Hoof 'n' Horn celebrates 80 years

But the student-run, student-led musical theater group isn't too old to tackle an ambitious new work.
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May 26, 2017

IN THE DARKENED BLACK BOX of the tiny Brody Theater in Branson Hall, a cone of light shines down from a single spot, illuminating an empty circle on the dusty black floor. Surrounding it sit a dozen or so students holding scripts, their faces illuminated, their backs melting into the darkness.

“I’m entrusting you with what is most important to me in this world,” reads one. “I know that you won’t betray me.” Says another, “Aeneas, it is time.”

“Good,” the first responds. “I am ready.”

A few more words, and then silence. And then Kay Matschullat, the director—a professional director, in from New York—speaks. “You guys have a terrible habit,” she says. “Do you know what it is?”

Almost as one, they answer. “Breaking the moment?”

She nods. “Just when it gets tough,” she says. “If I could convince you not to do that.”

There’s a beat of silence. And they get back to it. A circle of students, together in the darkness, trying to draw from a script on paper a living piece of theater they will perform. Trying to bring a story to life.

THEY’VE BEEN DOING that for eighty years. Hoof ‘n’ Horn, Duke’s student-run, student-led musical-theater production group, puts on three shows a year in the Bryan Center and runs a cabaret troupe that performs in dorms and the community. The name combines the horns of the Blue Devil with the hooves of the sylvan god Pan, that “mythical character of wit and song,” according to a history in the playbill for the group’s 1950 production of Flap ’er Sails. That production was entirely student-written, though as productions increased in number and quality—and as free time diminished—Hoof ‘n’ Horn eventually turned to Broadway standards like Anything Goes and Cabaret.

Hoof ‘n’ Horn bills itself as “the South’s oldest student-run musical group,” though previous expressions of this or that “-est” have been “one of the oldest student musical drama organizations in the United States,” a 1978 claim, and “Bringing the first full-length musicals to a Southern college campus,” from an envelope once used for leaving tickets at will call. Whatever their “-est,” they know who they are.

They’re a musical theater group on a campus more widely known for harboring future doctors and lawyers, for athletics and research. They’re students who among their overcommitments in academics and service find, impossibly, twenty or more hours a week to dedicate to producing song and dance for their classmates, to managing a group that exists only through their efforts. An occasional Hoof ‘n’ Hornie (their term) might make it big on Broadway, but this is Duke. They’re political science majors and neuroscience majors, physics and sociology and biomedical engineering majors—and the occasional music major. They pursue theater for love—and for each other. Year after year they have put on shows and then, as the echoes in the auditorium died, moved along.

And in their eightieth year, for an anniversary present, almost from nowhere they got the opportunity to be the first company ever to mount a full production of The Aeneid, a recent somewhat musical play with, like the group itself, rather a long history. The Aeneid, of course, is Virgil’s epic poem, a sort of second-generation epic in which the Roman poet of the first century BCE distills the best parts of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad and presses them into service in glorification of the founding of Rome by Aeneas, the Trojan warrior who escaped from burning Troy. In Virgil’s telling Aeneas carries his father on his back and leads his son by the hand as they exit their homeland. They spend years searching for a place to found a new country. When they get there, they have to fight for their place. Standard epic stuff.

So in this premiere production the students will perform, in essence, a musical of a translation of a play based on a translation of an epic poem based on earlier epic poems. The music is far from complete— the play still feels more like a play with occasional music than like musical theater. But it came from Duncan Sheik, who’s won Tony and Grammy awards for his music on the play Spring Awakening. It’s a coup for Hoof ‘n’ Horn—and a stretch.

As exciting as it is to be working on a still-developing piece of theater with people whose work is currently playing on Broadway, it’s a Hoof ‘n’ Horn production, and it’ll be different from the usual Broadway song and dance their classmates have come to expect. “So not only is there a lot of experimentation but a lot of minimization,” says rising senior Julia Medine, a public policy major singing the role of Creusa, Aeneas’ wife, and working as assistant choreographer. “What does that make our final production look like?” That is, Hoof ‘n’ Horn prides itself on a level of quality, and of musicality, that in its uncertain form The Aeneid might not deliver. They worry about that.

THE THEATER STUDIES CLASS focused on the production has been meeting twice weekly for some time, and they’ve had a single read-through. But in the Bryan Center rehearsal space, a black box with dozens of productions’ worth of multicolored taped lines on the floor, the eighteen or so students begin dragging music stands and folding chairs into an arc to prepare for a full read-through, and the opportunity to perform the songs, which they’ve started practicing, for composer Sheik, who’s flown in for the rehearsal. As they set up the room, director Matschullat speaks.

“Actually the first read-through is a pretty sacred thing,” she says. “It’s where we develop some ideas” about the text and the music. “So really use this as a chance to explore the text, to really hear it and enjoy that.” Matschullat has been working on this play in one way or another for six years. “The beauty of a reading, and why people love to attend them, is the actors see the images in their minds, and dwell in that place. People get to see the actors’ minds at work.” She glances at Jon Aisenberg ’17, keyboardist and one of the two student music directors. “It’s all yours, baby,” she says, and Aisenberg leads the cast through the mmms and aaahs and eeees of choral warmup, and while they’re warming up, in walks Brad Rogers, associate professor of theater studies, with Sheik. He’s introduced and sits at a table with Matschullat and a couple of others.

And they’re off. The play starts with dancers in a disco; rising junior Elizabeth Ratliff as Cassandra urges them to flee; they ignore her, and the action begins. The students sit in an arc, standing to recite lines or sing. The opening song, “Do Not Fall,” a benediction to Aeneas from his fallen wife, feels complete, and the energy in the room lifts; other songs wander. Sheik has musicalized various portions of the action, but not all, and not all the musicalized parts feel like songs. The work has been workshopped, but this will be its first-ever full production, and that shows. On the other hand, so does the work Hoof ‘n’ Horn has been doing on the songs—their voices fill the room, and Sheik watches with focus, taking notes. “This is actually the first time I’ve heard it in like five years,” he laughs later. “It was good to hear it all the way through, cold.”

And Matschullat felt the show needed a closing number, so as Sheik put it, “I’ve got some homework assignments.”

THE PLAY came to Hoof ‘n’ Horn because in about 2007 French-Canadian playwright Olivier Kemeid rethought the epic, casting Aeneas as far more refugee than hero, in flight rather than quest. Instead of pursuing a heroic destiny, for Kemeid Aeneas simply goes where he must to protect his child (his wife dies early; his father dies along the way), consciously forgoing revenge. “I left hatred at the barbed-wire fence,” he says in the current production.

Over ten years, the play has been translated into English, and the plight of refugees has become only more powerful in the wake of the promise and horror of the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and varying policies in Europe and North America toward the displaced. Kemeid, recasting an epic for modern times, seems to have foreseen half the events of the subsequent decade.

Matschullat encountered the piece in 2011, when she directed it at New York’s Hot Ink Festival. “I immediately thought its epic nature required song,” she says. “People finding their destiny through the land of the dead. And I thought the dead should sing.” After that first interaction, she’s bit by bit developed an artistic team to bring the play forward as a musical, workshopping it here and there and taking steps each time. In 2016, she workshopped a version at the Drama League in New York, already working with Sheik and with music director Kris Kukul, who came down for the Hoof ‘n’ Horn production, and movement specialist Tracy Bersley, who has since moved to Chapel Hill and worked on the production. For that production, she invited Duke theater studies professor of the practice Neal Bell. He couldn’t make it, but he sent Brad Rogers. “And he managed an incredible feat and got us here this spring,” she says. Rogers, developing a musical-theater minor for the department, made the connection with Hoof ‘n’ Horn and has taught the class.

“Originally it was a leap for them to enter this material,” Matschullat says of Hoof ‘n’ Horn’s break from tradition. “But now that we’ve opened the door together, they’ve started to really investigate this new house that they’re in. My role is to help them examine and explore their own practice of theater. In the eightieth anniversary of this hallowed institution, it’s so kind of brave of them to take on this new form.”

Musical theater doesn’t usually have the kind of complex drama this show has, she says, “It relies on situation and story and quick resolution.” The Aeneid—the epic and the play—is far more complex, a cycle of destruction, survival, and resilience that constantly repeats. In the life of Aeneas and of everyone, of course, which is why the story has stuck around for millennia.

And as a longtime teacher, it’s one of the things she hopes to bring to the production. “An artist’s job is to shine a light on this cycle,” she says. “So maybe the cycle can stop.”

THAT’S AN AWESOME PERSPECTIVE—but it’s also very unusual to Hoof ‘n’ Horn. Not the perspective so much as having someone in charge to give it. Hoof ‘n’ Horn is a student- run group and is used to total control. “It’s obviously very cool that it’s Duncan Sheik, and everyone knows Spring Awakening,” says Aisenberg, a music major. “But this show process is totally different because we’re working with professionals.” That has affected his final show among people he considers his closest friends. Instead of savoring the cycle of playmaking he’s been through a dozen times, “it’s hard to be nostalgic when it’s a curveball.” Rising junior Bekah Wellons, a political science major who plays a couple of minor roles and, occasionally, the violin onstage, agrees that pros make matters less collegial. Matschullat is teaching them a lot, but when they’re having a discussion with her about the production, “it’s not someone we got lunch with on Tuesday.” Hoof ‘n’ Horn is a consensus organization; professional theater directors tend to be top-down people. Wellons says the rehearsals sometimes felt as if “ ‘you are the marionette in my process.’ We really pushed back on that.”

IN THE REHEARSAL SPACE Matschullat has the ensemble moving throughout the room in silence. “Today we are dedicated to connection,” she tells them as they glide past one another. “Keep an eye out for your story.” They move into one another’s orbits; face one another; turn away; part. “What happened there?” she asks a pair. “We had a conversation!” She nods. “We don’t come to a scene with language,” she says when the exercise is done. “We come to a scene with expectations. That’s all that connection. We don’t have a story without connection.

“Now—why don’t we do the transition out of the boat?” And she sits at a table as the ensemble members who play refugees sit inside the lines that have become the boat on which they have fled. They glance backward as the boat is meant to leave their land—“figure out what you want to see on the shore,” Matschullat says, urging them to find that story. During a moment when the refugees are running off stage, she asks them to think about why they are running. “I’m going to run because I want to get off stage,” says rising senior Wesley Caretto, majoring in theater studies and sociology. “It’s metacommentary on the theater.”

For a while the room is useless with laughter.

DURING THE SECOND HALF of spring break, the group stays together all day, in the rehearsal space or loitering outside, checking phones or doing homework. Caretto and Kirby Wilson ’17 during one break watch Princeton and Notre Dame play in the NCAA Basketball Tournament on a laptop while eating pungent Chinese food from Ginger & Soy. They don’t feel bad about giving up their break. “I like to be doing something on spring break,” Wilson says. “And honestly, being able to focus on this while nothing else is going on is nice.” As for Caretto, “I come from a beach town anyhow, so I’ve been allergic to spring break since long before this,” he says. Besides: “We need the practice.”

IN THE REHEARSAL SPACE Kayla Morton ’17, the production manager, has demanded the ensemble’s attention: “Raise your hand if you want to have a great time for the next hour and a half.” It turns out she’s talking about building sets. “We haven’t given you mandatory shop hours,” she says, “but….” So a group heads downstairs to the shop, where rising junior Dottie Kostopoulos, a neuroscience major from New York, is the technical director and needs help. The play remains minimalist, but movable blocks need to be built, as do set columns that will be made of cylindrical Sakrete forms. “We need to cut jagged edges here,” she says, “and we need to build a few frames, just using a drill.” Rising junior Tori Trimm, who plays Dido, holds a drill with two fingers, a little out from her, as though it’s a snake. “That doesn’t sound like a me job, does it?” she asks. “If we’re being honest.”

Kostopoulos gets her helpers drilling, using a table saw, and gluing. “Usually when I set-design there are multiple incarnations of a show to go off, and we try not to be over-influenced,” she says. In this case there’s nothing to go off of, “and there’s an immigration office, an old-age home, a fancy hotel lobby, and three boats throughout the show.” A lot of work for blocks and frames to do. “So I had the idea of the columns—I wanted some nod to the ancient, and I wanted to have some feel of ruins.” The real problem is access—with its dangerous equipment, the shop is open and supervised only during work hours, so Kostopoulos has to run around between classes doing and planning the work so that everyone who takes part can use their time wisely. She tried this year to form more of a set-building team, so that she and her assistant had more support. “I’ve found a few people willing,” she says. “But.…” With her head she gestures upstairs toward the practice space. That’s where everybody likes to be.

THINGS UP THERE ARE GETTING BUSY. Julia Medine as Creusa stands on a plywood cube as though watching from above—she dies in the play’s first scenes, and her presence informs the action throughout the play. “I am watching over you,” she sings, “from the realm of the dead.” She functions as a kind of Greek chorus, explicating and dramatizing—and her clear, steady alto hovers above the proceedings.

Though at this point the proceedings are kind of scattered. “You guys, we have to restore one line, okay?” Matschullat says after a movement. “Because the notion that the fire is all around them has been lost.”

Lines come in, lines come out, at the suggestion of Matschullat, of the actors, of dramaturge Norman Frisch (another New York City import). Actors stand on this side, over on that side, and Matschullat narrows her eyes and makes a decision. The music comes in a beat earlier or later, and they try it each way a few times. Actors cross the stage or they emerge from the wings.

This is the work—this is the thing being born. On what line should Aeneas hand his infant son—played by a bundle wrapped in flannel—to his friend? Will an exaggerated step tell the audience that we’ve entered a raft, or do we need a rope as a visible boundary? If we’re swaying, can we indicate the raft has reached shore by all jerking to one side, or do we all need to look the same direction, and must we do that suddenly? Do we get off the raft by standing and stepping, or do we need to indicate climbing? Each step, each tiny decision, brings The Aeneid closer to its expression.

And leaves the mark of Hoof ‘n’ Horn on it, probably forever. “It’s just so exciting watching them,” says Wellons. “They change keys, they change songs,” she says of Matschullat and Kukul, “based on us. They change the text, based on things we’re doing. That’s thrilling."

And, oh, yeah: “Duncan did do, as promised, a final anthem,” Matschullat says. It’s a major-key number that should put something of a positive final note on the production. They’ve got two weeks to learn it.

DRESS REHEARSAL. Actors enter and exit the stage, musicians play, adjustments occur. “Could we turn down the monitors?” asks Ilhan Gokhan ’17, one of the music directors, and as such sitting in one of the two music pits, low enough that the stage is at head level. “Because that’s going right in our ears.” Dido sings a song: “Why didn’t she have a mic on?” Morton asks. A train toots, and there is discussion on when Dido is to fall and die. A scrim goes up, and a backdrop of twinkling stars comes down. A lot happening only days before opening.

In the hallway between the wings and the green room, rising junior Elizabeth Ratliff, who starts as Cassandra and comes back on as a graffiti artist and then a farmer, sits on the floor and cheerfully does homework between scenes. “Currently I’m working on figuring out how to figure out a maximum likelihood of distribution,” she says. Of doing homework while acting, she shrugs. “We have no choice at Duke.” She’s been doing musical theater of one sort or another since she was seven. “I firmly believe that my studies would deteriorate if I didn’t do something I loved.”

Not that she doesn’t love her statistics problem sets, but “finishing a problem set feels like it takes the very last bit of energy. Whereas finishing a show, the adrenaline—it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I also think the community found here is unlike any other. We need to do this because we care about each other.” To study, to get where she needs to get as a student, she takes her energy and feeds her work. Hoof ‘n’ Horn, despite its long hours, feeds her.

In the green room sits Diana Dai ’17, public policy major, international comparative studies minor, Lavinia in the production (she marries Aeneas at the end; in Virgil’s play she’s daughter of a king, but here she’s a doctor at a refugee camp). She’s also behind on her homework. “Right now I have a bio midterm tomorrow and a public policy problem set due,” she says. Which is she working on at the table in the green room, covered with backpacks and takeout clamshells and water bottles and phones and notepads and articles of clothing?

“Both,” she says. And keeping an eye on a black-and-white video screen hanging on the green room wall, showing a feed of the action onstage. “Duke people like to be busy—it’s almost an addiction,” she says. Groups where the people hang out as well as create together do better, she says. “Successful college clubs are the ones that double up.”

Hoof ‘n’ Horn is decidedly that. “In this cast alone we have four couples,” says Trimm.

IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE, performances have started. Before each performance the ensemble and the production staff gather in the green room. They hold hands in a circle for a moment, arms crossed. Then comes a chanted poem called “Shacking Up,” which cannot be reported here, and is repeated faster and faster until it’s mostly a garbled scream. It does raise energy. Cast members also exchange gifts—secret presents, one per performance—and quarters, which are keepsakes based on coins that travel from one owner to the next in bags that develop their own histories. There’s a president’s quarter and a choreographer’s quarter, quarters for things like first production; sometimes people graduate with a quarter and return years later to pass it along.

Chanting, hugging, ritual exchanging of gifts. The stuff of being in a group, of creating something with what Max Duncan ’17, who plays Aeneas, calls “the people I’m going to the beach with after graduation.” Making art with your besties.

DURING PERFORMANCES little changes. In the green room, Bekah covers someone’s face with makeup for the realm of the dead. “I love this new eye makeup,” she says, which causes rising junior Chandler Richards, a neuroscience major, to explain that they ran out of the usual makeup after the previous performance, but the supply store was closed, then her car died. “I had to get an Uber to Walgreens.” The glittery eye makeup she chose as replacement is getting raves.

Julia Medine is covered in it—as Creusa, she’s dead all show—and agrees but draws everyone’s attention to the screen. “We like to watch Dido die,” she explains. Trimm, as Dido, sings a minor-key torch song when Aeneas leaves her and then kills herself by throwing herself in front of a train. The first few times the death scene is affecting, but at this point everyone just enjoys her athletic leap and collapse. This one is good but not her best, all agree. Richards gets back to makeup. “What I’m studying is very, very scientifically based and very empirical,” she says. “But being able to do hair and makeup and turn people into characters and make them look pretty” feeds that other side. Her companions urge her to start a YouTube channel about makeup. “Yes, in all my free time,” she says. “I can have another segment on the neural underpinnings of mental illness.” Medine says she ought to do one on the neural underpinnings of makeup, and Chandler brightens: “Do you want to know my favorite study about that?”

Everyone does. She explains it.

The same spirit inhabits the wings. Caretto leaves the stage after being killed—as the head of a clan defending its territory, he takes on Aeneas, and it doesn’t end well. “So I get stabbed to death twice, by the same guy, with the same knife,” he murmurs, referring to his fate as a scavenger earlier in the play. Then he turns. “Hey,” he says. “You take the roles you can get.”

Ratliff, sailing by while preparing to go back on stage in her third role, points out that like many an epic hero destined to heroically survive tribulations and arrive triumphant on a beach somewhere, Aeneas doesn’t bring much luck to his companions. “He is literally the worst,” she says. “You cannot have a worse friend than Aeneas.”

BEFORE THE SECOND-TO-LAST PERFORMANCE of The Aeneid, Hoof ‘n’ Horn throws an alumni party in an assembly room in the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. With tables full of posters from past productions, props like old telephones and cameras, and a little bit of food to nibble, Hoof ‘n’ Hornies come together again, fling their arms around each other, and experience that energy. “I live with two Hoof ‘n’ Horn alumni now,” says Erica Zeno ’15, who works in medicaldevice research at the FDA in Washington, D.C. She always loved theater, but when she came for Blue Devil Weekend after her acceptance, she saw the Hoof ‘n’ Horn production of Aida. “I made up my mind right then,” she says. “A, I’m coming to Duke; B, I’m coming to Hoof ‘n’ Horn.” As for that intense connection? “All of my D.C. friends that I spend 90 percent of my time with are Hoof ‘n’ Horn.”

That connection remains everywhere—especially among those who actually enter the entertainment world. Morgan Hoit ’16, an English major, says her life in New York is defined by Hoof ‘n’ Horn—she lives with two Hoof ‘n’ Horn women, “across the street from three Hoof ‘n’ Horn guys.” So her life is like the Hoof ‘n’ Horn version of Friends. Plus, she notes, another alum reached out to her to help her get her current job. “I saw this and thought of you,” the ’09 grad said in a note. The job? Assisting Jill Furman, the producer who brought to Broadway a show called Hamilton.

Betsy Rowland Goodwin ’63 was a history major and president of Hoof ‘n’ Horn. She has lived all over the world and spent much of her life as a librarian, but she also has stayed involved in theater. Never an actor, “I did props and built sets and did all the things people who love theater and don’t have any talent are allowed to do.” She remains in touch with Hoof ‘n’ Horn people from her own years and others. Like Dick Blair ’51, another past president, who notes, “I followed the first woman president, Tina Bell Midgett [’51].” His group had so many members that they shifted to two productions per year— and began producing Broadway shows, not writing their own.

He remembers working with Barbara George, who played a nun in the original production of The Sound of Music, but he’s just name-dropping. He spent years in marketing for airlines, but he’s never stopped doing theater. “I was in The Music Man at my local church, in Connecticut, in 1985,” he says, and a group in his home of Old Greenwich puts on two shows a year. “I’m going to try out for their spring show.

“It meant everything,” he says of his time at Hoof ‘n’ Horn. “It was the best time I ever had at Duke. It was the most fun.” When asked about his major at Duke, he is willing to admit to economics. “But my father said I majored in musical comedy,” he says, still laughing six decades later.

IN THE GREEN ROOM before that second-to-last performance, after the chanted unprintable poem, Caretto performs a rap that gives a history of the production, with many jokes about its ad hoc nature and, as ever, many jokes that cannot be repeated. It ends with a reference to The Aeneid opening on Broadway in 2051, and the cast explodes into cheers. But speaking of opening, there are a hundred or so people in the Reynolds Theater seats waiting for them to do that.

And so they do.

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.