Actors “burn down” newly renovated Chapman stage in “The Arsonists”

Clay Massingill, a senior in theatre, and Michael Duncan, a sophomore in theatre, rehearsing a scene from The Arsonists on Oct. 7, 2017 (Photo by Katelin Woods | Collegian Media Group)

What will you do while the world is burning down around you? Will you stand by and watch or take a stand? In “The Arsonists,” these questions take a quite literal turn. The production is directed by Jennifer Vellenga and will be performed Oct. 12-15 at the Mark A. Chapman Theatre.

This play is centered on the character George Betterman, whose town is infiltrated by arsonists. Buildings burn to the ground all around him, but because he is a respected member among the community and participates in civic good, he believes he will be spared.

He is driven to prove his civil good by letting two suspicious strangers stay in his household. Everything seems at peace until they start filling the attic with petroleum. What he sees as goodwill is ultimately his downfall.

This production was originally written by Max Frisch in 1958 as a reflection over Communism and Nazism, but due to today’s political climate, it is now gaining relevancy. Nelson Pressley, theatre critic at Washington Post, said this play is a “1950s political warning that hasn’t burned out yet.”

This production is not your ordinary modern play, however, as it features a chorus, similar to a Greek tragedy or Shakespearean play. The chorus is a team of firefighters who share the warnings of what could come if no action is taken. They serve the purpose of being a representation of bystanders in our society.

“The chorus embodies one of the lessons in the play, that we as individuals in society like to act as bystanders and not actually do anything for the betterment of our community, and thus we encourage our audience to go out and make a difference,” said Nich Elliott, sophomore in theatre and actor in “The Arsonists.”

Delivering such a powerful message is not an easy task, however. Chelsea Turner, junior in American ethnic studies, shared the challenges of presenting this message through the farce satire of the play.

“The most challenging part about getting this production together was building a character that fit into this surrealist world but was still understandable for the audience,” Turner said. “This show has such a necessary and relevant message, and telling the story in a way that honored the style but also was accessible enough for people to understand was a worry of mine.”

Turner was not the only one who faced difficulty throughout the preparation of this production. Clay Massingill, senior in theatre and actor in the production, reflected on what was hard for him while preparing for the performance.

“I had trouble with my lines quite a bit because they are repetitive and dated,” Massingill said. “The biggest problem we had is that it is an old play and has a very different language, and it is not grounded in reality.”

Through these hardships, the actors found themselves growing in various ways.

“Being a chorus member has taught me that unity aspect of a cast, because the chorus of firefighters are supposed to work as a unit,” Elliott said. “This has helped me work on interactions between not only my fellow chorus members, but the principle characters as well.”

Michael Duncan, sophomore in theatre and actor in “The Arsonists,” shared how this play has shaped him as an actor.

“Because of this production, I have a deeper understanding of subtext, and I am more comfortable with my physicality on stage and also more comfortable in taking risks.”

There will be four performances of “The Arsonists.” The performances on Oct. 12-14 are at 7:30 p.m., while the Oct. 15 performance is a Sunday matinee at 2:30. For more information or to purchase a ticket, visit

My name is Katelin Woods and I graduated with a Bachelor's of Arts in public relations in May 2020. I worked as the first audience engagement manager of the Collegian from 2019 to 2020 and took photos for the multimedia staff. I was also the founding editor of the culture desk in 2018. I am an enthusiast of a poetry, pizza roll and pajamas.