Q&Art with Russell Pirkle

This week: Kenneth Robbins, Director of the School of Performing Arts talks to me about the Tech Theatre department’s production of Our Town, opening this Wednesday, October 26th, at 7:30 PM. Our Town will run two weeks, Wednesday through Saturday. For tickets, call 257-3942 or visit the Howard Auditorium lobby between 1:30 and 4:30 Monday through Friday.

This interview has been edited for length.

 Our Town starts next week; can you give me the show times?

 Yes, it starts on Wednesday night, the 26th of October, and plays that week the rest of the week through Saturday the 29th. 7:30 PM curtain. And then the next week Wednesday through Saturday, November 2nd through 5th.

 And when and where can people get tickets?

 The box office is open Monday through Friday from 1:30 to 4:45. And that’s located in the Howard Center for Performing Arts in the lobby. The telephone number is 318-257-3942.

 How much are the tickets?

 Adults, $10. Students with ID is $5. Non-Tech students and senior citizens, $6.

 And they’re on sale now, correct?

 Yes.

 Who chose Our Town as the play, and why?

 The faculty chose it last year when we had our discussions regarding our forthcoming season. And I’m glad we did, because it fits in really quite well with contemporary times, matters, and issues.

 In what way?

 In 2001, a very famous theatrical company in Connecticut called the Westport Country Playhouse was looking for something that would address the audience’s needs in regards to reacting to 9/11. Which had just happened. And they decided to open their 2001 season with Our Town, because it is the quintessential American play. It revitalizes the whole concept of who we are as Americans. And I find that to be rather effective today, because we’re, what, ten years out now. Ten years ago, 9/11 happened. So I think it’s time again for us to revisit this wonderful play, all about being proud of being Americans.

 Do you see similarities between the archetypal town in Our Town and Ruston?

 Absolutely. Our Town is Grovers Corners, New Hampshire, but it can be any town anywhere in the world. In fact, this particular play was produced quite commonly in other countries. So I think the universality of the subject matter is very, very effective. Yeah, Our Town is Ruston, Louisiana.

 How’s the context over time between when Our Town was written and now changed the meaning of it and how it’s received.

 That’s an interesting question, because I really can’t address that universally. I can just look at it from my personal point of view. I know that revisiting this wonderful play, I first was introduced to it when I was a junior in high school. And I think that still is something of the case throughout the country. You too?

 Mhm.

 I fell in love with it. Not just because of the subject matter, but also for the way Mr. Wilder managed the theatric space. It’s a minimalistic approach. And there’s no such thing as plot time necessarily. It’s the universal time. I think Thomas Wolfe is the one that said “time is nothing more than the coming and going of light.” And in many ways Wilder has accepted that idea. And so we bounce around in time throughout the whole play. It does progress. First act is 1901. Second act is 1904. And third act is 1913. But still, it could just as easily be 2001, 2004, 2013, for that matter.

 It’s been a long time since I read the play. I read it in high school or junior high. I know life and death, and life after death is a big theme in the work. How do you think that will relate to the culture in Ruston, the church culture, and also the international and multi-religious culture?

 Even though this play deals very clearly with a religious context, it’s not specific. The whole concept seems to be we’re all on this planet, and we’re all striving to make the best of it as we can. And it doesn’t really matter what church you go to, because the universality, the human nature of the play is going to address the concerns and the issues. There are references of course to the congregational church. That’s where the marriage takes place in the second act. But all of that is peripheral. It’s not a real wedding ceremony. It’s a rite of passage. The first act is called Daily Life. Second act Love and Marriage. Third act is Death. Even the stage manager says, some of the things that the dead people say may hurt your feelings. That’s just part of it. And that’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It simply is. One of the things that Mr. Wilder stresses in his play is the nature of numbers. Over and over, the words millions and billions and thousands and hundreds are used quite readily in the play. The final act, even though we’re listening to dead people speak, they’re talking about the nature of the universe. And there’s nothing more humanistic than that, to be contemplating the fact that we are looking at a star, and it takes millions of years for that light to get from that star to earth. It’s quite extraordinary when you look at it released from the constraints of a particular religious idea. And look at it from a human idea.

 What relevance do you see this place as having for young people and for college students?

 Oh, it’s extraordinarily relevant. The rite of passage is very clearly defined. One of the wonderful things for me is, as I watch this play, I can remember how it was when I was young. How I felt whenever I felt as if the world was against me or for me or whatever. Because this play captures those essences. It allows us in our memories to return to a nostalgic era. And recognize ourselves in the actions of these young people that we see. Much of the traditions of the so-called American dream are either created by this play or being validated by this play. The American dream of a white picket fence around a home, that’s there. The American dream of the girl or the boy next door as being the love of your life, that’s there. All of these things are endemic to this particular play. And it’s exciting to see the young people, the audience, the cast members, buying into this notion so willingly and so effectively.

 Do you think these traditional elements we’re talking about with the American dream, do you think they’re realistic, do you think they’re unrealistic? How do you see them as coming into play with real life?

 Mr. Wilder’s quite clear in his statements about realism. One of the things he was doing in 1937-38 when he wrote this play was responding to the so-called realism that had been taking over the American theatre. Realism to the point that you needed three walls in order to create the image of an American home. He does away with that. He’s very clear in his statements of recognizing traditions and conventions as they’re being applied and utilized on the stage. And saying, it is nothing more than a convention. We don’t really need it necessarily. So he all but discards all of the traditions of realistic theatre. And in their place, he has a bare stage. It’s what he calls a platform and a passion. That’s all you need. I think there’s something else you need, that’s an audience. But he says all you need is a platform and someone with a passion on it. And this will result in some very compelling stuff. And in fact, our stage is fair. There are only a few pieces of furniture and that’s it. The actors move freely in and around and through the space. And they define the space by how they use it. So realism as you refer to is not necessarily a good thing when it comes to Wilder’s plays. It is a constraint. It’s convention that has been implied and is no longer necessary. And that’s one thing I find exciting about this play. He says look at your conventions. Determine which ones you need to keep, for whatever reason. And if you don’t need them, discard them. Use something else. Create a new convention. And I think he did that, in 1938, can you believe that? A convention that we still find revelatory in contemporary 2011.

 I think that’s interesting when you take it in the context of the economic culture of today and the bareness of resources.

 That is an interesting observation because the economics of 1938 are being played out today. We were just in 1938 coming out of the Great Depression. And today in 2011 it feels as if we’re just now beginning a new depressive era. I hope not. But still, there seems to be this incredible feeling for the nurturing presence of a nuclear family. And that’s something that this play is all about, is the nuclear family working side by side for a common goal, for the betterment of the entire community. I would love for this community, for Ruston, to come and experience this play. Because it’s about them. It’s about us. It’s about all of us. We don’t get to do that very often, you know what I mean? Oftentimes it feels as if we’re not connecting. But in this instance, I feel as if Our Town does connect, and that it is important for us to reach out for the community.

 On that note, can you give me your ideas about what purpose the theatre serves in a community?

 Haha. Well for one thing, it’s live. The actors are breathing the same air as the audience. And there’s something unique about that. You can go to a movie, and there’s some distance there. It’s a medium cooled. But when we get into the theatrical space and realize that the person that just introduced me to the theatre, the usher, is also an actor. And the reality is, some members who just came in, they’re not actors, but they’re being asked to be a participant in this play. Russell, you could be asked to be a cast member, if you want. It’s your choice. The playing space for the audience is the playing space for the actor. So the actors come and go through the audience. They intermingle. We’re not taking the house lights out for the first two acts. We do for the third act, Death and Dying. But I think that the audience is going to be quite intrigued by this. I hope so. That’s our goal, is to intrigue an audience enough to want to come and see it.

 Have you deviated in any way from the original script?

 Oh no. We’ve kept the script as written. There’ve been a couple of places here and there where we’ve cut a line. But nothing significant. There’s a moment in the play written where the stage manager says here’s some scenery for those of you who insist on having scenery. Well I’ve decided we don’t need that. We’re not having any scenery at all. So we cut the line.

 Sorry what was the playwright’s name again?

 Thornton Wilder. He’s one of the very few writers that America produced that actually won Pullitzer prizes for both drama and fiction. His novel the Bridge of San Luis Rey. And then he won the Pullitzer again for his drama called Our Town. And then again for his other drama called The Skin of Our Teeth. So he’s a three time recipient of the highest literary award our country has to offer.

 Can you talk a little bit about a few of the actors in maybe some of the lead roles?

 I’ve been very blessed by having such a dedicated young group of actors to deal with. They have really devoted themselves to this project without any reservations, at least that I have been aware of. And I hope that I don’t become aware of any. Haha. And the young people are just so talented here. That’s something I’ve been impressed by. Not only are they talented, but they’re well trained. They’re well prepared. They know how to handle a bare stage, which is not easy. Most of our actors today are props actors. They have to have a prop in their hand in order for them to behave properly. But in this instance, there are no props. They have to mime everything. And the only tradition that we are keeping is lighting. And that’s because an audience requires the opportunity to see the face of the actor. Therefore we have traditional stage lighting. But other than that, I think we’re breaking free. I hope Mr. Wilder would find pleasure. Probably not, because he’s seen the play so often he doesn’t want to see it again. Haha. Who knows. You know, he played the stage manager on many occasions, on Broadway in fact.

 Talk about the role that you play in the production of this play.

 My job as director is to make sure the play is communicated clearly and unequivocally for an audience. That they can understand the nature of what they’re experiencing, so that they can leave it feeling complete or informed or maybe both. At least nostalgic is what I’m hoping for. So I as the director, one of my principle jobs is to be the surrogate audience until the actual audience arrives, in preparation for the actors to do the jobs. The technicians to do their jobs, etc. All of it is aimed toward communication with an audience. And that’s the reason we do it.

 Tell me about some of the other people behind the production of this play and their roles.

 I’m very pleased with the opportunity to work with the Associate Dean of Liberal Arts. Bill Willoughby has never been on stage before, and when I suggested to him that I had a perfect role for him, he said I’ll do it. And he’s been wonderful to work with. Matter of fact, I’m looking forward to him having a chance to play for an audience. That will be a brand new experience for him. So Mr. Willoughby has been a delight. The set design by Mr. Stevens, our technical director here at the university, has realized exactly what I was hoping for, which is a non-descript, black empty space. Hallelujah. It works. The lighting, we’ll find out tonight when we add lights for the first time. The costumes, we’ll find out next Sunday when we have our first dress rehearsal and the costumes are added. But basically we’re saying through costumes, this play is today. This play is not 1901. Though we talk about 1901, the play is 2011. So we’ll find out if it works.

 I always like to ask, what advice you have for the audience that comes to the play? How do you get the most out of the experience?

 Come with a clean heart, a clear heart and a clear head. And be willing to accept what is presented before you. And take it home. Chew on it. Spit it out. Share it. Whatever. Just don’t prejudge it. Try your best to be open.

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