Silin “Serenity” Chen: Theater

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Jack Portman

It was partially its name that drew Silin Chen to Wake Forest: “really, it’s a beautiful name!” 

A theatre major from Ningbo, China, Chen knew that Wake Forest would enable her to grow and explore new interests. She’d only seen one theatrical production before attending college, but this lack of background didn’t stop Chen from enrolling in an acting class in her first semester. 

Generally a reserved and soft-spoken individual, Chen found acting to be a powerful and compelling means of expressing herself. Subsequent classes in theatre design pushed Chen to explore the aesthetic realms of theatrical productions. She became interested in how the visual aspects of sets and scenery can shape narrative in nuanced ways.

During her junior year, Chen took a series of formative classes which piqued her interest in theater design’s historical context. An art history minor, Chen began to understand how historical movements in theatrical aesthetics provide insight regarding theater in its contemporary forms. 

“By studying what’s important for people from those periods,” Chen said. “It has implications to where we are now.” 

Her courses in renaissance painted perspective scenery and German theatre architecture lead her to apply for the Richter Scholarship that year, and her application was approved. Chen spent that summer in Germany, where she watched over twenty theater productions in one month. Some of the productions were in German, but Chen found that even without an understanding of the dialogue she was able to grasp those productions’ narratives, largely through their stage design. This experience gave Chen an advanced sense for the ways in which theater productions can be adapted to different spaces and settings.

At Wake Forest, Chen was involved in many student productions, such as Antigone, The Joy of Painting, Us/Them, How I Learned to Drive and most recently, Ever in the Glades. Through her work on these productionsChen honed her technical skills in stage and projection design. For her scenic design in Ever in the Glades, Chen was awarded First Place in the Undergraduate Scenic Design Competition. 

Chen reflects fondly on her growth as an artist, recalling an early conversation with an advisor during which she asked why stage designers use exacto knives rather than scissors. In retrospect, she thinks, is a “silly question,” however it speaks to the technical prowess she has gained (Why don’t stage designers use scissors? Because X-Acto knives are much faster).

Her theatre design mentor and professor Rob Eastman-Mullins influenced Chen greatly, encouraging her to work beyond perfectionism and embrace adversity. Having not had theater experience before coming to Wake, Chen found herself comparing her work to her peers and striving for perfection. Eastman-Mullins advice, “don’t sabotage yourself in a pursuit of perfection,” helped Chen to overcome this dispensation and find a style of work that was both productive and enjoyable. The theatre faculty at Wake Forest, such as Eastman-Mullins and professor Dahlia Al-Habieli, were highly supportive of Chen’s academic pursuits, and she reflects fondly on the conversations she had with her faculty advisors while taking walks in Reynolda Village. 

Silin has a seemingly endless curiosity about the world and the work, and seeks out as much experience and as many experiences as she can take in,” Eastman-Mullins said. “When this curiosity is coupled with her natural talents as an artist, it makes for impressive design work and a collaborator eager for deep conversations.”

While her education in theatre developed Chen’s theoretical knowledge and practical skills, it also instilled in her a strong work ethic. This is exemplified by her continued commitment to her forthcoming production titled《童年情景》(Scenes from Childhood). Originally slated for a May 2020 performance in Wake Forest’s Ring Theater, Scenes from Childhood is a celebration of Chinese theater and Chinese students. The production, directed by Chen herself, will be performed in Mandarin (with English subtitles) and in light of the campus’s closure, Scenes from Childhood will be recorded as a script reading. 

Chen’s interest in design, form, composition and storytelling even surpass her interest in theater: she is also highly interested in photography and architecture, fields which she views as complimenting her stage work. Chen is currently biding her time on campus (watching one recorded German theater production per day), and come August she will complete a scenic art apprenticeship at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Chen advises incoming freshmen to explore their interests and engage their passions one never knows what they will find interesting.