Thursday, October 20, 2011

Spotlight on the 2012 Season

Now into his third full season as Artistic Director, Mark Lamos and his artistic team are, in the words of the Waterbury Republican-American, “subtly transforming…Westport...into a serious player and major regional theater.” While the past 80 years have been wonderful, they are a prologue to the exciting possibilities we can create with our audiences. In this spirit, our 2012 season has been billed as “Theater Worth Talking About,” because we believe the performance does not end when the curtain falls. With the hopes of engaging and engendering meaningful, enriching conversations and experiences among our audiences, the Playhouse will produce four plays and one musical, starting with the dark and beguiling musical Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and directed by our very own Mark Lamos; followed by the poignant and moving The Year of Magical Thinking directed by Nicholas Martin, based on Joan Didion’s best-selling memoir; Molière's satirical and irreverent comedy classic Tartuffe directed by Playhouse Associate Artistic Director David Kennedy, is third; followed by the world-premiere of Harbor by Tony-nominated playwright Chad Beguelin and directed by Mark Lamos, an alternately biting, touch, and hilarious comedy about the malleable nature of the meaning of “family”; and our 2012 season will close with a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s towering drama exploring a family’s quest for their piece of the American Dream, A Raisin in the Sun, directed by Phylicia Rashad.
With Mark busy putting the finishing touches on Twelfth Night, or What You Will, running through November 5th, our Patron Services Supervisor Chad Kinsman recently sat down with Associate Artistic Director David Kennedy and Artistic Advisor Annie Keefe for their insights into our 2012 season.

The Playhouse has a unique relationship with Stephen Sondheim, who was an intern here in 1950, and the honoree of our 2006 gala, so we’re very excited to be opening the season with a co-production of his
Into the Woods, billed as “One fairy tale that’s not the same old song and dance.” Could you talk a little bit about what sets Into the Woods apart from other musicals?

David Kennedy: I think Into the Woods is a great musical because it’s so unexpected. Sondheim and James Lapine were working with fairy tales, these archetypal stories that we all know and love, and then adding a twist that complicates them, brings to the surface the darker themes that were perhaps latent in the original material. To some extent, fairy tales are a mechanism for sublimating fear, using art to safely explore our deepest collective anxieties. The protagonists of fairy tales endure the most harrowing ordeals, but by the conclusion they are rewarded, and things usually end “happily ever after.” Into the Woods turns that formula on its head, and happily ever after is replaced with somewhat more complex resolutions to the tales.

Annie Keefe: Yeah, I like the sideways look they take at the traditional characters. The Wolf doesn’t con Little Red Riding Hood, he seduces her. The Witch isn’t simply evil, she’s a clever negotiator. And the enormous egos of the Charming Princes are just the cost of being so handsome, I guess. Sondheim finds the essences of these characters we’ve all known since childhood and then gives them his own unique twist.

DK: I think that complexity can be found in the music too. Sondheim is a true original, and in that sense his work never sounds like it’s by anybody but him

Into the Woods is being co-produced with Baltimore CENTERSTAGE. Can you tell us what a “co-production” involves?

DK: A co-production is a joint venture with another theater where we pool our resources, often to take on a project of such a scope that it would be hard for either company to manage it on their own.

AK: We share the cost of the casting director, the rehearsal salaries, the rehearsal space, the major hand props, and, most importantly for the Playhouse, the cost of building the costumes, since CENTERSTAGE has a costume shop and staff, and the Playhouse doesn’t. We will most likely share some elements of the set as well, even though our spaces are different. These are just a few of the economic advantages when theaters take on large productions together. 

DK: It’s really a win-win situation for the theaters, the artists involved, and the audiences. The theaters get to do a larger project; the artists get longer employment because it plays at two theaters back to back, as well as the satisfaction of a longer run where their work can grow and become deeper and richer; and the audiences, at least on the second leg—which is the case with the Playhouse and Into the Woods—get to see a show that has had more time to simmer, to develop into something truly wonderful.

Most people will be familiar with The Year of Magical Thinking as the National Book Award-winning memoir by Joan Didion. While a story of loss and grief, the show also explores our capacity to find hope and renewal in the face of life’s trials. What kind of experience can our audience expect from this powerful and moving show?

DK: Well, unlike reading a book, where you’re apt to pick it up and put it down over several readings over many days, on stage The Year of Magical Thinking unfolds over the course of a single evening, so it’s a compressed amount of time. I think that gives it an impact and an immediacy that the book cannot have. I also think that seeing an extraordinary performer say these words in front of you makes it so much more human.

AK: I can’t say it any better than that. Definitely with an actress as accomplished as Maureen Anderman in the mix, you get a very powerful live experience. Maureen has had a great career. She spent years in the regional theaters with several notable forays to Broadway. Albee’s Seascape comes to mind, and a critically acclaimed Macbeth. I saw her when she went on for Vanessa Redgrave in Driving Miss Daisy. The performance was so moving and precise, and her A Delicate Balance last year in the Berkshires was breathtaking. This year she is on her most ambitious project of all. She is touring the world with Kevin Spacey in Richard III with the Bridge Project. She’ll finish the run at BAM and come straight to us. And she is an alum several times over of the Playhouse.

DK: Add to that the fact that a book is a private experience and a play is something that you, as a viewer, share with other members of an audience. I think the adaptation of Year makes much of the power of that sense of communion. And there are all the poetic elements of the theater, light and sound and space and embodied emotion. I know that will greatly enhance this story.

Tartuffe has long been a classic satirical comedy and enjoys a production history of almost 350 years. What keeps Tartuffe fresh, funny, and relevant, especially to a modern audience?

DK: Molière was a first-rate student of human behavior, so his observations have never gone out of style. Fashions may change and history ebbs and flows, but, beneath those surface fluctuations, we’re not much different as people today than people were 350 years ago. We still have the same weaknesses and foibles, and Molière's comedy is all about laying those bare. I think the particular issue of religious hypocrisy and charlatanism, which is so much a part of this play, is resonant in this country because there has always been a professional class of people who’ve made it their business to tell the rest of us how to live according to their moral precepts, and unfortunately they have a sizeable and not at all benign influence on American politics. The fact that so many of these people are con artists, more interested in earthly power than matters of spirit, is obvious to most people, and yet they continue to flourish. How is that? That’s sort of the situation that Molière presents us with in Tartuffe. From the beginning the argument in the family of Orgon, the main character, is whether this “holy man” Tartuffe, whom Orgon follows with absolute zeal, is a saint or a fraud. Of course, the play is about so much else too—the nature of obsession, midlife crises, the allure of money—but religious hypocrisy is the element that first comes to mind with Tartuffe. But the play is much more than just a satire. It’s so human. Molière was not just a comic writer; he was a great artist, an iconoclast. He said things that, while they made people laugh, also made them uncomfortable. It’s the writers who break rules who have staying power.

AK: I also think it’s an excellent play to be producing in an election year!

The Playhouse has a wonderful history of world-premieres, and next summer’s production of  Harbor will bring our audience the excitement of seeing brand new work. Could you talk about what it means to produce a world premiere, and what about Harbor makes it the play to re-introduce new work to the Playhouse?

AK: It gives us the opportunity to explore an issue straight from the headlines. It will have people talking in the parking lot.

DK: And it’s essential to produce new work. There’s nothing better than being witness to the birth of a new play, for an audience to be the first to experience it, for actors to be the first to create a specific character. It’s one of the most exciting events in the theater. And Harbor is specifically such a great play with which to return new work to our stage, because it’s about the way we live now, an exploration of the always evolving nature of the American family. Most of the great plays of the American canon are family plays of one sort or another—A Raisin in the Sun, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, You Can’t Take It With You—and so Chad Beguelin is really playing with our native form, while giving it his own twist.

Speaking of A Raisin in the Sun, this play, considered a hallmark of the American theater, is a provocative exploration of the financial and social struggles of an American family in the 1950s Southside Chicago. How will an audience relate to the Younger’s quest to escape their circumstances and claim their piece of the American Dream?

DK: Well, I guess in so many ways the American Dream has been under assault for years now, with stagnating middle-class wages, the crushing costs of healthcare, rising poverty, the gross income inequality in this country. All of this has been true for a long time, but has really come into stark focus with the economic troubles of the last few years. So the story of a family struggling just to keep its head above water is the story of so many people today. Obviously, the Youngers’ story is the story of a particular African-American family in 1950s urban America, but Hansberry is so probing of these characters’ humanity that we come to know them intimately regardless of whether we share a similar background.

AK: I think, too, that it gives the opportunity for the Playhouse to share this iconic work with a whole new generation of young people and to show our loyal audience how much or little change has happened in the world since they last experiences this play.

DK: We may have never experienced anything like the Youngers’ particular struggle, but the transporting power of the stage puts us in their position for a few hours, allows us to see the world through their eyes, which can be a profound experience. So the question is not whether an audience relates because they’ve lived the exact same experiences, but that they will relate because of theater’s uncanny ability to allow us to imagine ourselves into the lives of other people. And hopefully that imaginative act, the aesthetic empathic, causes us to think about the world in a different way.

Chad Kinsman
Patron Services Supervisor

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