Fall 2013

Original Play Brings Alexander von Humboldt’s Story to Life

Von HumboldtHe traveled around the world and is considered the founder of modern geography. Charles Darwin once called him the “greatest scientific traveler who ever lived.”

Among his other claims to fame: a state university in Arcata, Calif., bearing his name.

And this November, HSU students and faculty will pay homage to Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt with a play commemorating his life and work.

“This is a guy who was a rock star in his day,” says theater faculty member and HSU alum Michael Fields (’92, Theatre Arts), who’s heading the project. “His name remains on literally thousands of things from species, to buildings and universities.”

Born in 1769, von Humboldt rose to fame when he published Kosmos, a treatise exploring his international travels and the relationship between humans and nature.

“Von Humboldt was really the first geographer who saw the world as an organic whole,” Fields says. “Our goal with the play is to bring that worldview to life.”

Fields—who is artistic director of the physical theatre school Dell’Arte—also teaches Theater Arts 415, an advanced acting class at Humboldt State that meets twice a week to develop the play. The course is open to all students and includes lessons in acting, theatrical styles, story development and scriptwriting.

Keith Brown, a junior majoring in Theatre Arts, says he enrolled in the class to improve his playwriting skills. “I’ve done some writing on my own but I never thought I’d write monologue that could open a show,” he says. “It’s pretty exciting.”

Each week, students research aspects of von Humboldt’s life and personality, and experiment with different acting styles that might suit the play. During one such session class, they explored Commedia dell’Arte, a theatrical style that uses exaggerated masks to depict common archetypes.

Chris Joe, a sophomore double majoring in Music and Theatre, said it wasn’t hard to get into character once he donned the pantalone—a mask with a long, hooked nose and miserly demeanor. “Once I put the mask on, people were expecting me to act a certain way,” he says. “It was interesting to play into the audiences’ expectations.”

The play will be in the Van Duzer Theatre, Nov. 7-17. It will also be featured at the 7th International and Interdisciplinary Alexander Von Humboldt Conference in Santiago, Chile Jan. 5-10, 2014.