Walking into Theatre History 302, Eric Rygh had little idea that he would begin an intimate friendship with deceased playwright Richard Wagner — a 14 page friendship.
Senior theatre minor Eric Rygh recently won the ACTF Undergraduate Theatre Scholar Award from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.
“I saw the notification on my phone, and I was just in shock,” Rygh said. “I was straight up shocked that I could write a paper that was even worthy of an award like this. But I guess it’s a positive shock. A positive surprise.”
According to the American College Theatre Festival, students from across the nation submitted a 10 – 20 page paper “on any area in the art, craft and/or history of theatre, or a cross-disciplinary topic with the art of theatre featuring as a key area of investigation.” Rygh’s paper, “‘An Instinctive Dislike’: Staging Wagner’s Implicit Anti-Semitism,” ranked first out of the 27 finalist papers.
“It’s a mark as one of the top undergraduate papers of theatre in the country,” Chairman and Professor of Theatre James Brandon said. “Three of the last four years it has been a Hillsdale College student who has won that award. Our students come in with formidable weapons at their disposal. They are engaged in the whole academic process, and I think that has characterized all of the students who have won the award.”
Awarded a $1,000 cash prize and an all-expense-paid trip to the National Casey ATCF Festival, Rygh will travel to the Kennedy Center, located in Washington D.C., in May to receive the award. Aside from networking with other theatre professionals and engaging with workshops, Rygh says he is eager for the opportunity to expand his horizons at the festival.
“I have been floundering around a bit with my career path, so this award is definitely a blessing to have in my back pocket,” Rygh said.
Though the paper began as a simple class assignment, Brandon submitted four papers from his class to the festival competition.
“What might be a B paper in my course might actually win a competition,” Brandon said. “Sure, I’m asking you to follow my directions, but sometimes these papers find a life outside of the classroom.”
Exploring the anti-Semitic themes within Richard Wagner’s play, “The Ring Cycle,” Rygh concluded that one could stage the play in a modern work and still “properly pay tribute to Wagner but also avoid sending offensive messages to audiences.”
“It’s not easy to take a work that has completely anti-Semitic stereotypes,” Rygh said. “Getting to engage with the beauty that nonetheless exists in the works, while also realizing that there are problematic, politically-incorrect elements, has certainly been very challenging to engage with. But a crucial life lesson nonetheless.”
Senior Jessica MacFarlane, who is a theatre major and close friend of Rygh, said the paper is a good reflection of Rygh’s outstanding theatre performance.
“His psychological take on characters is very penetrating,” MacFarlane said. “He can see right into them, right away. And he’s able to do that on a first read, which is not usual. I think that’s what makes him a good actor.”
For Brandon, the paper proved to be a “revelation” of Rygh’s academic scholarship within the department.
“For a lot of students, it’s hard to think of theatre as an academic discipline. But I think Eric gets that it is,” Brandon said. “He’s become more confident as an actor. And I think he is all around more engaged in the department. He’s been a valuable and important member of the program and I think that that has gone up each moment he’s been here.”