After a hiatus of over a decade, Chair of the Performing Arts Department Mr. Darren Hengst has returned to the stage as an actor. Since late September, Mr. Hengst has been playing the role of Giuseppe Zangara in the Arden Theatre Company’s production of the musical Assassins.
A musical deeply rooted in American history, Assassins tells the story of nine historical figures who attempted to assassinate a U.S. president. It debuted on Broadway in 1991, but received poor reviews due to tensions surrounding the Gulf War. A plan to revive the musical in 2001 ultimately failed. Two years later, it resurfaced and found huge success.
The musical has a unique structure, and the plot advances in an unconventional manner.
“It’s about their stories; it’s not a linear plot where there’s a clear problem and solution and someone changes at the end,” Mr. Hengst said. “It’s more of us all getting put together in this strange purgatory space, and all coming out and telling our stories.”
The director of the Arden Theatre Company’s production, Terrence Nolen, puts his own contemporary spin on it.
“The show should take place in a carnival setting, but our director changed the concept completely and is really trying to link it with extremism today,” Mr. Hengst said.
Working with Nolen has also allowed Mr. Hengst to learn a lot about directing.
“The last time I acted, I wasn’t a director [at Haverford]; I was just an actor,” Mr. Hengst said. “To see someone whom I hold in the highest esteem work from the perspective of what I do now has allowed me to learn a lot about the director’s process.”
In addition to Nolen’s work, Stephen Sondheim’s music has blown Mr. Hengst away.
“I love Stephen Sondheim—he’s my favorite composer,” Mr. Hengst said. “Since the show takes place throughout the past 150 years, everyone’s time period corresponds with their music. It’s brilliant.”
Joining such a high-caliber show after not acting in so long was a challenge Mr. Hengst was willing to take.
One key component of Mr. Hengst’s transition back to acting was finding the right show at the right time.
“It has to be the right show, something that’s going to challenge me,” Mr. Hengst said. “The timing was also perfect because I was able to get two weeks of rehearsals in before school.”
Having been in the director’s seat at Haverford for several years, Mr. Hengst had to readjust to the mental strain that acting places on you.
“I do eight shows a week, and I forgot about the mental focus it takes to do that many shows a week,” Mr. Hengst said. “For me, the daily grind is getting out of my head and just knowing that it’s in my body, and I can do it.”
An ensemble show like this, with such complicated music, adds pressure.
“Throughout the show, the ensemble has to be locked in, because if one person misses something, it all falls apart,” Mr. Hengst said. “With Sondheim’s music it’s so difficult as well; there’s a number that is probably one-minute long that we have spent days learning and honing.”
On October 10, a group of Fifth and Sixth Form students attended Assassins to watch Mr. Hengst perform.
In the days leading up to it, Mr. Hengst shared some of his worries.
“I think about [performing in front of my students] nonstop,” Mr. Hengst said. “The more I think about the students being there, I worry that I’m going to be in my head on that day more than usual.”
Mr. Hengst also acknowledged that younger audiences tend to lack an understanding of the historical context.
“I’ve talked to high schoolers that have seen the play and there are certain things that they just don’t understand,” Mr. Hengst said. “I would say the biggest example is them not understanding the way that the assassination of John F. Kennedy affected the nation.”
In addition to that overarching theme, it’s important to know the nine historical figures portrayed in the musical.
“A lot of the characters, like John Hinckley for example, who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan, many students are unfamiliar with, which can affect their understanding,” Mr. Hengst said.
To combat this, Mr. Hengst educated students attending the trip on all of the characters prior to their departure. He explained what time period they were from, whom they tried to assassinate, their motives, and where some of them are now.
After getting a better understanding of the show, Sixth Former Michael Wylie was looking forward to seeing it.
“I am excited. It sounds really interesting,” Wylie said. “Given the historical relevance, it is very different from any show that I have seen or worked on.”
Until October 29, Mr. Hengst will be performing six out of seven days a week in Assassins at the Arden Theatre.
“It’s been amazing; the cast is super talented. I get to work with people from L.A. and New York, and even some of my old friends I used to act with in Philly,” Mr. Hengst said. “I’ve learned so much from it, and it’s been such a rewarding experience.”