Part One: Milkmaids and 1930s Schoolgirls
The graduating class at Bennington in 1938
On the second Saturday of term I woke up earlier than I probably have on any other weekend since. It was callbacks for the faculty production of Daughters of Io, a show I desperately wanted to be a part of (it’s the director Kathleen Dimmick’s final term and I’ve always wanted to work with her), and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do anything until I had a morning cup or two of coffee.
Every term, besides independent theater projects, the drama department here at Bennington puts on two plays, one student run and the other put on by the faculty. This term the faculty production was particularly exciting to me. Daughters of Io was commissioned by faculty member Kathleen Dimmick and written by Quincy Long. It takes place at Bennington College when it first opened in the early 1930s. Long is a playwright based in New York City and he will travel frequently to Bennington this term throughout the rehearsal process. His plays have been produced at Playwrights Horizons, Atlantic Theater, Mark Taper Forum, Soho Rep, Berkeley Rep, and the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival. The play, a loose adaptation of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women, has a cast of predominantly women characters. Kathleen Dimmick realized, throughout her time here at Bennington, that although the drama department here is made up of about seventy percent women, there are often more opportunities for the male drama students. Before she retired, she decided to change the paradigm.
The play, which follows six milkmaids as they escape the men they have been sold off to, takes place throughout our campus. The milkmaids find refuge at Bennington with the first class ever to enroll here. It quickly becomes clear that the main character is Bennington itself and the opportunities it provided to the young women (both milkmaids and schoolgirls) who were lucky enough to matriculate and find a home where they were valued.
This play is magic. And, the best part is, all the magic happens on this campus I know so well. There are songs about being a “daughter of Dewey,” there are Martha Graham ensemble dances, there are scenes where cigarettes are smoked at the End of the World. And, of course, there are roommate fights in an old colonial dorm room. We have it all.
On the second Sunday of term I got a call from my best friend, who is also a theater student.
“Have you checked the cast list?” he asked excitedly.
“No,“ I told him. "I can’t sing. I didn’t get it.” I just wanted to get back to my latest Netflix obsession (The West Wing).
“Check it out,” he said. “You’re a true Bennington girl now.”
Inspiration photos for cast and crew
I was lucky enough to be cast in this wonderful production. I play Daisy (one of the milkmaids), Hog (one of the evil boys), Alexandria (a bitchy Bennington girl), and the President of the college. The cast is made up of seven girls (from every single year) and one boy, as well as a student band. Throughout the rehearsal process I will be examining the ways Bennington is represented in the theater and how so many different corners of this college are coming together to make this play possible. There is a class just to design the costumes, dance students who are teaching us all they have learned here, music teachers who have lent us their music, the student band, alumni who come in every week to sing with us, and a historian on the faculty who showed us footage and lectures on the history of the college. On top of all this, Mariko Silver has agreed to let me follow her around for a day to see what being the President of this college is really like.
I will spend the rest of my term trying to discover Bennington through the lens of a 1930s schoolgirl. This place is new. This place is revolutionary. I crave to see it in this way.
“They all look so modern!” one of my cast mates exclaims when we are shown black and white photos of two girls with curly bobs sitting outside a dorm, cigarettes perched in their fingers.
“I want her dress,” another whispers.
I do too, honestly. I wouldn’t be surprised if I ran into one of these girls from the photos covered in paint splatters in VAPA on my way home from rehearsal later tonight.
I am now in my fourth week of rehearsal on this project. For Parent’s Weekend we just had an open rehearsal and over fifty parents sat watching us work on the scenes when I have to milk an imaginary cow. I should have been embarrassed, but instead, I was insanely proud.
“This is what Bennington is!” I really wanted to shout.
The only reason I am on that stage, milking an invisible cow, is because the costume shop worked tirelessly to make me a cow milking dress, the faculty gave me historical background on farming in Vermont and the campus where this fake cow is supposed to be, a cast member told me the correct way to hold my fingers in order not to hurt the cow, and the director cast me in the first pace (hopefully not for my fake cow-milking abilities).
“I really like this school,” I heard a parent whisper.
I kept milking my cow.
Martha Graham dancers outside Commons, Bennington College