Academic journal article TheatreForum

A Seat at the Table: Inviting the Audience to Join Our Town

Academic journal article TheatreForum

A Seat at the Table: Inviting the Audience to Join Our Town

Article excerpt

Creating community has been the purpose and the promise of theatre since its earliest recorded days, but rarely in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has a sense of community been more than a fleeting, illusory effect, often as calculated as the light levels, which dissipates when the house lights come up and patrons fight to get out of the parking lot. However, in this Our Town, in the words of the show's director, "Community is at the center," and creating that community seems to have driven all the artistic decisions. Allow me to pause a moment here to say that I recognize that my title is a cliché. I chose it for three reasons. The sentiment of this (yes, hackneyed) phrase points directly toward this production of Our Town's interest in inviting the audience into the show in a sincere and serious way. It also reflects the real-world setting of the actors having a cookout (complete with bratwurst on the grill), seated at a long table on a San Diego eveningan occasion that is layered on top of the Grover's Corners setting of the play. And third, in my view the production effectively reinvigorates and makes relevant a play that has rightfully earned a prominent place in the canon of American dramatic literature but, seventy-five years after its premiere, could easily be seen as overdone and sapped of potency; in short: the play itself is a cliché.

Taking on one of the most widely read and produced plays of the past century is no small feat; staging it in a way that has something compelling to say to an audience of 2013 is yet another audacious undertaking. To do both these with a light and inviting touch was quite a revelation. As I have noted, central to this production was the building of a community. Of course, the text of the play does this by, in effect, building the community of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, before the audience members' very eyes. However, this production takes the idea of community several steps further first by creating a community among the company members producing the show and then by inviting the audience to join their community through the performance. As director Tom Dugdale noted during our conversation: "The event of theatre is wonderful. The play is really a pretext to get people together." This Our Town company uses four main techniques to create community and invite the audience to join: prominent use of humor and original music, three site-specific settings for the production, casting the audience as members of the community, and including real details from the actors' lives. These four elements combine to create a production that helps the audience connect in an unconventional yet enthralling way to this show.

A Community of Artists: "Creating a family"

Dugdale directed Our Town and also served as a line producer for the Without Walls Festival. Our Town was produced by La Jolla Playhouse in association with THE TRIP, a new company founded by Dugdale and Joshua Kahan Brody. Currently based in San Diego, THE TRIP was founded in 2012 and has produced three shows thus far. Dugdale's method of directing seems at once disciplined and yet open to the vicissitudes of the personalities in the rehearsal room. Dugdale noted, "Whenever I direct, I tend to turn the company into a family, even if the characters in the play are not a family." He confessed that he finds music a helpful vehicle for his ends, and that he always has his casts learn a song and sing together at the first rehearsal to help foster connection among company members. Our Town was no exception. Original music was composed and performed with great gusto during the show. Two songs, "Oh Bloom (It's the Life)," which features prominently in Act One and "Time for a Wedding Today" which is performed in Act Two help convey a passage of time and provide the company with an opportunity to connect with the audience in a direct way. The traditional hymn "It is Well With My Soul" helps to bring the play full circle as it is performed in both Act One (at choir practice) and Act Three (for Emily's graveside service). …

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