Last Friday, Campbell Hall was transformed into a hotbed of ‘70s counterculture and anti-war protest as it hosted the opening night of “Hair,” the UCSB Shrunken Heads Production Company’s fresh new take on the classic rock musical. Shrunken Heads is the only completely student-run, independent musical theater society here on campus.
Because productions done by Shrunken Heads are organized, directed, staged, choreographed, and acted completely by students — some of whom have little to no experience with musical theater — it is easy to fear that the production might turn out amateurish. Luckily, I can say for certain that the opening night of “Hair” was a polished, passionate celebration of free thought and love, mixed with modern themes of anti-war protest and both cultural and sexual diversity.
“Hair” originally debuted on Broadway in 1968, and the musical’s themes of heavy drug use, sex positivity, and anti-government sentiment made it an extremely radical piece at the time. In a note included in the program of the play, Billie Stouter, the director of the Shrunken Heads production, says that she had little idea “how timely the show would be when [she] got the chance to direct it.” Stouter points out that even though “Hair” celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, many of the same issues that plagued America at the time the musical was written are still relevant today.
“Hair” centers on Claude Hooper Bukowski and his colorful cast of friends — notably Berger and Sheila. The three and their large “tribe” of friends are East Village hippies, and at the height of the anti-Vietnam war sentiment in the United States, Claude is drafted. What follows is Claude’s harrowing emotional journey as he struggles between burning his draft card (risking prison), as his friends have done, and obeying the wishes of his strict, conservative parents by fighting in a war that he does not believe in.
One of the most striking aspects of the Shrunken Heads performance was how fluid and comfortable the cast seemed, not only with each other but also with the audience. The cast made excellent use of the space available to them (actors often entered through the back doors and side exits of Campbell Hall, interacting directly with the audience) and spoke so comfortably onstage that, for a moment, it was easy to believe that you were eavesdropping in the East Village, listening to a group of friends gossip about their lives.
In an interview with The Bottom Line, cast member Shreya Acharya explained that this natural rapport is the result of consistent practice. According to Acharya, a first year biology major, much of practice (which often ran up to four hours a day) consisted of “getting to know each other.” To Acharya, knowing that not everyone in Shrunken Heads is a theater major made things more comfortable because “there’s not this pressure with … competition, everyone just wants to have fun.”
“Hair” certainly succeeds when it comes to showing audience members a good time. However, the moments that truly elicited strong emotion from the audience were the somber reminders that, at its core, “Hair” is a musical about the instability and emotional uncertainty that characterized the youth of America during the ‘70s, something that resonates both then and now.
Overt references to twenty-first century activism loom large throughout the musical — characters raised signs that call for gun control, reproductive rights, and environmentalism, and at certain points, cast members repeatedly broke the fourth wall.
At the end of the performance, a slideshow that began by featuring images from anti-Vietnam demonstrations in Washington seamlessly transitioned into images from the recent March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington D.C., where protesters trod the same ground as their ‘60s and ‘70s counterparts.
These references are completely intentional. “Hair,” according to Stouter, “aims to create or continue a dialogue about the work that still must be done in the name of equality.”
Through the deliberate use of modern references, Shrunken Heads manages to put a beautifully modern twist on a timeless classic, and the fall of the curtain at the end of the night was met with tears from the audience, alongside a standing ovation and thunderous applause.
Shrunken Heads Production Company invites eager students of all grade levels, majors, and interests to join the company in acting, directing, choreography, and behind-the-scenes roles. Students interested in becoming involved with Shrunken Heads Production Company should visit them at http://ucsbosl.orgsync.com/org/shrunkenheads. Auditions for their next show, “Spring Awakening,” will be held from Jan. 24 to 27! More information can be found on their Facebook page.