Voyage to Victory: Henry Ford College Students Nationally Recognized at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival

"The Passage" Henry Ford College, Dec. 1-4, 2023, Dearborn, MI photo courtesy HFC Theatre

"The Passage" Henry Ford College, Dec. 1-4, 2023, Dearborn, MI photo courtesy HFC Theatre

The annual Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) celebrates the artistry and dedication of students and faculty across the nation. Within the KCACTF’s regional festivals, aspiring theatre artists band together to showcase their talents, engage in artistic dialogue, and embark on transformative journeys of self-discovery. Among the talents showcased at KCACTF, the students nominated from HFC emerged as shining examples of creativity and dedication.

This year, Henry Ford College students were recognized for their work on “The Passage.”

In December 2022, Henry Ford College’s (HFC) theatre program performed a production titled “The Passage,” which was directed by Dr. John Michael Sefel, drawing upon the timeless narrative of Moby Dick to tell a tale of adventure, introspection, and the relentless pursuit of truth.

“The Passage” was not only a theatrical production; it was a convergence of artistic disciplines, a testament to the power of collaboration, and a celebration of creative expression. Dr. Sefel, reflecting on the creation of the project, remarked, “I needed a show that expressed an appreciation for both the past and the future, and ‘The Passage’ manages to retell this classic American novel in a very modern way.”

Dr. Sefel sheds light on the genesis of “The Passage,” is an adaptation of Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby Dick, by the esteemed director Robert Lawson. Reflecting on the inaugural production at HFC, Dr. Sefel explains that the play’s thematic depth and present-day relatability made it an ideal choice for the theatre.

Central to the production’s aesthetic is Lawson’s vision, which prioritizes the portrayal of the ship’s environment with raw authenticity. From props to costumes, every element is crafted to display the worn and weather-beaten essence of a vessel enduring the ravages of time and sea. It’s not just about visual appeal; it’s about imbuing the stage with the essence of a lived-in, weathered ship.

For Dr. Sefel, the accolades from the KCACTF hold immense significance. He remarks, “Over the years, HFC has earned a number of nominations, recognitions of merit, and awards from the Kennedy Center’s KCACTF program.” The recognition not only validates the hard work and talent of HFC students but also underscores the college’s commitment to fostering excellence in the performing arts.

Dr. Sefel emphasizes that the key to the success of “The Passage” is its collaborative process. He notes, “For ‘The Passage’, that included students and faculty from ceramics, music, and media communication arts.” This interdisciplinary approach facilitated the recognition of talents like Kaitlyn Liveoak and Hannah Whitaker, whose contributions in film and music performance garnered praise from the Kennedy Center.

Kourtney Collins and Zuri Jamal garnered nominations for the coveted Irene Ryan Award for Excellence in College Acting, showcasing their exemplary performances and leadership within the HFC theatre program. Dr. Sefel’s pride in the achievements of recognized students is evident. “Kourtney and Zuri were both vital members of ‘The Passage,’ both onstage and off,” he said.

Zuri Jamal performing with skeleton puppet in "The Passage." Photo courtesy HFC Theatre
Zuri Jamal performing with skeleton puppet in "The Passage." Photo courtesy HFC Theatre

Additionally, Kaitlyn Liveoak and Hannah Whitaker received commendations for their contributions to film and music performances, respectively, further cementing HFC’s reputation as a hub for artistic excellence. Sefel remarked, “Her (Kaitlyn’s) film was a real highlight of the show... Hannah is an instant favorite with audiences! After her success in ‘The Passage,’ she returned to us in ‘Leo’s Big Day Out,’ stealing the show as ‘Qita’ the cat.”

Together, these students epitomize the spirit of innovation, collaboration, and artistic excellence that defines the essence of KCACTF and the enduring legacy of HFC’s theatre program.

Among the nominees was Katherine Warden, whose journey into the world of puppet construction demonstrated the spirit of creative exploration and interdisciplinary synergy. Warden’s involvement in “The Passage” began unexpectedly, as she found herself drawn into the project while working on ceramic pieces in the art studio. Guided by Professor John Michael Sefel, she worked on blending elements of cosplay, ceramics, and costume design to craft two skeletal puppets that would become integral to the production.

“When the aesthetic of ‘The Passage’ was described to me, I immediately wanted to explore the concept of what bones would look like when constantly exposed to the harshness of the open ocean. However, the longer the director and I spoke, the more I realized it would be far more interesting to see how we could push the production concept for a mix of driftwood, bones, leather, and flesh, and how they could be fused,” Warden said.

Her creative process was marked by a fusion of oceanic distress and the whimsical elements of puppetry, resulting in puppets that emanated both menace and friendliness. Initial sketches served as blueprints, guiding the fusion of “driftwood, bones, leather, and flesh” with attention to detail. Materials like EVA foam served as the foundation, while plastic components, elastic bands, and metal screws came together to create a framework that allows for fluid movement and expression on stage.

Katherine Warden with skeleton puppet for "The Passage." Illustration by Falaah Abdun-Nur
Katherine Warden with skeleton puppet for "The Passage." Illustration by Falaah Abdun-Nur

Warden’s craftsmanship elevates foam and wire to the realm of living art, with carving, sealing, and painting techniques adding layers of depth and texture to each creation. The evolution of the puppets is a delicate balance of form and function, with each element carefully chosen to enhance the narrative richness of the production.

The recognition awarded to Warden at the KCACTF serves as a testament to her artistic prowess and the transformative power of creative exploration. “A lot of what was going through my mind was nervousness,” she confessed, recalling her initial apprehension at the regional festival. Yet, her subsequent win was met with overwhelming shock and happiness, underscoring the profound impact of her achievement.

At the regional festival in Flint, Warden found herself surrounded by growth and cooperation, accepting professional critique and personal reflection. “Some of my most memorable moments from the festival dealt with the feedback I received; it was also some of the most impactful,” she recalled, acknowledging the power of constructive feedback.

Looking ahead, Warden envisions her experiences with “The Passage” shaping her artistic journey, infusing elements of nautical theming and multimedia art into her future endeavors. “As for how my experiences with ‘The Passage’ may help to influence portions of my art, I do occasionally create some elements of nautical theming,” she noted, contemplating her artistic progress.

Reflecting on the journey of “The Passage,” Dr. Sefel underscores the importance of continued collaboration and innovation in future productions. He expresses his vision for deeper ties with diverse departments across campus, stating, “In future semesters, I’d like to tie our offerings into interdepartmental curricula more and more.”

Warden’s recognition serves as a beacon of inspiration for Henry Ford College students and faculty alike, embodying the importance of creativity, collaboration, and innovation that define the college. Her passage through puppetry stands as an example of the infinite possibilities of artistic expression and the power of embracing new horizons, lighting the path for future generations of artists at Henry Ford College.

Sefel adds, “Although it’s gratifying to see her (Warden’s) work be so honored – now in competition to be named the top student work in Allied Design in the entire country! – I know every one of us knew it was stellar from her very first concept drawings. It’s been a joy to work with her through this process. Finally, I think the fact that the student who won the most accolades isn’t actually a theatre major beautifully reinforces my overall message: theatre is for EVERYONE, and every student from every major can learn, contribute, and grow through getting involved with theatre at HFC.”