Behind a New Take on ’Our Town’
Edward Albee reminisced recently how "as a twenty-two year old very mediocre poet" he was given some excellent advice by Thornton Wilder (along with a bottle of bourbon to help the remarks go down).
Both of them that summer of 1950 were artists in residence at the McDowell Colony in Peterborough, a town not unlike Grover’s Corners tucked away in the Monadnock Mountain region of New Hampshire. The setting had been an inspiration for "Our Town" (which opened on Broadway in 1938) and one of the many places where Wilder worked on the play which he wrote over a number of years and in a variety of locations.
In their encounter, Albee recalled pushing his poetry on Wilder.
The playwright’s response, though, wasn’t exactly what Albee wanted to hear. Wilder told him to stop writing poetry. That it was no good.
He suggested that Albee should start writing plays instead.
Last year Mr. Albee wrote the preface to a new biography of the older artist," Thornton Wilder/ a life" written by Penelope Niven. In that essay, Albee called "Our Town" the "finest serious American play."
He went on to describe the drama as "superbly written, gloriously observed, tough, and a breathtaking statement of what it is to be alive, the wonder and hopeless loss of the space between birth and the grave."
The Huntington Theatre Company is celebrating the Pulitzer Prize winning drama’s 75th anniversary with a highly acclaimed production of the American classic directed by David Cromer, who also plays the Stage Manager (narrator). Many of the roles however are taken by Boston area actors. "Our Town" runs through January 13, 2013.
Cromer’s production originated in Chicago in 2008 where it was staged by the theater troupe The Hypocrites. What made the production so original is its intimacy: performed with a small audience, it turns Wilder’s story about life, love and death in a small New England town into an immersive theater experience. At the Huntington, the audience will be only 250 per performance, making the show a very hot ticket even prior to its opening.
When it opened off-Broadway in February, 2009, Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times: "In Mr. Cromer’s staging the artifice of theater that Wilder sought to strip away - by heightening it, paradoxically - is even further dissolved by the immersion of the actors in the audience, or the audience in the playing space, depending on how you look at it. (Those allergic to audience participation should know that the production doesn’t hold any real terrors; you will not be asked to join in choir practice.)"
The Off-Broadway production ran for 644 performances, making it the longest-running production of the play in New York’s theater annals.
For this Huntington production, Cromer repeats his role as the Stage Manager. He plays it through December 30. On December 31 Joel Colodner will take over the role of the Stage Manager or the remainder of the run.
EDGE recently talked with Cromer’s right hand man Michael Padden, who has been the assistant director for the show from the start.
Padden has a successful career working with Cromer on numerous projects, including "The Glass Menagerie" (at the Kansas City Repertory Theater), "The Farnsworth Invention (The Alley Theater, Houston), "When The Rain Stops Falling" (Lincoln Center Theater), and two Broadway revivals: "The House of Blue Leaves" and "Brighton Beach Memoirs."
Padden believes that being an out theatre artist gives him an affinity for Wilder, who never married and was secretive about his personal relationships.
The notably intimate production is being staged in its Huntington visit in the 250-seat Roberts Studio Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts, a considerably smaller space than the Huntington generally uses.
EDGE began our interview with Padden by noting Albee’s sentiment and then asking, in light of the characteristics of the drama highlighted by Mr. Albee, what do you think these ingredients ask of a director?
Michael Padden: I think that as a director you have to embrace the idea that out of the specific comes the universal. The way to make this play specific is to embrace the starkness of the language and idea that, as David Cromer the director puts it, these people have to trudge through life but, it’s not a struggle for them it’s just how you live.
This paints a picture of a place that we can all relate to. Wilder was from Wisconsin and David Cromer is from Chicago, I’m from Kansas City and that kind of stoicism really exists there in the Midwest. This play takes place in New Hampshire and I think this reserved nature is something that exists there too; but, it exists everywhere. It’s part of our culture. The way to capture the expansive quality of the play is to show the audience a community of people who are just living their lives. Every day.
EDGE: Is getting there all in the performances or what other elements are employed such as pacing, lighting, picture, tone?
Michael Padden: Design and performance have to coalesce in order to capture any story effectively.
In this production the audience is literally several feet away from the actors. The actors are costumed in modern dress and it is lit in such a way that the actors can see the audience (and visa versa) through the whole production. David Cromer and Alison Siple, the costume designer felt that by putting the actors’ turn-of-the-century costumes (as is standard in most productions) they would be creating a world that the audience was unable to relate to.
David also decided to strip away the Northeastern dialect that has so often been associated the play. The actors speak in their own voice.
These elements allow the audience an opportunity to observe the play in today’s world and they don’t feel removed from it.
EDGE: To what extent is achieving these all these elements your responsibility as assistant director?
Michael Padden: My primary responsibility is to maintain the vision that David Cromer has established with the creative team and the actors. This manifests itself in various ways. There are times when I need to run rehearsals and stage some scenes so that David can step in and work on nuance and interpretation with the actors.
When a show is running, sometimes I will pop in and take notes on the show. When ’Our Town’ ran in NY it was a 19-month run with lots of cast members leaving the show. In that particular iteration I would help out with putting some of the actors into the show (making sure they understood the staging, giving them a little bit of guidance with the nuance etc.)
EDGE: What are you learning about directing from working on this production?
Michael Padden: A tremendous amount to be sure. I think the thing that I’m learning the most about directing is that it’s a director’s to job know where you are going but that you aren’t necessarily going to know how to get there. Rehearsal is just like it sounds: it’s about re-hearing the play. You have to walk into the rehearsal room as if you’ve never heard the words before. This allows you the opportunity to explore their true meaning.
EDGE: Is the production we will see an approximate of the one done at the Barrow Theater?
Michael Padden: It’s the same physical production with a different company of actors.
EDGE: I see you will be assist directing a new play called ’Hit the Wall’ upcoming at the Barrow. What is that about?
Michael Padden: ’Hit The Wall’ follows the Stonewall Riots that occurred in the summer of 1969. (This historical occurrence was a series of fight back demonstrations by gays against a police raid, common at the time, of a bar in Greenwich Village. The fierce retaliation against the police led to greater activism by gays and lesbians. Gay Pride events mark the day, June 28, of the rebellion).
It’s about ten unlikely revolutionaries and their experiences as it relates to those riots. It’s very exciting. The Stonewall Inn is right down the street from the Barrow Street Theatre. History happened right down the street and we get to tell that story. I’m excited to work on it because it’s unlike anything that I’ve ever worked on before. Stylistically it’s a bit more abstract and it’s a great bunch of people to be sure.
EDGE: You have recast ’Our Town’ with some local actors. What roles?
Michael Padden: This is an entirely local cast. David felt that since this play is about a community and it’s set in this region that using a local company of actors would be the best thing for this iteration of the production. It’s definitely not a tour. This is its own production of the play utilizing the physical elements from the past productions. These actors are bringing in new ideas to the play each and every day. David Cromer, the director will be playing the role of the Stage Manager for part of the run as he did in NY.
EDGE: Where are you from?
Michael Padden: I’m from Kansas City, Missouri.
EDGE: What was your schooling?
Michael Padden: I went to a school in Kansas City called Avila University.
EDGE: What was your break into professional theater?
Michael Padden: I met David Cromer in 2009 when he was directing ’The Glass Menagerie’ at Kansas City Repertory Theatre. I got called in to essentially drive him around town and get him coffee.
For the first time I felt like the playwright was being conjured as these artists explored the play. This was inspiring. I was able to anticipate what David needed in order to do his job effectively as a result of the energy in the room. He left to do ’Our Town’ in NY and I got a call a few days before they went into technical rehearsals from David’s agent asking if I could get on a plane and be there in two days. Of course, I dropped everything and I’ve been in NY ever since.
EDGE: What led you to want to direct?
I’ve always been a person who makes decisions with his heart. I love to help people find their way through stuff. I like to offer that kind of support.
There’s also nothing quite like the theatre. We are able to capture such expansive ideas with so little at our disposal. (’Our Town’ is the definition of this.) That can’t really happen in any other medium. There’s something very spiritual about the whole thing and I think I fell in love with the idea of leading people through that ritual.
EDGE: Does being out give you empathy for Wilder?
Michael Padden: Yes, I think so.
I think I understand that Wilder was a person standing on the fringes of conventional society. I think he looks at things through the lens of being a solitary person alone in the world.
He was a twin and his twin died at childbirth. Twins make their way into his writing more than once. I wonder what his life would have been like if his twin had lived.
He often examines how unbearable life is and I think you could make an argument that he felt that way because he wasn’t able to live his life as openly as he might have wanted to.
I suppose I do feel lucky that I’m living in a world where marriage doesn’t only exist between to quote Wilder, ’a male and one female.’ and that I can be open with who I really am.
EDGE: Does the secretiveness with which he led his live transfer into the writing of "Our Town?"
Michael Padden: Any time you are watching someone else go through something that you are not experiencing, it gives you a certain insight into what they are experiencing that they are unable to have because they are living it. Marriage is something that he goes into during ’Our Town.’ I think the idea of marriage might have confused him a bit because (at least at the turn of the 20th century) it didn’t seem as though people who got married knew each other very well, but they definitely stayed in marriages regardless of whether or not the love that they had for each other was real. This comes up in ’Our Town’ and it’s a horrifying thought.
EDGE: Lore has it that he wrote the third act after a long walk the day before with Samuel Morris Steward, who was rumored to be a lover.
Michael Padden: Interesting. I wonder if that walk was a moment when he was truly appreciating his life and realizing how wonderful it could be. That makes me smile.
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town continues through January 13, 2013 in a Huntington Theatre Company production in the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont st. in Boston’s South End. For tickets or more info go to www.huntingtontheatre.org.