Our Town - Notes from the Director
Make Your Lives Extraordinary
Life is tears, fears, and smiles.
~ Taylor Carson
Our Town is a famous play. It’s a twentieth century classic. It debuted in 1938 at three different theatres in three different productions within the span of two weeks. It also garnered playwright Thornton Wilder a Pulitzer Prize that same year. Even with all the hoopla and accolades this play received, so what? Why should we care about this play three quarters of a century after it was written?
Some folks are drawn to Our Town because they think it’s a play about small town American life in the early 1900s. Yes and no. Wilder does paint a picture of simpler times and simpler ways, but I think that’s actually just the canvas for something even bigger. I don’t think the play is about this specific fictional town or small towns in general. That’s why he didn’t name the play Grover’s Corners. I think he called it Our Town because, ultimately, it’s not a play about people in 1901 in a village in Massachusetts. It’s a play about all of us, it’s a play about our towns and our lives, no matter where or when. Just as Romeo and Juliet is about us, our parents, our friends, our neighbors, so is Our Town. It became an enduring classic because it somehow reaches beyond just being about a single town; it’s about life. Wilder wrote:
Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death (that element I merely took from Dante's Purgatory). It is an attempt to find value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life.
I didn’t choose to have Our Town in this Season because I thought it was a quaint look at a quaint time. I chose it because I believe this play is about our lives – right here, right now. Staunton, Virginia; Wise, Virginia; Loretto, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland; Canton, New York; Nashville, Tennessee; Orrville, Ohio; Asheboro, North Carolina; Huntsville, Alabama; Whitewater, Wisconsin; Dubuque, Iowa; Hampton, Virginia. There’s nothing idealized about Grover’s Corners when you take a hard look at it. Look for the subtle hypocrisies of the parents, the tragic cries for help from the alcoholic choirmaster, and the fears of young adults on their wedding day. The play takes us through the whole arc of existence: Daily Life; Love and Marriage; Death and Dying. And while we don’t get the star-crossed lovers ending their lives in suicide like in R&J or the attempted rape of a best friend’s girlfriend in 2Gents, we also don’t get a sterilized, idealized sentimentality. We get a look at life that asks us to look at our own lives. We get a plea to remember that each day matters. The soul of this play is akin to the film Dead Poets Society:
“They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? Carpe, carpe diem. Seize the day boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
Wilder reminds us of our mortality throughout Our Town. The Stage Manager introduces characters and immediately tells us when they die. In Act III we discover a lot of information about how characters we met and loved earlier in the play have died. Life, Love, Marriage, Death. The heart of the play is the encouragement to make our lives count. Don’t wait to tell others what you really think. Don’t wait to live the life you want to live. And I guess that's why we’ve got to love those people who deserve it like there's no tomorrow; because when you get right down to it, there isn’t.
Artistic Director and Co-founder
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Wilder seemed to be disenchanted with the state of modern theatre when he wrote Our Town. He seemed to long for less of what we might call Theatre of Illusion - an attempt to create "naturalism" onstage - in favor of what Shakespeare had in his Theatre of Imagination. Wilder wrote:
I began writing one-act plays that tried to capture not verisimilitude but reality...Think of the ubiquity that Shakespeare's stage afforded for the battle scenes at the close of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. As we see them today what a cutting and hacking of the text takes place - what condescension, what contempt for his dramaturgy.
Wilder's quest for his flavor of reality onstage led him to provide layers of "unreality" requiring the audience to use their imaginations to create the sets and props. I believe Wilder's artistic heart connected with Shakespeare's Staging Conditions: mostly a bare stage with a few tables and chairs; no elaborate sets; actors speaking directly to the audience and including them in the world of the play. By freeing himself and his audience from the trappings of his modern theatre, he was able to craft a story that the audience helped imagine themselves.
The recurrent words in this play (few have noticed it) are "hundreds," "thousands," "millions." Emily's joys and griefs, her algebra lessons and her birthday presents - what are they when we consider all the billions of girls who have lived, who are living and will live? Each individual's assertion to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner. And here the method of staging finds its justification - int he first two acts there are at least a few chairs and tables but when she revisits the earth and the kitchen to which she descended on her twelfth birthday, the very chairs and table are gone. Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind - not in things, not in "scenery." Moliere said that for the theatre all he needed was a platform and a passion or two. The climax of this play needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.
So while many classical theatre companies all over the world (including Shakespeare companies) have done Our Town over the decades since it debuted, it seems even more appropriate for the ASC to do it because Wilder wrote it with Shakespeare's Staging Conditions in mind. We proudly present Our Town, along with every play we do in repertory on the road and in the Blackfriars, by going Back to the Future and showing how these four hundred-year-old staging conditions create an in-your-face dynamic with the lit audience joining the world of the play.