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Dramaturgical Notes on 4 of the Season’s Most Popular Plays

How directors and dramaturgs have approached ‘The Whipping Man,’ ‘The Motherfucker With the Hat,’ ‘Freud’s Last Session,’ and ‘Good People.’

The Whipping Man

by Matthew Lopez

At the end of the Civil War, Caleb, a wounded Jewish Confederate soldier, returns home to discover his father’s two former Jewish slaves, Simon and John. As they nurse Caleb’s leg and celebrate Passover, the men’s faith is tested and painful past secrets are exposed.

PENUMBRA THEATRE COMPANY
Saint Paul, Minn.
Feb. 19–March 8, 2009
Sarah Bellamy, dramaturg: When we encountered Matthew Lopez’s one-act script for The Whipping Man, we were excited by the opportunity to explore an underrepresented chapter of American history—the relationship between blacks and Jews in the Antebellum period. As a scholar of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the colonial period, I was excited by the idea of challenging contemporary audiences with the relationship between slave-holding Jews, recently liberated black Jews and the Passover story. Producing this play within an African-American aesthetic was a way of ensuring that the script would accommodate the potential revealed through the rehearsal process. Too often, cultural specificity and authenticity are sacrificed to service an inflexible artistic vision, or because of the popularity of (and audience appetite for) stereotypes. It was of paramount importance to us that we had the right people in the room.

Perhaps the most influential dramaturgical contribution to the production was made by Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, a local reform rabbi influenced by the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, who advised the director, cast and education team in the responsible and respectful enactment of the Passover Seder onstage. This production encouraged artists and audiences alike to engage in deep conversation about freedom and bondage, about cross-cultural relationships and about the complicated, but also deep and long, solidarity between blacks and Jews that is often overlooked or dismissed during times of political contest or turmoil.

Matthew Lopez himself was impressed with the amount of care and the depth of research Penumbra contributed to his play, and has since requested that other theatre companies use our dramaturgical work. We are proud to have been among the first to produce such a fine play that, with proper contextual attention, invites contemporary American audiences to consider how we came to be the nation we are today.

Sarah Bellamy is the associate artistic director–education at Penumbra Theatre Company.

CENTERSTAGE
Baltimore, Md.
April 4–May 13, 2012
Faedra Chatard Carpenter, dramaturg: The Whipping Man invites dramaturgs to excavate such a vast amount of dramaturgical material that it’s challenging for me to think of a single piece of research that was the most impactful. Instead, I’m compelled to highlight one of the production’s thematic cores: director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s concept regarding “Inherited Faith.” While Kwame identified and animated a number of the play’s themes, I think his ideas regarding faith were perhaps the most prolific in terms of how they consistently informed research materials, rehearsal discussions, playbill and lobby displays, and even production choices.

“Inherited Faith” is such an abundant idea, and it is central to the specifics of this play, its historic particulars and its philosophical quandaries. We have a play about black Jews, set in the Confederate South at the end of the Civil War—factors that prompt a constellation of related research queries: How is religious faith inherited and passed on? What are the tenets, rituals and histories associated with Judaism, and what are the nuanced ways these can be claimed or disclaimed?

What of Southern culture as a type of inheritance? How could the familiar and accepted protocols of Antebellum life—including the practice of slave-holding—represent a belief system that expressed one’s sense of faith or betrayal? And certainly research on the Civil War—including the conflicting narratives and viewpoints it represented—also helped us explore the inheritance of ideologies.

And equally significant is the fact that these riffs on faith permeated Kwame’s whole production, informing choices in terms of music, lights and blocking. This integration of a theme—the way it framed the play for the audience as well as how it was embodied in the production’s performance—created multiple ways for audience members, from various vantage points, to join in on a very rich and complex conversation.

Faedra Chatard Carpenter is a member of the board of directors of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas and an assistant professor at the school of theatre, dance and performance studies at the University of Maryland–College Park.

KANSAS CITY REPERTORY THEATRE
Kansas City, Mo.
March 16–April 8, 2012
Eric Rosen, director: In our process of creating The Whipping Man, the dramaturgical work was highly collaborative among designers, our artistic staff and our company’s lived history of Southern Jews and African Americans. The most important piece of dramaturgical research was set designer Jack Magaw’s historical research on the fall of Richmond, Va. Nearly everyone in our company made the incorrect assumption that the slaveowner’s house was a plantation—even though the text is quite clear that Caleb’s family owned only a few slaves. Seeing pictures of Richmond destroyed, side-by-side with images of destroyed cities in Germany and England in World War II, brought immediacy to the chaotic, war-torn world our protagonists inhabited—and structured Magaw’s haunting design.

Once we made that leap to understanding the urban nature of the destruction and the highly extreme situation all three characters were inhabiting—where every decision could mean life or death—we were able to bring the correct level of urgency to the production. The Whipping Man is a historical thriller, from the amputation on a dark and stormy night to the complex revelations of betrayals causing each character’s undoing. Bringing that urgency to emotional life was helped by the visual dramaturgy that Magaw, costume designer Alison Heryer and literary manager Eryn Preston brought to the table.

Thematically, the unpacking of the Jewish narrative of Passover was critical to understanding the urgency of the Pesach ritual. Fortunately, I did a good deal of my undergraduate and graduate research on the history of the Seder as a theatrical act, so I spent a great deal of time sharing the complex meaning of language, history and ritual that shapes Act 2. I know way too much about the history of Passover in the 19th and 20th centuries, and found it uncanny that Matthew Lopez, a non-Jew, so correctly hit the historical details in every moment of the performed Seder. Teaching those rituals and their meaning to the cast (none of them was Jewish) was very rewarding, and paid off in their commitment to the truth of those rituals in performance.

Eric Rosen is the artistic director of Kansas City Repertory Theatre.

 

The Motherfucker With the Hat

by Stephen Adly Guirgis

A mysterious hat.

Two cheating couples catch each other in a tangled web of lies.

Fueled by drugs, alcohol and passion, the plot thickens.

With time and truth, the lovers try to move forward with their lives.

SPEAKEASY STAGE COMPANY
Boston
Sept. 14–Oct. 13, 2012
David R. Gammons, director: When I first read Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherfucker With the Hat, I responded viscerally and impulsively to the language and the relationships. I knew right away that I did not want a realistic scenic environment on stage. Mofo is not a play about apartments. It’s a play about specific people and how they use specific words in specific situations. I fixated on exploring the cyclical dynamics of addiction and desire, brotherhood and betrayal. I pictured a raw space echoing the raw language—unfinished surfaces that would create a resonating chamber for the brutal but hilarious text. I imagined a kind of Brechtian enclosure that would amplify the complex characters and heighten their physical and emotional interactions.

In my visual research, I looked at the architecture and texture of unfinished spaces and temporary materials: plywood, drywall, clip lights and metal folding chairs. I also considered the charged, politicized and aggressive use of the Word as Image. I looked at urban graffiti, and investigated how word, image and architecture intersect in public and private arenas. I responded to Barbara Kruger’s enormous, wall-sized text art installations and Jenny Holzer’s relentless-yet-intimate LED screen confessions and accusations. I started listening to James Brown and Jay-Z, the Commodores and Kanye West, my headphones throbbing with an insistent beat that got inside my head.

But oddly, perhaps the most important piece of dramaturgical research ended up being a collection of photographs called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency by the amazing Nan Goldin. These silent, haunting images really convey the deep, uncomfortable, tender humanity I find at the core of Guirgis’s play. There is something profound and quite moving in these silent images, wordlessly speaking volumes with color and light about real love and longing, desire and despair.

Oh, and did I mention this show is going to be really kick-ass funny? Damn effing straight!

David R. Gammons is a freelance director, designer, visual artist and the director of the theatre program at Concord Academy.

GABLESTAGE
Coral Gables, Fla.
Jan. 7–Feb. 5, 2012
Joseph Adler, director: The Motherfucker With the Hat resonates for me on so many levels. I find all the characters and their relationships unique and compelling. One of the most intriguing aspects of the play is the way Jackie and Ralph D. come up with self-serving rationalizations to justify their behavior. I also find Jackie’s journey of struggling to get to the truth and work past issues of self-deception and temptation fascinating.

Everything Stephen Adly Guirgis writes is a joy for actors because the stakes are always so high. When the playwright came down to Coral Gables for a weekend during the run, he conducted a writing workshop, which was incredibly informative and inspirational.

Joseph Adler is the producing artistic director at GableStage.

UNICORN THEATRE
Kansas City, Mo.
Sept. 5–30, 2012
Sidonie Garrett, director: I’ve read great articles from lots of sources in preparation for directing The Motherfucker With the Hat, but one single source that helped me get a handle on the core issues in the play was the TV show “Intervention.” It provided me a real look at addicts using drugs and exhibiting behaviors that I wouldn’t otherwise see. It also shows the impact on family, lovers and friends. The psychology of abuse and co-dependency is very important in this story and factors in both couples’ relationships—they have all four been, or are, addicts. It’s hard to watch Intervention because it feels invasive to observe real people in such a personal struggle; however, the information was helpful to my understanding of drug addiction and the emotional chaos surrounding it.

Sidonie Garrett is the executive artistic director at the Heart of
America Shakespeare Festival in Kansas City.

 

Freud’s Last Session

by Mark St. Germain

What if Dr. Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis met? Against the backdrop of World War II, the physically deteriorating psychoanalyst and the up-and-coming professor clash over quintessential questions about God, faith, sex and suicide.

B STREET THEATRE
Sacramento, Calif.
Sept. 3–Oct. 1, 2011
Jerry Montoya, director: During the course of Freud’s Last Session, C.S. Lewis refers to several religious artifacts in Sigmund Freud’s study. Freud asks Lewis to pick his favorite and remarks that he has more than 2,000 pieces and loves them dearly. Why? Why would an atheist collect religious artifacts? As we explored his collection and its place on the stage and in the play, it opened the door to what I saw was more than a play of ideas or beliefs—actually, belief systems. How we relate to the world is manifested in how we choose to organize our beliefs. These ancient artifacts represent an evolving system of beliefs in the history of mankind, and Freud clearly saw his work as a continuation of this process.

The visceral, passionate and intelligent discussion in Freud’s study is more than a theism-versus-atheism argument. It becomes at its heart an argument over why we believe. It explores the idea of God as one system to organize belief, much as psychology is a system by which we attempt to organize consciousness.

Systems can change. Systems react to new stimuli. This is why Freud invites Lewis for his session. Placing this discussion at its core allowed us to give the production a solid foundation on which to build. Having a great company of actors didn’t hurt a bit either.

Jerry Montoya is a playwright and director who currently works as the associate producer at B Street Theatre.

BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY
Pittsfield, Mass.
June 22–July 3, 2012
Tyler Marchant, director: I remember the distinct moment I first understood how I was going to direct Freud’s Last Session. Mark St. Germain’s play was inspired by The Question of God, a 2002 book by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr. PBS produced a four-hour special about the book in 2004. In the broadcast, Nicholi served as a moderator for a roundtable discussion filled with agnostics and Christians
representing Freud and C.S. Lewis, respectively. The conversation began in a very friendly and academic manner—ideas were proposed and discussed, and it all seemed like a wonderful good time.

Slowly, almost without warning, the tenor of the conversation changed, and it suddenly became a very personal event. Our ideology defines us, and when that ideology is attacked we become defensive, or even sometimes aggressively offensive. As the roundtable moved from a civil discussion of ideas into the realm of personal attacks, I realized from where the drama in the play was drawn, where its human quality had its genesis, and where the conflict of the play could come alive.

Freud and Lewis, two of the greatest minds of the 20th century, were not afraid of diving into the emotional territory of defending that which we all hold most dear—our beliefs. In rehearsals, I kept speaking to the actors about “core beliefs.” They had to know exactly what those were, and they had to know that when they were threatened, action followed. St. Germain’s play not only invites the audience into the minds and hearts of these brilliant thinkers, it asks the audience to re-examine their own personal points of view. When I saw the audience being challenged intellectually and pulled emotionally into that event, I knew we had something special.

Tyler Marchant is an assistant professor of directing/acting at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point.

PITTSBURGH PUBLIC THEATRE
March 1–April 1, 2012
Mary B. Robinson, director: As a longtime history buff, I was excited by the prospect of researching and then directing this compelling play about two major real-life figures of the 20th century—though I’ll admit it was daunting to face the rows and rows of floor-to-ceiling books by and about Freud (far fewer on Lewis) at the Brooklyn College Library. But once I started reading the more personal accounts of Freud’s life—a memoir by his son, his wonderfully warm letters—it became far easier to tackle the many writings and books of his that are mentioned in the play. The dramaturgical research became a team effort that galvanized us all: the designers, the actors, the production staff and myself. Stage managers Fred Noel and Adrienne Wells tirelessly tracked down obscure books and found articles online for us, prompted by references in the play. We began every rehearsal with a
debriefing of the reading and research we’d each done the night before.

Probably our most essential piece of research was not a written work, but a photograph of Freud’s prosthesis, sent to me by a curator at the Freud Museum in London. (She was going to post it on the museum’s website, but then decided it was too gruesome for the general public to see.) We wanted to be as specific as possible in regards to the scene in the play where Freud enlists Lewis’s help to pull the prosthesis out of his mouth. The crude and painful-looking contraption in the image we all studied enabled us to stage this climatic sequence far more realistically than we could have done otherwise.

Mary B. Robinson is a director, teacher and former dramaturg whose book Directing Plays, Directing People: A Collaborative Art was recently published by Smith and Kraus.

 

Good People

by David Lindsay-Abaire

Margie, a single mother with a handicapped daughter, is fired from her retail job. She turns to Mike, a doctor and an old flame, for work. What ensues is a verbal spar, encompassing Boston terrain, from the workingclass “Southie” to the upper-class suburbs.

MANHATTAN THEATRE CLUB
New York
Feb. 8–May 29, 2011
Daniel Sullivan, director: Talking with David Lindsay-Abaire constituted the bulk of my research on MTC’s production of Good People. Although the play isn’t autobiographical in its narrative, it is in its context and in its physical details—and, most important, in its clear-eyed examination of the American myth of social mobility. David spoke openly of luck’s role in his own escape from South Boston. A teacher recognized his talent and pushed to get him a scholarship to a college-oriented Boston high school. Miraculously, he was the first student to receive an academic scholarship at that school.

If anything, that turning point in his life was more about luck than self-determination because, at the time, David felt no discontent with his South Boston life. He assumed he’d just stay in Southie like everyone else he knew. He was simply pushed over the threshold into another life. And, of course, he thrived in it. If David acknowledges the role of luck in escaping the centrifugal force of class, Mike, the character in his play that most closely parallels his circumstances, refuses to do so. With a heavy dose of willful self-deception, Mike has swallowed the entire myth and, unlike David, cut himself off from his past in order not to examine it too closely.

Having lived through it, David is acquainted with the guilt of creating that self-deception, particularly in leaving as tribal an enclave as South Boston. Certainly his most vivid creations are the women who are trying to survive in the lives luck has handed them. But it is to David’s great credit that, seeing all of them in himself,
he understands them all.

Since Good People contains two scenes in a bingo hall, the cast and I spent some time with David at a Brooklyn bingo parlor. We were curious about the minutiae of the game, thinking we could stay half an hour, pick up some behavioral details and get the hell out. Instead, we stayed the evening. And though we came away with a rudimentary understanding of the various permutations of the game, it was the deadly seriousness of the players that impressed us most. This was not a social evening. The people in that room were trying to make a living there…this was their night job. They were hoping for just a little luck. Maybe not to change their lives. Maybe just to pay the rent.

Daniel Sullivan is a leading American director.

HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY
Boston
Sept. 14–Oct. 14, 2012
Charles Haugland, dramaturg: As I write, rehearsals for Good People at the Huntington begin in two weeks, and the play is a unique one to encounter here as a dramaturg, as South Boston is a deep part of the culture of our city. The play touches on the fierce loyalty of the neighborhood, and it’s a part of town that can be skeptical of outsiders. How will I create context for our artists and our audience while taking this into account?

Luckily, in the rehearsal room, I’m far from being the only resource. The play is written by Southie native David Lindsay-Abaire, and Acton native Kate Whoriskey directs. She, in turn, has cast Karen MacDonald, who lived in Southie as a child, in the role of Jean, and another local actress, Nancy Carroll, as Dottie. How often do you get a handful of artists who have lived in the world you are trying to create on stage?

A huge part of the dramaturgical work here is the conversation with our audience. We tell lots of Boston stories on our stages, and I have been interested in exploring with our audience the process by which a story grows from something that could happen to someone next door to you, into something that happens onstage. How do playwrights, directors and designers take inspiration from real life and then create something that is meaningful, whether you have a Southie accent, or whether you come from the western city suburbs? What transforms in the process of making art?

When I saw the play originally at Manhattan Theatre Club, the audience strongly identified itself with Margie, the single mother from Southie—and this makes sense; she is the clear protagonist, and we see the play through her eyes. But I’ll be curious to hear in post-show conversations if the play is even more rich and complicated here where many make their home in Chestnut Hill, the suburb where Margie’s high-school ex Mike Dillon now lives.

Lindsay-Abaire’s play asks incisive questions about class and fate: How did each of us find our place in the social ladder? What role did luck play? What about opportunity? These questions are trenchant anywhere, but especially here where the geography of the play and the geography of the audience are in direct conversation.

Charles Haugland heads artistic programs and dramaturgy at Huntington Theatre Company.

PLAYHOUSE ON THE SQUARE
Memphis, Tenn.
Aug. 31–Sept. 23, 2012
Dave Landis, director: With any rehearsal process, but in particular with Good People and with the cast I have, collaboration is essential. A few years back, I had the privilege of directing another David Lindsay-Abaire play, Rabbit Hole. As Playhouse on the Square is a professional resident theatre, we have a core company of actors performing in multiple venues throughout our 18-production season. Three of the actors from Rabbit Hole are also in Good People, so there is already an understanding, a respect, for Lindsay-Abaire’s storytelling gift.

With a contemporary show like Good People, I like to get the actors on their feet as quickly as possible, and though there is always a certain amount of table work, I find it more beneficial to combine those discussions with moving in the space. As the actors make discoveries about their characters and their motivations, 9 times out of 10 my preconceived blocking will change. I’m one of those directors who like to ask a lot of questions, so when an actor asks me something regarding the interpretation of a moment, I will often respond with a question instead of a concrete answer. Frustrating for an actor? Yes. I may suggest a path for them to explore and see where it takes them.

What I love most about working on a play by Lindsay-Abaire is that he provides a wonderful story with rich dialogue that is sheer poetry, ripe for exploration and interpretation.

Dave Landis is the associate director at Playhouse on the Square.

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