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Designed for Action: Theatre Major Leads Play About Hurricane Katrina

July 11, 2023
Acell Spencer acting in the play, Because They Have No Words

At York College, students aren’t just reading textbooks and listening to lectures. They’re working on community projects, solving real-world problems, and using their education to effect change. In Designed for Action, we meet the students who are making an impact outside of the classroom.

Acell A. Spencer II ’24 knows that putting things together quickly is part of the job.

The senior Theatre major from Baltimore, MD, led and starred in the play Because They Have No Words during the fall of 2022. The production only had about a month-and-a-half for rehearsal time before opening night.

“Putting on a play is always an exhilarating experience. Memorizing lines, building sets—all of it is vital to ensuring everything goes off without a hitch,” he says.

Acell then created a website for the play and a research poster based on the production and presented it at the undergraduate research showcase this past spring.

Putting it all together

Because They Have No Words is a true story written by Tim Maddock, also the lead character in the play. Maddock traveled to New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, volunteering with the animal rescue efforts taking place there.

“Everything he wrote in the play was his firsthand experience of what he encountered in New Orleans, with both the people he met as well as the animals that he saved,” Acell says.

Acell was responsible for researching facts about the hurricane itself and the damage it caused New Orleans, and learning more about Maddock so he could accurately portray him in the play. The cast and crew of the production were able to Zoom with Maddock, and Acell was able to meet with him one-on-one to “better grasp” the requirements of the story.

“Since Because They Have No Words is a true story, it meant that I couldn't play the upbeat energetic character that I usually am; I had to stay grounded, and not only speak from Tim's heart, but from my own as well,” he adds. “As I mentioned, memorizing your lines is always essential, but you also need to figure out, as Professor [Suzanne] Delle always tells us, what the subtext is—'Why is your character saying this? What do they want? How do they hope to achieve what they want by saying these words?’ As an actor, you need to understand all of that to truly allow the character to be portrayed properly.”

A foundation for success

Although his research aided him in producing the play, Acell specifically cites his Dramaturgy class in preparing him to undertake the research in the first place.

“My sophomore year, I took a class called Dramaturgy, and in the theatre world, that means doing every bit of research about whatever play is being put on. There’s a whole position dedicated to it on some theatre crews,” he explains. “Dramaturgists don’t do the research just for themselves, they do it to help the cast to better understand the time period, the actions, and whatever else they need to understand. You wouldn’t want to portray a character as all smiles and positivity when their house just got uprooted by a 170-mph hurricane!”

Additionally, he credits York College’s Theatre program with creating a sense of camaraderie among the cast and crew.

“The best part of being a Theatre major? There are so many aspects that I could list, but if I had to choose only one, it would be how close we are. The Theatre program is small here at YCP. That means that we can bond much quicker than other programs out there,” he says. “With some programs, you can audition for every show all four years, but with the sheer numbers, you may only end up being in the ensemble. Here at YCP, our small numbers mean that everyone gets a role, everyone puts in the work, and everyone gets that roar of applause with their final bow.”

Associate Professor of Theatre Suzanne Delle also aided Acell throughout the process of putting on Because They Have No Words.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Suzanne Delle. She’s my Theatre professor at YCP, and she also directed Because They Have No Words when we did it this year. I’ve been working with her for my entire YCP career, and honestly it has been the best experience,” Acell adds. “She has given me opportunity after opportunity and I have jumped at every single one, and I couldn’t be more grateful and thankful for it. She told me that we were going to do this show, but I had no idea that I would end up being the lead in it. She put her faith in me to not only lead the play, but also to be a helping hand to the first-year students in the show as well.”

For the second summer in a row, Acell is working at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival (CATF) in Shepherdstown, W.V. Last year, he worked as a Box Office intern, and this year he’s working as a House Management intern. The experience has “opened his eyes to new possibilities.”

“I’d never even thought of working in the ‘Front of House’ area of a theater before, but after being at CATF, now I’ve got a new tool in my theatrical arsenal that I can use,” he says.

After college, Acell plans to continue auditioning for plays. He hopes to work at CATF if there’s a full-time position available or stay closer to home in Baltimore to audition at the Everyman Theatre or Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

“It’s better to have a bunch of possible ideas than no ideas at all,” he adds.