re very real things that I’m currently experiencing,” Oglesby said. “We’re going for intentional timelessness, we want things that could have been this way in the 70s, but could also be that way now.”
Oglesby said a thematic element running through the play is how the aunts’ parents and husbands force them to make certain choices.
Paley said that although the play is set in the 1960s and 70s, the plot still connects to current events, as it tells the stories of women before the Roe v. Wade decision making choices at different points in their lives.
“It’s important to emphasize the play is largely about women, and women are going through a major transformation in society right now,” Vogel said. “I think using art as a way to uplift women’s voices is one of the most important things we can do right now.”
“Mother Sisters” performs at Echo Theater every Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m. from Oct. 5-27; tickets are available here.