Added a short essay on the difference between community theater that’s fun for the cast and community theater that strongly affects its audience.
With Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde concluding its two-week run this weekend (Oct. 30 to Nov. 1), a few thoughts about community theater in general and this show in particular. (I’ve been both blogging and writing articles about the production as it’s developed. If you’re curious about the process of thinking that went into developing an entirely new adaptation and production of the piece you may want to take a look at them: Blog entries and Essays).
I have been and remain a lifetime proponent of “amateur” artistic efforts as well as of the value of a sense of community (see “Creativity and the Adult Amateur” and “Dreaming of Community”). Putting my perspective as simply as possible: High-quality amateur work, whether in theater, dance, painting, performance art, etc. etc., can be utterly enchanting and mind-opening to its audience as well as a major source of creative expression. Likewise, an intense and valid community experience, that is, one that provides a shared intimacy, compassion, and commitment without being contaminated by ulterior or destructive motives can deeply enrich the lives of all involved.
The adjectives in these definitions are not accidental: When amateur work is not high-quality, evincing a lack of care and workmanship, indifference to the quality of the creative effort, it is worse than useless: it can be boring and painful. Similarly, when “community” amounts to little more than “hooray for our side” or a broad but very thin social interconnectedness, it is meaningless at best and, at worst, a deceptive substitute for soul-satisfying shared experience.
When one approaches a new effort that combines amateur creative effort with a community spirit, sometimes one is shocked by both sides of the equation. I have found myself awed by the creativity and by the shared sense of commitment. Yet, I’ve also been amazed at the gaps in the mutual commitment to each other and to one’s audience that sometimes pop up. I’m not painting myself as a paragon of virtues here, I’ve been guilty many times of being less than a good partner in a shared project. But it would be ridiculously pollyanna-ish not to mention that this occurs all too frequently and that it’s a reason why some people will studiously avoid non-profession work of any kind — not that seasoned professionals don’t sometimes bring so little new excitement that their work is often a dreary repetition of past success.
But at its best, amateur or mixed professional/non-professional (in community theater, Actors Equity and non-Equity members often perform together), can be thrilling. It is not for me to say whether our current production of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fulfills that aspiration. I can only say that we have tried to do something different here. We’ve taken a story known to some extent by everyone in western culture and given it several new twists. We’ve drawn attention away from a myopic focus on Jekyll/Hyde and shifted it to those perplexed and dismayed. We’ve reversed the classic detective whodunit paradigm (Robert Louis Stevenson’s story is frequently credited with being one the first of the detective genre): Here everyone in the theater except the “detective” (in this case, Dr. Jekyll’s lawyer) knows that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person. The play is retold from the lawyer’s (Mr. Utterson) perspective: And that makes it all the more of a nightmare.
Stevenson’s story actually began as a nightmare that was so vivid to him that he wrote the story in three feverish days. (After a friend critiqued it, Stevenson threw the original story in the fire, and re-wrote the current version in three more feverish days!) We — the director, stage manager, scenic designer and cast — have worked as a group to think through all the alternatives of how we could tell the story most effectively. Simplicity and transparency are hallmarks of what we’ve come up with, making maximum use of the black box theater that is the Hooker-Dunham using a single but imposing set piece: the door through which all pass and are, in one way or another, transformed. We’ve done our best to keep a sense of humor alive as well, knowing that we must compete with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird’s brilliant renditions of the Jekyll and Hyde tale.
As the director, Josh Moyse, tells us in his program notes, this is an invented play, in part theater, in part performance art, that is our little troupe’s first venture at the material, but very possibly not our last. Personally, I’m very proud to have been involved in the project and proud to host it at the Hooker-Dunham, a wonderful space in which to experiment. As I write this, it’s 1 PM with a 7:30 curtain beginning our second/final weekend. Hope you’ve had or will have the opportunity to share in the experience.
(Continuing to blog the development of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Josh Moyse, opening on Friday, Oct. 24 and running through Saturday, Nov. 1 at the Hooker-Dunham Theater, 139 Main St., Brattleboro, VT)
From the multitude of possibilities of where one might take re-telling the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there comes a point when you have to make some choices. We, the actors, have been deeply enmeshed in this process, though ultimately Josh Moyse, the director, is both determining the script and the staging of the piece.
I say “determining the script” because he isn’t writing it from scratch, but is using the text of the original Robert Louis Stevenson novella as the primary source of the dialogue and much of the imagery. This rendition of the tale is quite unlike any of the film versions of Jekyll/Hyde and completely unlike the musical version. The films introduce characters not found in the novella: a virginal “good girl” whom Dr. Jekyll intends to marry before he goes off the rails and a down and dirty barmaid whom Mr. Hyde abuses. The films needed love themes so necessary for Hollywood, but quite irrelevant to the core of the tale.
By following the Stevenson story and using his archaic-sounding vocabulary and syntax, the tale is necessarily set in the Victorian era. Because that era is so associated in our minds with an exaggerated dichotomy between the moral and immoral, it is fitting for this tale, but the setting is ultimately irrelevant: the “issues” raised by the novella are as relevant today as they were a hundred and thirty years ago.
Though our production uses the novella as a starting point, where we have gone from there is the product of long conversations between the director and cast. Some characters from the original story have been dropped and some given more prominence. In our version, unexpected interludes, interspersed between sequences of dialogue drawn from the original novella, disrupt the audience’s expectations of a chronological sequence.
We are trying, as I see it, to do a few things: To give the audience a sense of the terror that unrestrained evil evokes, but also a taste of the humor inherent in the over-exaggeration of dichotomized good and evil. Yet what we are going for is not parody of the Robert Louis Stevenson story so much as satirizing the idea that good and evil can always be so easily distinguished. We are also striving to evoke the sense of claustrophobia and shadow that are essential to a good nightmare.
The core of the story is the tragedy that Dr. Jekyll’s proving the validity of his theories destroys himself. Dr. Jekyll asserts that all people contain within themselves both good and evil, that life involves a continuous struggle to act humanely rather than meanly, cruelly. But horror is the consequence of trying to enjoy the fruits of both morality and immorality. Death is the price Dr. Jekyll must pay for toying with the balance between the two, for trying to find ways in which to be both morally superior and to allow himself license to do whatever he wants.
But The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not only about the horror unleashed by toying with human nature, nor is it, at least as we conceive it and portray it, only the condemnation of the dark side of ourselves. It is also a critique of the whole notion of moral superiority. Jekyll tempts fate not only because his Mr. Hyde alter ego acts immorally, but also because he tries to elevate himself above others in his Dr. Jekyll persona. It thus condemns moralism just as much as immorality.
One does not have to believe in Hindu reincarnation, nor in some kind of “final judgment,” nor even that bad acts create bad karma and thus we must pay in this life for our misdeed, to grasp the psychological truth that we suffer consequences for our actions. The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde makes the consequences literal: When Dr. Jekyll as Mr. Hyde cannot transform himself back to his “good” self, he destroys himself. This is psychologically valid: When we act inhumanly, unless we are such psychopaths that we have rid ourselves of all human emotions, we pay the consequences, whether we are conscious of our guilt or not.
In melodrama, all of this must play out literally: Dr. Jekyll, trapped by his potion in the persona of the evil Mr. Hyde, destroys himself. In real life, we usually pay more subtly. It isn’t that we can’t formulate the potion that will relieve us of our responsibility for our actions, it is our own mind — or soul if you prefer that metaphor — that will not allow us, whether consciously or unconsciously, to escape from our responsibility for our actions. And this is true whether the action is to moralistically condemn others as our moral inferiors or it is to abuse our fellow human beings.
In this sense, Jekyll and Hyde, for all its dramatic exaggeration of good and evil, makes a simple yet psychologically valid existential point: We choose our lives by our actions. We can never escape the consequences of those actions, because we know what we’ve done, what we’ve chosen to do.
This a very crucial point to me in this age in which denial of responsibility is so prevalent. Everything wrong in the world is either someone else’s fault, viz. the demonization of “them” and near deification of oneself,, If something clearly is one’s own fault, then it’s our genes or a chemical imbalance, or a lousy childhood, or “stress” or trauma we’ve endured that causes us to act destructively.
Meanwhile, while we contemplate these complex moral, psychological, existential, ethical questions, we should enjoy the roller coaster ride. When we look at our reflection in our bathroom mirror as though it were one of those shape-contorting mirrors of an amusement park “fun house,” we should remember to laugh heartily at ourselves.
For more on exploring how to portray The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, check out these articles.
Having read so many short plays in selecting one for the 10-Minute Play Festival of ATP, it’s inevitable to catch the bug and write one oneself. Here’s what came from my addled brain: Naked Lunch.
The process of trying to get the Hooker-Dunham moving as a community of artists, has given me new impetus to think through some of the issues in what community does and does not mean. Too often the word “community” is used so glibly that it loses much of its most significant meanings. Check out Community does not always mean Community for my recent thoughts on the topic.
A benign madness?
With shakes of hands and the blessing of the building’s owner, I will be taking over management of the Hooker-Dunham Theater as of May 15. (I don’t have control over the website yet, so the site out there is the current management’s site.)
I’m taking this on because I think the theater itself is a marvelous asset to the town of Brattleboro, one that can serve many people’s needs. It’s done that for a long time by being open to be rented. I will certainly continue this fundamental structure.
I am not taking this on as Artistic Director. I am managing the space. I am giving my time to this. If a miracle happens and the theater earns more than it costs to run, I solemnly promise to put that money back into the theater. The theater is not currently fully accessible. Perhaps, if the right lights shine on this cavern of a theater , it will one day be safely accessible to all. That is a goal.
My wildest dreams?
That some combination of actor and directors will take root in the theater.
That video artists might find it an interesting space to work with.
That a group or groups of musicians might find it a nice place to play.
That people living around Brattleboro or coming into town will think: I wonder what’s at the Hooker-Dunham tonight?
That it will be a place where performers of all kinds will feel they have the opportunity to stretch their legs and try their wings.
That a few New Wave or Jim Jarmusch or Film Noir or whatever film fanatics will find a comfortable home.
That we’ll have a kind of playground for myself and others who enjoy a stage — or a seat in audience — a space where we can explore whatever we’d like to explore…
…and see what we come up with.
I won’t bore you with my fears. You could probably imagine them easily enough.
I’ve committed myself for giving it a go for a year.
If you’ve never seen the Hooker-Dunham, there are pictures of it on its website.
For some additional thoughts about community theater, check out these essays:
Here are links to comments I made recently about the effect of corporate dominance of the our (U.S.) governmental processes.
The local paper, The Brattleboro Reformer, published it as a “Local Editorial”
VTDigger, an online news outlet, also published it as a “Commentary”
If the interests of the telecommunications industry can undermine one of the last remnants of democratic decision-making, small rural municipalities in a small rural state (Vermont), then the example applies everywhere.
Does tweeting turn is unto twits? Or just babbling fools? Or is it good for us to see if we can cram everything we have to say into 140 characters? Some thoughts on how we communicate. More…
El articulo a sido re-publiado en muchos otras publicaciones en los últimos días.
América Latina en Movimiento: http://alainet.org/active/60264&lang=es
En Bolivia: www.bolpress.com
Sociologo politica: pabloraulfernandez.blogspot.com
¡Estoy muy agradecido del esfuerzo de Ernesto Carmona quien a tomado mi pobre traducción y lo hizo algo muy claro en castellano!
Mi articulo sobre el socialismo en los Estados Unidos se publica hoy día en Argentina: http://www.argenpress.info/2012/12/el-socialismo-tiene-futuro-en-estados.html. También, se puede ver en: http://www.elclarin.cl/web/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6732:el-socialismo-itiene-futuro-en-estados-unidos&catid=13:politica&Itemid=12
Rarely do you hear something proudly touted as “Version 1.0.” I remember being told “never buy the first model of anything.” I defied this dictum and bought a Dodge Omni in 1978. (If you don’t know me, yes, I’m that old!) A mechanic, who’d been able virtually to earn a living on the costs of repairing my car alone, said to me: “They call it an Omni because they got every part from a different country.” He wasn’t kidding either, everything seemed like it came from somewhere different and had been put together by someone who didn’t know very much about cars.
So defying the dictum of never call anything 1.0, that’s what this is Version 1.0, the first incomplete, if also completely imperfect, version of my writings, Reflections in a Cracked Glass.
Oh, I’ll keep writing, but I feel a sense of completeness, of having touched the bases I wanted to, with the addition of the essays on socialism, and on the role of trajectory in artistic creativity.
If you’re new to this site, pick an essay and see where it takes you.
long time admirer of Kilgore Trout