Alumni Spotlight: Eric Gelb

Eric Gelb headshot
Eric Gelb graduated with a BS in Educational Theatre in January 2020, specializing in theatre performance and production

Tell us about your culminating project.

My final project was a site-specific production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The show was staged in a real gym where the audience sat in plastic chairs and watched the show under the fluorescent lights of a middle school gymnasium! I knew that I wanted my final mark on the university to be something that rang true to my personal belief in the necessity of musical theatre, but agreed with the conventions of theatre that the program had taught me–namely, I wanted it to radicalize familiar art, encouraging non-traditional modes of presentation (applied theatre, site-specific theatre) and based in ensemble work. But I’m a commercial musical theatre artist who works on Broadway and elsewhere as a director, producer, and teacher. I’m passionate about placing people of color at the forefront of my work, revisiting popular, pre-existing works, and challenging harmful stereotypes in theatre. So the meeting of the minds was palpable in this ensemble show which was originally an improvised play with nine diverse performers who took on multiple roles.

My objective was to create a stimulating experience so audiences could sympathize with the pressure of winning a competition for a reason pre-pubescents often haven’t yet found. Physically placing everyone in the place it is set in increased the stakes and authenticity of the show. It made attending an experience. Gaining entry wasn’t just showing a ticket and sitting for 2 hours. The gym smelled of waxed linoleum, with a basketball hoop and soccer balls everywhere. It evoked nostalgia from middle school that can’t be recreated with set and props. The fluorescent lights stayed on, giving audiences permission to reflect upon their experiences when they were the same age, going through those hardships, EVEN when uncomfortable (listen to “Chip’s Lament” if you are unfamiliar). The gym contextualized the pressure placed on students when they are ultimately at a spelling bee in a hot gymnasium, competing for a plastic trophy and bragging rights.

What is something about your identity that has impacted the way you approach Educational Theatre work?

I’m a queer person of color who is pursuing a career in an industry that places value on appearance, either directly or indirectly. However frustrating it may be to see my black and brown peers work twice as hard as others in order to gain the same respect as their white peers, it is extremely rewarding in being able to be, potentially (for me), the only gay or Asian leader a student has in their young life thus far.  When we say “representation matters”, sometimes this means that your impact is not a program or a billboard displaying the huge effect your mere presence in a space has on your students, but in subtle ways (students confiding in you and opening up in your classroom in ways they may not have felt comfortable to otherwise) that still let us know that our fight to be seen and validated in the field is worthwhile.