The first two and half months of the Atomic Age Theater consisted of bi-weekly trips to Home Depot.
“I will never forget the day sitting on the T by myself with seven extension cords on my arms and clip lights and a ton of light bulbs, and I'm like, ‘Don't judge me, it’s theater!’” said Michelle Roginsky, an Emerson senior who is the group’s co-founder.
She calls this the mark of ambition, a theme that runs throughout Atomic Age’s year-old saga.
While there are many student-run theater groups at Emerson College, Atomic Age is the school’s only student-run nonprofit organization.
Michelle Roginsky, 21, and senior Jeff Freeman (pictured above), 22, founded the theater initiative last fall. Since then, they’ve put on 14 shows, which range from full-scale productions to play readings to poetry slams.
“The idea started when I directed a play and Jeff was my assistant director; then Jeff wrote and directed a play, and I was his assistant director,” said Roginsky. “We liked working together and after that it was like, why would we continue proposing to other theater groups when we know we can do something on our own?”
Freeman, says they got together a group of individuals all working on performances he calls “a little off beat.”
“There seemed to be a through line with all of our work: It all came back to topics that were socially relevant and-or experimental.”
And so Atomic Age was born. But unlike other student groups, this one went further. Freeman, who is from Long Lake, Minn., and Roginsky, who is from San Francisco, were both interested in theatre management. They decided to go through all the work needed to become a recognized nonprofit.
It meant doing everything from writing a mission to building a board of directors.
“We met a bunch of deadlines; we paid our taxes; we personally filled out 72 pages of legal documents inspected by the IRS. And after submitting,” Freeman said, “Atomic got approved not only as a 501(c) but as a public charity, which is the best you can get.”
Being a public charity means the organization is funded directly or indirectly by the general public, not just a few individuals. It survives through tax deductible donations and profits from tickets, with an annual budget of $2,000.
Benny Sato Ambush, Emerson’s senior distinguished producing director in residence, helped the pair get started. He called Freeman and Roginsky “mature beyond their years” and said it’s Atomic’s fearlessness that sets it apart.
“They are ambitious, smart, have vision and are socially and politically savvy,” Ambush said. “They are about building community. They are about breaking boundaries…I like that they are conscious of their youthful energy and that intend to make a difference in the world with their work.”
The founders said Atomic is a way for everyone involved to develop real-world skills most college students would never get exposed to until after graduation.
“We were really interested in starting and leading the structure of a nonprofit, meaning we would fully have to understand the inner workings what that means,” said Roginsky.
With more than 100 nonprofit theaters in the Boston area, Freeman and Roginsky said they knew the industry could be something they enter into upon graduation. They wanted to get a running start.
During the process, the two learned the function of a board of directors, what a press release entails, the workings of a marketing team, and everything else that comes with launching and running your own start-up.
“These are all things a student usually might only have access to through an internship, where you can learn a small facet of it and, if you’re lucky, can use it in the future,” said Roginsky. “But with this, you have to really get it.”
The two aren’t the only ones who have learned from this experience. Atomic’s nine-member board provides a platform for all its participants to be involved in the community around them.
“This is about never being complacent and always feeling like what you’re doing is vital and important. We don’t have to wait until we’re 30 to get out of our seats and do something,” Roginsky said. “We can do it now.”
For example, board member Anthony Jenkins brought his discovery of a performance movement called Action Theater to Atomic with a show this fall entitled “Shifting Scores.”
Freeman calls the performance, which is based on movement, “bizarre but beautiful.”
“The idea is performers follow the improvising impulses of the body and see where they lead,” Jenkins said. “Each show is different, and can never quite figure it out, but it’s a very cathartic experience for both the audience and cast. I like to think of it as the ‘psycho-gestures’ of everyday life.”
In “Shifting Scores,” actors perform a series of unplanned vignettes, or short impressionistic scenes. While they rehearse this process for weeks, no one ever knows how the presentation will turn out.
Overall, Jenkins said in his 8 months working with Atomic he’s learned he can do whatever he sets his mind to.
“I’ve gained an incredibly valuable sense of self confidence in creating new pieces of theater in this time. I’m no longer afraid to think big.”
Freeman and Rognisky see the group as a way to collaborate and connect with other artists. This fall they worked with well-known playwright Caridad Svich to perform the second reading in the country of her newest play.
“Atomic also acts as a networking platform for us,” said Roginsky. “We've had the good fortune of catching some good attention, but beyond that, all working artists strive to have overlapping circles. Atomic aims to facilitate that.”
One way Atomic tackles this aim is through multidisciplinary collaboration.
“We like to expand upon the traditional idea of theater to include poetry slams, play readings, one acts, and other things like that,” said Freeman. “On our board we have writing, literature and publishing majors, political science majors, film kids -- all in order to diversify the work.”
Atomic’s last fall show was the second installment of Freeman’s series of one-man acts. Dubbed ‘The Inevitable Conclusion of Rock and Roll’, Freeman said the monologues focus on “academic themes in a radicalized manner, although not in the high school English teacher way.”
For example, Freeman’s storytelling engages with the work of French philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault (whom he’s studied in Emerson’s interdisciplinary courses), but in the setting and style of theater. The project also doubles as Freeman’s thesis in the college’s honors program.
In its latest installment, Freeman weaves theory through a lively story of getting what turns out to be wonderfully lost in Minnesota’s thick forests as a child.
“’Inevitable Conclusions’ is about the positive aspect of certain self-destructive impulses when you look at them through the lens of Michel Foucault,” said Freeman. “It's about why the worst choices we make are often accompanied by feelings of freedom or excitement of joy.”
Nonprofit applicants have to submit a three-year plan for the organization, but being in their last year in college, Freeman and Roginsky say the life of the group may be more limited.
“The life of the organization will be as long as it’s useful to the members,” says Freeman. “As long as the mission is being fulfilled then Atomic Age will continue to live.”
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.