Chronology as historiography

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:

suggestion argument
plot narrative/narration
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
feeling reason
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.

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.

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