After the performance on Sunday, April 10, I moderated a panel discussion with Brian Ammons (Duke, Education), Sean Metzger (Duke, English, Theater Studies, AMES) and Jeff Storer (Duke, Theater Studies and Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater). Our discussion (which lasted 55 minutes! we had great questions and great sharing from those who stayed to talk and our cast and our panelists) was filmed by Miriam Sauls for those of you who missed it … enjoy!
I gotta give a shout out to Jacob for his explanation of “Brechtian techniques” which comes at about minute 40.50. Nice! You all have been terrific about jumping in and sharing in these panels. We’ve got another this Friday with visiting scholar Derek Paget and our missing fifth panelist from Sunday, Pam Spaulding. Hope you can stay again and chat with them and our audience.
Never having been in the tech booth for a show, I had no idea what I signed up for when I offered to run the light board. I’ve acted, directed, and built/helped design sets for shows, but have never had the privilege of running around backstage in all black making sure that all those magic moments come together.
For a show like Laramie, where there are literally always 13 people on stage, lights play an integral role. After watching a run in regular work lights and then again in Chuck’s carefully choreographed lights, I really see the difference. Lights take the show from a staged reading to a real, full-blown performance. Sure, the actors have certain tricks they employ to throw focus from one to another, but with lights, there is no confusion about where one should look and who one should pay attention to. The entire performance looks so much cleaner. Not only that, but the colors of the set really start to pop as well! The set takes on a new role in the lights, too. During the blue-lit candlelight vigil, the set transforms to a twilight version of that “sky blue sky that you just can’t paint.” And not only is the performance more engaging for the audience with lights, but also for the actors. Somehow, when there is a spotlight shining down on you as an actor, you become more aware that people are watching. You are being observed at all times. Suddenly all the gratuitous twitching and fidgeting stops on stage and the sense of “collective witnessing” that we’ve been talking about so much, finally becomes palpable.
I must say, my favorite moment as the light-board operator is activating the light cue for Dennis Shepard’s speech. Unlike the hundreds of the other cues that all take about a second to complete, this cue takes a full 30 seconds. As Dennis Shepard describes Matthew’s last moments on the fence, the twinkling Christmas lights up above slowly light up, and the set is flooded with bright blue light. All of a sudden, we aren’t in Shaefer theatre anymore. We’re in Laramie, Wyoming looking up at the brisk night sky wondering how one human being could have endured such brutality and caused such a shock wave throughout the entire nation. Though none of the theatre’s natural architecture is hidden or masked, somehow the moment is so magical that we all sit in awe as we are transported to the site of the incident. It’s a moment that’s loaded with so much emotion, that when our eyes finally snap back to the stage where Spencer (as Aaron McKinney) is lit brightly on stage in his orange jump suit, his look of utter inner deadness jolts us. THIS is a notable moment for me. To be so transfixed one moment and then to be brought back to such a harsh and serious reality. To realize that not only is one young man dead, but that two others are now facing death as well. This is truly a moment of Brechtian theatre–theatrical magic followed by harsh story-telling. This is what this production is all about. Two-hundred and seventy light cues later, Laramie finally does “sparkle.”
Since my feedback has been centered on paying attention to the specificity of expression within your characters’ testimony — switches amongst verb tenses, the distinction of different kinds of punctuation marks, the colloquial turns of phrase that marks region and culture, and the vagaries of individual word choice — I found a Brecht poem that speaks to why honoring the everyday language is a matter of ethics and politics as well as a means of developing characterization in documentary theater.
I offer this poem with full awareness that the Laramie interviewees aren’t offered to us without alteration; Tectonic has put their stamp on their informants. Brecht is also idealizing (a bit) the “theater of daily life whose setting is the street” as a way to draw a distinction between the kind of wholly immersive acting where the audience interprets actor and character as one person and the kind of demonstration/performance that is essential to the political purpose of distantiation. The actor who stands alongside his character is someone the audience can address, interrogate just as they would a man on the street. Such freedom to question both the actor and the role gives way to questioning the entire scenario presented. Why are things they way they are? Not because of fate but because of action and choice, entirely human and alterable things.
I hope this little reminder of Brecht might help as you work on treating those props and costumes as tools for transformation that allows you to give full presence to your characters’ words but just as easily allows you to drop that piece and move on to the next demonstration.
The entire poem is over 3 pages long, so I’ve done a few edits here and there.
“On Everyday Theatre”
Written during the “Crisis Years” (1929-1933)
Translator Edith Anderson
You artists who perform plays
In great houses under electric suns
Before the hushed crowd, pay a visit some time
To that theatre whose setting is the street.
The everyday, thousandfold, fameless
But vivid, earthy theatre fed by the daily human contact
Which takes place in the street.
Here the woman from next door imitates the landlord:
Demonstrating his flood of talk she makes it clear
How he tried to turn the conversation
From the burst water pipe. [...]
Gives us the preacher at his sermon, referring the poor
To the rich pastures of paradise. How useful
Such theatre is though, serious and funny
And how dignified! They do not, like parrot or ape
Imitate just for the sake of imitation, unconcerned
What they imitate, just to show that they
can imitiate; no they
Have a point to put across.
Take that man on the corner: he is showing how
An accident took place. This very moment
He is delivering the driver to the verdict of the crowd. The
Sat behind the steering wheel, and now
He imitates the man who was run over, apparently
An old man. Of both he gives
Only so much as to make the accident intelligible, and yet
Enough to make you see them. But he shows neither
As if the accident had been unavoidable. [...]
There is no superstition
About this eyewitness, he
Shows mortals as victims not of the stars, but
Only of their errors.
His earnestness and the accuracy of his imitation. He
Knows that much depends on his exactness: whether the
Escapes ruin, whether the injured man
Is compensated. Watch him
Repeat now what he did just before. Hesitantly
Calling on his memory for help, uncertain
Whether his demonstration is good, interrupting himself
And asking someone else to
Correct him on a detail. This
Observe with reverence!
And with surprise
Observe, if you will, one thing: that this imitator
Never loses himself in his imitation. He never entirely
Transforms himself into the man he is imitation. He always
Remains the demonstrator, the one not involved. [...]
Our demonstrator at the street corner
Is no sleepwalker who much not be addressed. He is
No high priest holding divine service. At any moment
You can interrupt him; he will answer you
Quite calmly and when you have spoken with him
Go on with his performance.
But you, do not say: that man
Is not an artist. By setting up such a barrier
Between yourselves and the world, you simply
Expel yourselves from the world. If you thought him
No artist he might think you
Not human, and that
Would be a worse reproach. Say rather:
He is an artist because he his human. We
May do what he does more perfectly and
Be honoured for it, but what we do
Is something universal, human, something hourly
Practiced in the busy street, almost
as much a part of life as eating and breathing.
Thus your playacting
Harks back to practical matters. Our masks, you should say
Are nothing special insofar as they are only masks:
[...] In short
Mask, verse and quotation are common, but uncommon
The grandly conceived mask, the beautifully spoken verse
And apt quotation.
But to make matters clear: even if you improved upon
What the man at the corner did, you would be doing less
Than him if you
Made your theatre less meaningful — with lesser provocation
Less intense in its effect on the audience — and
This week’s bit of Brecht comes from a poem titled “Speech to Danish Working-Class Actors on the Art of Observation” written between 1934 and 1936 around the time of the writer’s exile to Denmark in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. (Brecht’s German citizenship was revoked in 1935.) I believe this piece could be classified as something in the vein of Brecht’s “Lehrstuck” or “learning plays,” which are imagined, and conducted, as quite literally political theater. Audiences are encouraged to engage the stories directly, suggesting actions or commenting upon events (like a Greek chorus), even asked to prepare their “roles” before a production as co-actors, co-producers of the “on-stage” scenes. Augusto Boal‘s forum theater would be considered as another step in the evolution of this kind of theater.
In their introduction to Bertolt Brecht Poems 1913-1956 John Willett and Robert Manheim note that Brecht’s exile poetry was based on “politically-grounded private experience” (xviii) with a strict adherence to dealing with “precise tangible facts” (xx).
Such a use of the imagination to explain and expand bald reality is one of Brecht’s genuinely scientific gifts. (xxi)
I thought this assessment to be particularly apt considering the documentary theater form and the particular paradoxical mixing of imagination and reality evident in Laramie. Because Brecht sees himself as educating worker/actors (even if it is education with a liberatory purpose), this piece smacks a bit of paternalism and is threaded through with Brecht’s Marxist idealism. That said, I think his description of observation is a fruitful and his image of the actor as a worker is one that I hold as valuable even if he’s addressing a very different kind of worker-actor in 1930s Denmark.
This poem is 7 pages long. I’m beginning about 1/3 of the way in and will make cuts (referenced by the [...] markings) intermittently. If anyone wants the full text, just let me know.
Must master the art of observation
Before all other arts.
For what matters is not how you look but
What you have seen and can show us. What’s worth knowing
Is what you know.
People will observe you to see
How well you have observed.
The man who only observes himself however never gains
Knowledge of men. He is too anxious
To hide himself from himself. And nobody is
Cleverer than he himself is.
So your schooling must begin among
Living people. Let your first school
Be your place of work, your dwelling, your part of the town.
Be the street, the underground, the shops. You should
All the people there, strangers as if they were acquaintances,
Acquaintances as if they were strangers to you.
Nor should you forget the pictures on screen and newspaper
See how they walk and speak, those rules
Who hold the threads of your fate in their white and brutal
You should inspect such people exactly. And now
Imagine all that is going on around you, all those struggles
Picturing them just like historical incidents
For this is how you should go on to portray them on the
The fight for a job, sweet and bitter conversations
Between the man and his woman, arguments about books
Resignation and revolt, attempt and failure
All these you will go on to portray as historical incidents.
In order to observe
One much learn how to compare. In order to compare
One must have observed. By means of observation
Knowledge is generated; on the other hand knowledge is
For observation. And
He observes badly who does not know
How to use what he has observed. The fruitgrower
Inspects the appletree with a keener eye than does the walker
But no one can see man exactly unless he knows it is
Man who is the fate of man.
The art of observation
Applied to man is but a branch of the
Art of dealing with men. Your task, actors, is to be
Explorers and teachers of the art of dealing with people.
Knowing their nature and demonstrating it you teach them
To deal with themselves. You teach them the great art
Of living together.
Many of you are studying the laws of men’s life together,
Your class is determined to master its problems and thereby
The problems of
All mankind. And that is where you
The workers’ actors, as you learn and teach
Can play your part creatively in all the struggles
Of men of your time, thereby
Helping, with the seriousness of study and the cheerfulness
To turn the struggle into common experience and
Justice into a passion.
Today’s bite is a poem that I think captures the way Jeff has been encouraging you all, in these past 2 weeks of individual meetings, to both doubt what’s on the page and what the character is saying and to be active in your choices every moment. It also touches on our continuing discussions as a company about how to manage or account for all the things we now know about the events at the center of the play as well as consider the resonances these details have here and now.
Portrayal of Past and Present in One**
Whatever you portray you should always portray
As if it were happening now. Engrossed
The silent crowd sits in the darkness, lured
Away from its routine affairs. Now
The fisherman’s wife is being brought her son whom
The generals have killed. Even what has happened
In her room is wiped out. What is happening here is
Happening now and just the once. To act in this way
Is habitual with you, and now I am advising you
To ally this habit with yet another: that is, your acting
At the same time express the fact that this instant
On your stage is often repeated; only yesterday
You were acting it, and tomorrow too
Given spectators, there will be a further performance.
Nor should you let the Now blot out the
Previously and Afterwards, nor for that matter whatever
Is even now happening outside the theatre and is similar in
Nor even things that have nothing to do with it all – none of
Should you allow to be entirely forgotten.
So you should simply make the instant
Stand out, without in the process hiding
What you are making it stand out from. Give your acting
That progression of one-thing-after-another, that attitude of
Working up what you have taken on. In this way
You will show the flow of events and also the course
Of your work, permitting the spectator
To experience this Now on many levels, coming from
Merging into Afterwards, also having much else now
Alongside it. He is sitting not only
In your theatre but also
In the world.
**John Willett, translator. Attributed to poems Brecht wrote between 1947-1953. I’ve added a couple of sets of bold typeface because I think these are ideas particularly important as you all continue work on constructing your characters.
I mentioned in our last official class”meeting that I would be posting some poems and material from Brecht for the next few days to correspond to rehearsal meetings that are one-on-one with individual actors as they develop their “roll call” of characters. I think these snippets or “bites” (I just had to make it a “y” spelling since this is all coming to you digitally) offer a window onto the kind of theatrical world Brecht envisioned and which we might consider creating in our production of Laramie. This is a theatrical world where “realism” means something distinct from any kind of photographic reproduction of reality (scenographically or emotionally). Instead, Brecht advocated making a “true realism …one [which] make[s] reality recognizable in theatre … [by offering the audience a way] to see through reality.” In order for an audience to experience this “true realism” the production must make it possible for spectators “to see the laws that decide how the processes of life develop. These laws can’t be spotted by the camera. Nor can they be spotted if the audience only borrows its heart from one of the characters involved” (Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, 1964, pg. 27).
I love that phrase “only borrows its heart from one of the characters involved.” I think Laramie poses particular challenges for us to make sure all “hearts” are equal, are allowed to affect the “reality” the play presents/deconstructs. I think our conversation with the amazing Maude Mitchell, last night, made those challenges all the more apparent and real.
So, byte #1 (or 2 if you consider my quote above to be our starting point) is the poem that Jeff’s been referencing in class for the past couple of weeks. It was written about Helene Weigel’s performance in Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. The play premiered in 1941 in Zurich (the mid-point of WWII). The poem does not contain the phrase “workman-like props” but I think such a sentiment is reflected in the title and the theme of the piece. I’m also including an image of Weigel as Mother Courage to give you a sense of the preparation Brecht describes.
Just as the millet farmer picks out for his trial plot
The heaviest seeds and the poet
The exact words for his verse so
She selects the objects to accompany
Her characters across the stage. The pewter spoon
Which Courage sticks
In the lapel of her Mongolian jacket, the party card
For warm-hearted Vlassova and the fishing net
For the other, Spanish mother or the bronze bowl
For dust-gathering Antigone. Impossible to confuse
The split bag which the working woman carries
For her son’s leaflets, with the moneybag
Of the keen tradeswoman. Each item
In her stock is hand picked: straps and belts
Pewter boxes and ammunition pouches; hand picked too
The children and the stick which at the end
The old woman twists through the draw-rope
The Basque woman’s board on which she bakes her bread
And the Greek woman’s board of shame, strapped to her back
With holes for her hands to stick through, the Russian’s
Jar of lard, so small in the policeman’s hand; all
Selected for age, function and beauty
By the eyes of the knowing
The hands of the bread-baking, net weaving
**Translated by the late Brecht scholar John Willett, this poem appears in his edited volume Bertolt Brecth Poems: 1913-1956 (1979). I’ve not found a specific year for the original text; Willett attributes it to poems written by Brecht between 1947-1953.
And just to incite your interest further in reading and seeing (if you’ve not already) Mother Courage, here are two clips of recent productions. The first is from a 2006 production at The Public Theater starring Meryl Streep as Mother Courage and the second from a 2010 production at Britain’s National Theater starring Fiona Shaw and directed by the amazing Deborah Warner. Interesting to note, both productions used the Tony Kushner translation of the Brecht text. Different musical styles for the songs/soundtrack, but the same translator.
This past Tuesday, three groups of students made class presentations on the three “supporting” plays we are reading in preparation for The Laramie Project. The plays — Our Town (1938), Execution of Justice (1986), Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches (1991) — represent a through-line of performance form and content that have direct connections to The Laramie Project. Students were asked to offer a short performance history and to tell the “story” of the play as well as trace its connection to Laramie in a way that reflected the storytelling approach of their scripts. We also asked them to read two supporting pieces of text: Brecht’s “Street Scene” (1938/1940) and Oskar Eustis’ introduction to Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice, written to accompany the play’s inclusion in the Political Stages anthology (2002).
Groups moved through their presentations in chronological fashion. Each of the Our Town students “narrated” their presentation a la the play’s Stage Manager. They described Wilder’s development of the text, the inspiration for Grover’s Corners emerging from time he spent in Peterborough, NH as an artist working at The MacDowell Colony. They talked about his Switzerland trysts with writer/academic Samuel Steward (who eulogized Wilder in a May 1980 issue of The Advocate) around the time he was composing the play and the writer’s block that was swept away when Wilder completed the whole of Act III in one night.
Their condensed version of play’s story highlighted Wilder’s decision to reveal the theatrical frame that surrounds the play both through the character of the Stage Manager and the removal of “realistic” representations of the town’s settings (home, business, cemetery). Both plays display and deconstruct our notions regarding American small towns, but in Our Town there is greater emphasis on the town’s daily routine, the life-span of its families (youth-marriage-death), and the domestic world versus the attention the land/landscape receives in Laramie. Each play deals with a trauma, the death of a central character, but Laramie focuses on the response of the living to this death. Our Town turns its eye to the dead, their inexorable abandonment of earthly concerns, with a final admonishment to the living to savor the world around them before it is too late.
As we noted in our discussion after the presentations, it is interesting to see Wilder’s use of devices (narration, breaking the 4th wall, representational vs. naturalistic setting, juxtaposition) mentioned or alluded to in Brecht’s “Street Scene,” written around the same historical time. Our director, Jeff Storer, also mentioned the radically different choices made by director David Cromer for a 2009 production of the play at the Barrow Street Theater. While Wilder’s choice to pantomime and suggest settings was a departure from the theater of his time, these conventions have actually become staid and dated in contemporary performances. Cromer shook up tradition by having his company play their scenes in and around the audience (doing away from the rather typical proscenium divide of stage and seating) and by staging the scene the dead Emily wishes to relive in Act III in painstaking, naturalistic detail. The kitchen was a precise replica and the audience was engulfed in multi-sensory experiences as audience members see, hear, and smell Mrs. Webb making breakfast for the family and Emily tries desperately to regain the feeling of being there only to realize that the dead can never go home again. Cromer’s choice brought us face-to-face with a question that we will debate, experiment with, and struggle over throughout this rehearsal process: how do we make the familiar strange in a new and productive way?
“All Rise!” The Execution of Justice team staged a trial, charging that Emily Mann’s script had “unduly” influenced Laramie in both content and form. The majority of the “witnesses” reenacted scenes/moments from Mann’s script, particularly the dueling visions of Dan White presented by his defense attorney, Schmidt, and Norton, the San Fransisco District Attorney.
In the class presentation, as in the Execution script, things boiled down to “closing arguments.” On one side, students argued that Execution‘s greatest influence on Laramie was in the area of content/subject matter. Like Laramie, the crime at the center of Execution‘s plot was very fresh when the play was being written. The facts of both crimes in both plays are not in question. It’s not what happened on that fateful day in November 1978 that is up for debate, it is the why, the motivation, the mitigation offered for Dan White’s actions and the injustice of the verdict that comprise the bulk of trial. Both play’s have absent but central victims and though both plays are about communities in mourning the immediate families of the victims are largely removed from that mourning process. Both play’s construct a collective protagonist — the city of San Fransisco, the town of Laramie — and offer a platform for citizens to tell their version of events and, in the case of Execution, to examine how such a “clear cut” case of murder could return a verdict of voluntary manslaughter. Execution puts the trial on trial. It helps us see how one might admit guilt and be found not guilty. In this way it diverges from Laramie because in that play, although homophobia (in the form of a “gay panic” defense) is present, the guilty parties receive “appropriate” punishment for their crime, saved only by the compassion of the victim’s family.
Students argued Execution also exerts notable formal influences on Laramie. Both texts dramatize the influence of outside “media” (exempting the theater itself, of course) on the course and presentation of events. The idea of trying a case in the press versus what evidence is allowed in court provides a significant strand of argument in Execution‘s Act II. Both plays present split-scenes and cross-cut dialogue among characters to juxtapose ideas. They also use an ensemble of actors playing multiple roles to frustrate any clear connection between performer and character. And both texts feature the staging of a trial, throwing the notion of “truth,” “reality,” and “perspective” on events into sharp relief, allowing both to comment upon the theatricality of our legal system as well as the very difficulty (impossibility) of ever knowing the truth of a case even as that case is officially adjudicated and a verdict rendered. To throw Carol Martin’s observation about “true” and “real” back into the mix here, it is interesting to note in Execution Mann is much more skeptical of American jurisprudence than Kaufman and the Tectonic company members. So while one play criticizes the “theater” of a jury trial, the other seems to find little problem with said theatricality, especially when it renders an “appropriate” verdict.
The group working with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches had perhaps the most specific textual connection with Laramie. Angels is Laramie‘s theatrical touchstone. The play is referenced directly within the first 10 pages of the Laramie script as Jedidiah Schultz describes his parents’ refusal to watch him present a scene from Angels in a scholarship competition because he would be playing a gay man. Even reviewers mention Laramie and Angels in the same breath as both examine of gay life in America at the end of the millennium. Angels also provides Laramie a way to discuss AIDS in a profoundly different context in 1998 compared to the mid-1980s when Angel‘s action is set. The audience for Laramie learns about Matthew Shepard’s HIV+ status indirectly, through Reggie Fluty’s preventative treatment for possible infection after being exposed to his blood as she cut him down from the fence. And while Reggie describes the physical pain that comes with the AIDS drug regime, she ultimately proves to be HIV-. There is no discussion of how Shepard might have contracted HIV, nor is his sexual life explored in any detail, a key point of divergence between Laramie and Angels, which has been censored frequently because of its explicit depiction of sexual activity and the physical ravages of AIDS.
The students presenters also mentioned that, like Moises Kaufman’s HBO film of the play, some high school productions have included the final scene from Part Two: Perestroika at the end of Laramie to reflect the fact that the University of Wyoming produced the two-part epic in the year following Matthew Shepard’s death. (An additional serendipity to note, in Kaufman’s film of Laramie he adds a scene with Rebecca Hilliker holding a dress/tech for a production of Our Town. We see her setting cues for the funeral scene, a scene that Tectonic visually cited in their original production of Laramie.)
This quartet of presenters sat at the four corners of a slightly off-center and asymmetrical square and intertwined the required elements of their research in ways that reflected the split scenes and juxtaposed dialogue dominant in Part One. They narrated character details in third person, in a move that both harkened back to Our Town and gave a sense of disorientation that marks Prior and Harper’s shared hallucinations. And they pointed out the distinction Kushner makes between including historical figures within his play (e.g. Roy Cohn) and heightening and imagining their private lives for dramatic purposes. Laramie presents the citizens of the western town with greater presumed felicity even as it explodes realistic conventions with choices such as narration, multi-role casting, representational vs. naturalistic staging, and a non-chronological plot ordered by thematic juxtaposition vs. strict cause-to-effect action.
What struck me as particularly profound, after listening to the three presentations were questions articulated in Chapter 3,”Ethics: The Story of the Other,” of Deirdre Heddon’s 2008 book Autobiography and Performance. In an extended discussion in the ethical issues surrounding the making and presentation of verbatim/documentary theater, Heddon cites Father Roger’s demand of the Tectonic company members:
And I will speak with you, I will trust that if you write a play of this, that you say it right. You need to do your best to say it correct. (Laramie 101)
Such a simple request but given the variety of voices that make up “Laramie” and the contrasting opinions they present about life there and the specific events surrounding Matthew Shepard’s death Heddon asks:
what would constitute saying it correctly or saying it right? To whom is one responsible or accountable? To the people interviewed? To the murdered Matthew Shepard? To his parents, who repeatedly throughout the play/in real life, make a plea to the media to respect their privacy? To the bare facts (as if these could be known)? To the past (as if this could be fixed)? To the people involved in the event? Must one behave with equal responsibility to all the people of this story, including the two young men who murdered Shepard? Or is the company responsible to a wider community — of gay men and lesbians? Or to the wider historical moment in the USA — in which case Laramie and its inhabitants might matter less than this greater objective? Is is possible to be responsible to all these different needs? (Heddon 136-7)
Add to these the fundamental dramaturgical concern of “Why are we doing this play now for this audience?” and the question of what it means to “saying it right … correct” as Father Roger demands widens exponentially. And, as we’ll see this week when we look at what more we know about Matthew Shepard, Laramie, the case and its representation/meaning in the 12 years since the event happened, there are no easy answers.
For tonight’s class meeting, students have been asked to read and discuss the intersections between three scripts and two pieces of theater theory/analysis alongside The Laramie Project. In advance, I’ve sketched out a chronology of these texts so we might identify an emerging historiography of documentary performance in relation to when (and by whom) these pieces were written/produced.
- Our Town (1938) by Thornton Wilder (1897-1975).
There are multiple connections between Our Town and Laramie, despite the obvious (though perhaps less widely known) link regarding the author’s homosexuality. The piece had a pre-Broadway performance at the McCarter Theatre in NJ (the theater where Emily Mann is now Artistic Director). It was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in that year making Wilder the only American to win that award for both fiction and drama. Wilder played the Stage Manager for two weeks during the Broadway run of the play. Both its 1998 and 2003 Broadway revivals won Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Play. In November 2009 the Barrow Street Theatre created quite a stir with its new “vision” of the play, directed by David Cromer (who also played the Stage Manager).
I offer two glimpses of the 1998 and 2003 productions from YouTube. The first starring Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager and the second starring Paul Newman in that same role.
- “Street Scene: A Basic Model for the Epic Theatre” (1938) by Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956).
In this rather early theater essay, Brecht begins to articulate the central conceits of Epic Theater performance versus the standard (at the time) “Dramatic Theatre” performance. He elaborates on these ideas in “A Short Organum for the Theatre” (1948). There are many subtlties and contradictions in Brecht’s writing, but there are some central contrasts he’s drawing between Dramatic and Epid performances, such as:
|cause to effect action, unalterability||each scene stands alone, possibility of change|
|identity as a fixed point, taken for granted||identity as a process, under interrogation|
|spectator projects herself into the on-stage action as an emotional participant||
spectator is as always aware of observer status, removed so as to be critical of what is being shown
A clip of Helene Weigel discussing epic theatre from the 1989 BBC documentary Brecht on Stage.
Oskar Eustis commissioned Execution in 1980 and directed its 1984 world premiere at Actors’ Theatre of Louisville. (Here is a review — louisvillereviewofExecution of that production by William Kleb from Theatre 16.1 (1984): 55-61.) The show played at Berkeley Rep in 1985 before shifting to Broadway in 1986. Both productions starred Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada) as the Cop and Wesley Snipes (Blade) as Sister Boom Boom. In 2004, Berkeley Rep also premiered a documentary play, The People’s Temple, about the Jonestown tragedy. The primary author on The People’s Temple was Leigh Fondakowski with help from Greg Pierotti and Stephen Wangh, all from the original Tectonic Theatre company/dramaturgy crew/cast. A teleplay was adapted from Mann’s script for a Showtime movie of the same name which premiered in 1999, starring Timothy Daly (Private Practice) as Dan White and Peter Coyote (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) as Harvey Milk.
- Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part One: Millennium Approaches (1991) by Tony Kushner.
Another new play commission that originated with Oskar Eustis. Millennium Approaches had a 1990 workshop production of Part One at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Its world premiere was in San Francisco in 1991 and it won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In May 1993 it moved to Broadway under the direction of then Public Theater Artistic Director, George Wolfe, with Part Two: Perestroika joining Part One in repertory performances by November of that year. Part One won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1993 and Part Two won that same award in 1994. In 2003, Kushner adapted both parts for an HBO movie directed by Mike Nichols starring Al Pacino as Roy Cohn, Emma Thompson as the Angel, and Jeffrey Wright reprising his Tony award winning turn as Belize. The movie won a Golden Globe and Emmy Award for Best Miniseries.
Signature Theatre Company opened its 2010-2011 “Kushner” season with a repertory staging of both parts of the play. Kushner has been involved in the revival. The run has been extended until March 2011 and a 20th anniversary edition of both parts in one volume will be published by Theater Communications Group for shipping in April 2011. We will be attending Playmakers Repertory Company’s production of both parts of Angels on February 26, 2011.
- The Laramie Project (2000) by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project.
Just quick reminders about Laramie‘s premiere: February 2000 at the Denver Theatre Center. It transferred to the Union Square Theatre NYC in May 2000 and finally played in Laramie in 2002 the same year that the Kaufman-adapted screenplay provided the basis for an HBO movie of the same name.
- Introduction to Execution of Justice by Oskar Eustis. Published in Political Stages: Plays that Shaped a Century. Mann and Roessel, Eds. (Applause, 2002).
I believe Eustis, who is now the Artistic Director of The Public Theater, wrote this introductory piece specifically for Political Stages; however, it is informed by his commission and experience with Execution from its premiere in Louisville and showings at Berkeley Rep and in San Francisco in the early-1980s.