2020 Graduates: Theatre graduate played many roles on stage and behind it

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 1, 2020 – When the University of Rhode Island’s theater season ended abruptly this semester because of the coronavirus pandemic, so too did Jeremy Chiang’s expected stage swansong.
Chiang, who enjoys any excuse to sing, was to play the equally song-obsessed Prince Herbert in the season-ending musical, “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” In a fun and silly scene, Herbert is forced by his father to marry Princess Looky for her “huge tracks of land,” but he would “rather just sing.”

For Chiang, who has spent most of his four years in URI Theatre behind the scenes, it would have been his third musical, and probably his last turn on the stage.

“I viewed the role as kind of my goodbye to acting,” says Chiang of South Kingstown, a theater major with concentrations in design and directing. “It was one of the roles I really wanted. It’s crazy fun. I liked the comedy and music of the role and it also represents the LGBTQIA+ community, which I am a member of and a huge advocate for.”

The actors were in rehearsals with most of the musical numbers under their belts and working on choreography when word came that the show was postponed. It’s been rescheduled for this fall with an invitation to the cast who want to return.

“I think a lot of us were sad,” says Chiang. “But many are glad that it was just postponed. I don’t know yet if I’ll be able to come back.”

Even if Chiang can’t return for “Spamalot” in the fall, he can look back on a busy and varied theater experience when he graduates in May.

A singer and dancer, he performed in the musicals “Mary Poppins” and “A Little Night Music.” He’s also worked as a carpenter and painter on eight more mainstage productions, along with doing scenic design for a full-length student production and doing light design and directing a play at the Contemporary Theatre Company in Wakefield.

Not bad for someone who came to theater a little late. Chiang, a violinist, came to URI intending to pursue a degree in music education. He had done some theater in high school, including playing in the pit orchestra, directing a school production and doing improv at the local theater.

“I wanted to take a theater class and maybe pick up a minor,” he says. “I was accidently put in the theater majors class and very soon wanted to double major. After about a semester, I was forced to choose and I chose theater.”

With all he’s done in his four years, his two biggest highlights came this spring semester. He designed the set for the Theatre Department’s mainstage production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” And he was one of the four finalists in the director’s competition at the regional Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, staging a scene from Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” before a large audience of festival goers in the finals.

“Cultivating a truly diverse set of skills in our majors is central to our department’s mission,” says Rachel Walshe, a URI lecturer in acting, playwriting and directing and Chiang’s mentor at the New England festival. “Jeremy excels in that kind of environment because he is such a doer. What sets him apart as an artist is his astute attention to detail, a tireless work ethic and a boundless sense of generosity. His peers love to collaborate with him because he creates a real sense of belonging and purpose when he leads a project.”

Set designers for the department’s mainstage productions are usually professional guest artists, and Chiang took on one of his biggest challenges with “Richard III.” Directors Joe and Josh Short shortened the play to a fast-paced 90 minutes. With the script in flux, designing the set was intense, Chiang says.

“One thing Joe and I had going into the show was the concept of the natural versus the man-made world,” he says. “This show has a lot do with corruption, and currently there is a lot of disruption and destruction of the natural world. We tried to display this by making the set out of raw wood and metal scaffold covered in plastic.”

“I thought Jeremy did a wonderful job,” says Max Ponticelli, a lecturer in theater design. “He maintained a great balance between practicality and impact. To the untrained eye, it might have seemed simplistic – he put the risers in a circle. But there were many conversations and work that went into the configuration. He completely transformed our black-box theater into an arena worthy of Shakespeare’s political drama.”

Chiang is upset that his senior year has been disrupted by the crisis, scrambling to figure out production credits and losing a chance to walk across the stage with his classmates in May. But he’s hopeful a ceremony will be held in the fall.

As he moves forward, Chiang is not totally sure whether he will pursue design or directing “because I love both of them.” For now, it’s scenic design. He is slated to do an internship this summer at Gloucester Stage Company, in Massachusetts.

“URI really has shaped the artist I am today,” he says. “I was able to compete in the Kennedy Center festival, and have met some great artists and mentors through my time here. I feel ready to go into the field.”