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.