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Northeastern student directs off-campus theater production, and does it ‘with flying colors’

Donovan Holt’s capstone production of “Exception to the Rule” will be at Northeastern this week and then open at the Modern Theatre next month through a partnership with the Front Porch Arts Collective.

Donovan Holt posing in front of studio lights.
CAMD theatre student, Donovan Holt ’24, pictured on Friday, Feb. 26, 2024, is directing a production of Exception to the Rule for his capstone, in the NU Studio Theatre. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

It’s pretty unusual for Northeastern University theater students to direct a production for their capstone. It’s even more rare for a professional company to then run that production as part of its season. But this is the case for Donovan Holt.

Holt, a fifth-year theater major with a concentration in performance, is a directing a performance of Dave Harris’ play “Exception to the Rule” that’ll run in the NU Studio Theater from Feb. 21 to Feb. 25 and then at the Modern Theatre in March as part of the Front Porch Art Collective’s 2023-2024 season.

“It is very uncommon for us to invite a student to direct for a production program,” said Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, associate professor and chair of Northeastern’s Department of Theatre. “It’s a very big enterprise, so the pathways for our students to accomplish and be invited to do that is pretty gruesome. And Donovan did it with flying colors.”

Students must take a variety of courses to be invited to direct and must serve as an assistant director for a department production or a professional production.

Holt did this and more. In spring 2022, he got the chance to assistant direct a professional production of the musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’” that was put on by a collaboration of Boston theaters, including the Front Porch Arts Collective, a Black theater company that Holt worked closely with during a co-op he did with The Huntington.

“That set me (up) for the rest of my career at Northeastern,” says Holt. “We won the Elliot Norton Award, which is basically the equivalent of the Boston Tonys. From then on, I was like ‘This is something I can continue to do and it’s something I want to learn more about as well.’” 

Holt realized later he could use this experience, plus his coursework, to direct a production for his capstone. He’d done a staged reading of “Exception to the Rule” at the Front Porch Art Collective (where he stayed on part time after his co-op as an artistic associate and associate producer) and knew he wanted to bring the show to Northeastern. 

Holt describes “Exception to the Rule” as “The Breakfast Club” meets “Waiting for Godot” and “then make it Black.” It follows six Black students trying to make it through detention at one of the worst high schools in the city, exploring how society perceives “low-achieving” students and what it means to stand out as the “token Black kid.”

Holt said he could not put the play down upon first reading it.

“The play represents a story that I am not too far off from as a kid from the West Side of Chicago,” Holt said. “I grew up with these characters. There was a level of home and closeness to it that just allowed for me to enjoy the humor, enjoy the realities that expressed through the play.”

It was particularly important to Holt to bring the play to Northeastern because it highlights what’s happening outside campus in schools around the city, state and country, and forces the audience to examine how Black students are being held back and how they can be set up to succeed.

“I want this play to be an avenue to open conversations for people to reflect on privilege, on access,” Holt said. “Both here in America, but also how we have privileges here that we don’t have in other places. … (This show can) serve as a platform to talk about what resources we have, what self revelations we need to go through to become more socially aware human beings, and how we (remember) where we came from.”

This aligned well with the mission of the Front Porch Arts Collective, making the collaboration ideal.

“I’m always thinking about and our whole mission is … uplifting Black voices and the next generation of Black talent,” Holt said. “This opportunity has allowed me to share my art and let it be recognized universally and in the professional Boston scene, while uplifting my classmates, fellow Black actors that are trying to make it, and give (them) visibility to predominantly white audiences and to the Black community as well.” 

After getting a taste of what it’s like directing professional productions, Holt, who won Northeastern’s Garnet Award in 2023 for his impact on the community, wants to continue directing, performing and advocating for people of color in the arts.

“I want to continue making art,” he said. “I want to continue to direct and possibly dip my foot back into the acting community, but really just build my skills up and make my way to the top.”