2013 marks the 75th anniversary of Thornton Wilder’s timeless classic, Our Town. In his foreword to the 2002 edition of the play, playwright Donald Margulies wrote, “Our Town’s success across cultural borders around the world attests to its being something much greater than an American play: it is a play that captures the universal experience of being alive.” From high school auditoriums to the Great White Way, Our Town has been touching the lives of theatre makers and audiences for decades.

SDC Journal asked director Kate Powerswhose high school production of Our Town starred director Pam MacKinnon as the Stage Manager– to speak with several directors who have worked on the play, focusing on their collaborations with Wilder, their production experiences, and why they feel this play remains one of the most universal texts in the American theatre canon.

Since Wilder’s first collaboration with Jed Harris on the play’s world premiere, countless directors have wrestled with Our Town. Their productions have shaped the history of the play and the play’s perception. I spoke with Chay Yew (Singaporean-born Artistic Director of Victory Gardens Theater), Fontaine Syer (Associate Professor of Acting and Directing at Indiana University/Bloomington), James Naughton (two-time Tony Award-winning director), and Michael Kahn (Artistic Director of Shakespeare Theatre Company) about their experiences directing Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece.

Chay Yew directed Our Town in 2008 on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. His spare production featured tables and chairs only, no trellises; and he staged the church choir scenes on the theatre’s balcony. Each performance began in daylight and ended under the stars each evening, using stage lighting to carve the otherwise empty space.

What felt unique to your experience of directing Our Town?

Directors of color rarely get opportunities to direct classic plays from the Western canon, so coming to Our Town for the first time at the age of 40 was a gift for me. I’ve never had 20 actors [to work with on a production] in my life. I could explore/create the town. I wanted to establish class, the rich people, the people across the railroad tracks.

Did you have any realizations during your process that affected your vision for the play?

Wilder spent time in China.  His use of characters with the bare stage, for me, was a sense of going home culturally. The play appears Asian in that the characters don’t speak what they really feel. The gestures are presentational.

The female characters in Wilder’s play are incredibly complex. All the choices that the women couldn’t make—the notion of hope—every rehearsal, I found more in it.  My Emily was Asian. I said to her, “You’ve never belonged. You are too smart. No one is going to marry a smart girl in this time. You can never have all that you want.” She is so willful. The Stage Manager tells her that she cannot go back and immediately she says, “I want to go back.”  She’s too smart for George.  She thinks he is Brad Pitt, asking for homework help while he’s off dating the cheerleaders.  But it turns out to be true love.  I told the cast that there are always mountains around you when you live in the valley.  The women in Grover’s Corners are more complex than the men, but they are stifled by their husbands.  What do they give up?  Mrs. Webb wants to go to Paris, but she’ll go look at the Civil War monuments one more time. The suppression is very New England, almost Victorian.  We want all our Emilys to climb those goddamn mountains.

What was the greatest challenge you faced in directing Our Town?

Keeping it surprising. Not being in the shadow of an iconic play, but treating it like a new play, letting each line surprise you, working alongside the playwright, though dead, and listening to him in each line, each space between words. I told the company of actors to discard all preconceived notions and past experiences of Our Town when they came into rehearsals, to create more complexity to the characters and give the world in which they live more potency.

Would you consider directing this play a rite of passage for directors, and, if so, why?
[Yes], but only after having lived and worked for several years. I feel the same for most Chekhov plays as well. There are many indelible life lessons in this play that one needs to experience before one can actually stage it, or even act it. There isn’t a false emotional note in the play, and you can’t manufacture them without experiencing love, regret, repression, hope, death, and life in your own personal life. You earn, you grow into Wilder, like you earn and grow into Chekhov.

What did you end up taking away from Our Town?

It’s a classic play and speaks to longing, wanting, living, breathing, dying. I felt it was so sentimental before I began, but I discovered that I loved the darkness within it.

James Naughton directed Our Town in 2002 at the Westport Country Playhouse. His production moved to Broadway later that year.

The set, designed by Tony Walton, consisted of artfully arranged sandbags and a backdrop painted to look like the bare stage of a 1930s Broadway house, complete with heating pipes and trompe l’oeil radiators. “We [set designer Tony Walton and I] tried to do what Wilder wanted for the play. We tried to be true to the intention, but I didn’t see why we couldn’t emphasize the theatricality, all the implements, the stage stuff.  I didn’t mean to show it off, but it lends itself to the subject matter, which is beautiful yet stark.  We took a chance with that.  It enhanced what we did.”

What was your first experience with Our Town?

I was probably the only actor or director in American theatre who is actually from America who didn’t spend any time working on Our Town as a young actor or student. When Joanne Woodward called me up and asked if I would consider directing it, I had to say to her, “You know what? Let me read it, because I’ve never read it. And I’ve never played in it or worked on it.” I knew of it, but it was just one of those things that I’d never seen or worked on at all. So I read it and called her the next day and said, “It’s wonderful, and I’d be happy to direct it.” I had worked with her and Paul Newman,  and we were very close friends. It was in every single way a terrific experience.

Do you consider Our Town a rite of passage?

No, not necessarily. I do think it’s wonderful if you are an American actor or director to work on a play like this, because there is something distinctly American about Wilder and his writing. I am very happy that I was able to have the experience that I had. We tried to cast as much of it as possible from our own town, from our Westport community. Frank Converse, Mia Dillon, Jayne Atkinson, Jake Robards, all of whom lived there, were in the show. We went a little further afield with Jane Curtin, who lived up the road in Connecticut, and some of the other actors lived further away in Westchester. And then we filled it up with people and children who are from our community. So it was literally in the spirit of our town.

What was your greatest challenge in directing the play?

Probably the biggest challenge that we had was to make Paul feel comfortable, because he hadn’t done anything on stage for 36 years. One of the things that we did consciously was to rehearse in a local theatre called the White Barn Theatre, because I thought that he would feel comfortable literally working on a raised stage, instead of a room some place with tape on the floor. I think that did help him. By the time we got to performance, he didn’t have to make a huge adjustment from a rehearsal room to a real theatre.

Any reflections on your vision for the play, casting, or rehearsals?

If Emily doesn’t hit it out of the park in Act III, forget it. Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut had a jingle at the time: “The wonder of it all.” I spent time with Maggie Lacey on Act III, on what Emily discovers, telling her, “Slow way down, take your time, trust that we’ll go with you.” It took a long time to get there, to the wonder of it all. You have to hand the play off to Emily; she’s gotta bring it on home.

What is your favorite line from the play?

There are a couple of lines that stick out. Simon Stimson’s, when he’s in the graveyard talking about –I always took it as a warning not to be blind and deaf to what’s going on every day—his indictment of what life is, and how we go on and we miss what is significant every day. We are consumed by our own blindness. But the line that I find most inspiring, that I quite love, happens just before that. When Emily goes back in time to when she was 12 years old, and she sees her mother and father, and she can’t bear it, because they are so beautiful and so young, and she realizes that people don’t appreciate the wonder of life. And she says to the Stage Manager, “Does anyone ever see what they are going through? Do they realize…”  I can’t remember exactly what the line is. “Is anyone ever  aware of what’s going on and not make that mistake?” And he says to her, “Well, no. Saints and poets, maybe. They do some.” I always thought that was a pretty special line.

Do you have a favorite moment in the play?

There’s this wonderful section where George meets Emily. He’s going to carry her books, and she tells him she thinks he’s a snob, and he apologizes, and then they go out for a strawberry soda, and at the end of that sequence they are engaged. I thought it was brilliant artistry by Wilder to compress the development of that relationship into 10 minutes. You go from two kids in high school where he’s carrying her books to being engaged—the awkwardness, a reconciliation, and then a proposal. And they get married. That’s really quite something.

Fontaine Syer directed Our Town at Delaware Theatre Company in October 2001, just two months after the attacks of September 11th.

“I went into it believing, or wanting to believe, that we were doing something to reinforce the community in the wake of this horror,” Syer says. “In Wilmington, a lot of people took the train into New York every day and worked in Manhattan. Many, many more than you would’ve thought. The deaths in the Wilmington community were higher than I would’ve thought. Our Town is about life and death. [Wilder] starts [the play] talking about life and death.”

Syer’s production had no scenery and no curtain, and her actors generated essential sound effects on stage. “The one indulgence was a full-stage star curtain in the back. We used the star curtain a tiny bit at the end of the first act, just oh –so faint, and then, we used it again in the graveyard, at the end, when the Stage Manager is talking about ‘every 16 hours,’ and it was gorgeous.” Tappan Wilder, executor of Thornton’s estate and witness to countless productions of Our Town, came to closing night and happened to be seated next to Syer. “As the faint stars came up behind the choir practice, I heard him say, ‘Wow.’”

What was your first experience with the play?

The first time I encountered the play in actual performance was in 1973 at the Arena Stage, directed by Alan Schneider, featuring Robert Prosky as the Stage Manager and Dianne Wiest as Emily.  I was 26 and had been spared all gooey, over-simplified, high school productions.   I became an assistant director to the production when it later toured the Soviet Union.

Do you consider Our Town a rite of passage?

Our Town is a rite of passage for anyone, if they pay attention.   It is an imaginative reminder that life is a non-stop cycle, and we’re all at different points on the ride.   Wilder is so matter of fact and down to brass tacks; many people don’t take in that the Stage Manager is talking about dying and death in the first two pages.

What was your greatest challenge in directing the play?

Communicating the scope of the play is always a challenge. I think it boils down to: if you’ve had real disappointments and real trouble in your life, you can hear the larger statements in the play. If you haven’t, you’re likely to have those larger statements flow past you. What someone brings to seeing a performance of this play makes a huge difference in what they take away.

Any reflections on your vision for the play, casting, or rehearsals?

I didn’t set out to cast a woman in the role of the Stage Manager; I just knew that I wanted Nora Chester to play the part. Nora is an actor who operates in what I dub the ‘breathing school’ of acting. You cannot see her working. You just see her being, breathing. I said very little to Nora; the best thing you can do as a director is not to get in her way. The actress who played Emily [Rachel Sledd] was talented, committed, and well-trained.  Every once in a while she started to fall into too much emotional expression in Act III; all I said was, you’ve got to save that for your trip back to Grover’s Corners. By the time you get to the graveyard, it’s already starting to be something that is no longer causing you pain.

What is your favorite line from the play?

“It goes so fast.  We don’t have time to look at one another.  O, Earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you.”

That line made a huge impact on me the first time I saw the play, and those words have kept their power all these years.   If we could really learn to realize life, we would all be much healthier—in the broadest sense of the word.

A lot of people don’t pay attention to the constant references to our lives fleeting, life being short. You never know when that final moment is going to come into your life. Wally dies on a camping trip, Emily dies in childbirth, the Civil War veterans—it’s about living but very much about dying.  If you listen, you have to think about your own life and what you’re doing with it. It’s hugely unromantic, and it tells us things that are common to all of humanity and part of that communication for me says, Pay attention. This is a true thing.  The nostalgic Americana notion comes from people who aren’t paying attention, who think Our Town is all the soda fountain scene.

Did the production’s proximity to the September 11th attacks affect the show?

While it wasn’t part of our original production design, following the September 11th attacks, I invited the community onto the stage.  We had wanted two semi-circular rows of chairs arcing along the back wall of the oval stage at Delaware Theatre Company; the acting company was going to be on stage all the time and come forward as the play required [and volunteer audience members would join them].  I went at it believing that we were going to be giving something to the community by inviting them to participate, to remind us that we live and die together in a community, but what the volunteers brought to this production, the expansion of energies and sensibilities, the expansion of the scope of the play—because you cannot have ten extra people in the graveyard who don’t speak, no one can afford it— made the play so powerful, so communicative, especially in Act III, and the wedding,  and in the choir practice. You had a sense of the people in the town. More depth of field.  It was kind of a karmic lesson.

Michael Kahn directed Our Town on a bare stage at the American Shakespeare Theatre in 1976.

Kahn had the privilege of corresponding directly with Wilder, who sent him a congratulatory letter. “He said that I must be European, because I understood his plays so well.”

What was your first experience with Our Town?

In acting class maybe. I think I saw the soda fountain scene or the scene up on the ladders. I’m pretty sure that I did the soda fountain scene in performing arts high school as an acting student.  I don’t have any big memories of when I saw it, so it may be that I’d never seen the whole play until I actually did it.

Do you consider Our Town a rite of passage?

I might have been a little old to be having a rite of passage [laughs]. I was very excited to do it, but, you know, I’d already done some one acts of Thornton’s, so I think I had already felt that I had entered into Thornton Wilder territory and that it was time to do the big one. I think that’s really what happened. I was glad to bring a play like that—an American classic—to Stratford, but I thought it was more of a rite of passage for Stratford, to put on a play like that on a stage that was called a “Shakespeare Festival.” And to say this is a classic equal to a great play by Shakespeare.

What was your greatest challenge in directing the play?

Luckily, having not seen a lot of productions of it, I didn’t have to forget or think about a sort of accretion of ideas. I thought of it as a high school valentine to Americana before I did it. I didn’t feel that way about Americana, and I didn’t feel that way about American Society—that it was all unquestionably honest and true and lovely. When I read that play, I realized that Our Town is a hard-eyed, unsentimental critique of society. For me it was finding underneath the much grittier and more critical idea, in addition to affection, that Wilder had for the country he lived in. It was uncovering that and not letting it get sentimental, which makes it much less of the play that he wrote.  And not having the characters all stereotypes—which could easily happen—and getting rid of the “aw shucks” quality that [the play] brings out in people, which I don’t think is what Wilder had in mind.

What is your favorite line from the play?

When the two kids are in their windows talking to each other. I think Emily says, “George, isn’t the moonlight terrible?” That just paints the whole scene.  Not only does it paint the picture when there is no scenery but it also tells you about their romantic yearnings and their age, and I remember that hugely. I also liked watching the mothers stringing beans. I thought that was just wonderful. We had real beans. And just doing work.  I found all of that stuff terrific. People were always busy doing something and actually dealing with what life is like, what the chores were. I found that almost as interesting as the lines.

Final thoughts?

Our Town is certainly one of the four or five great American plays, and I know that this play will always be done and will probably be done in every country, because there’s something about it that, even though it is about America, it relates to everybody all over the world. It is an extraordinary play about community—representing any community or family relationship. It has themes that every society can see. We all miss the richness of life.

In Conclusion

It’s impossible to discuss Our Town in 2013 without acknowledging David Cromer’s astonishing 2010 production of the play, which was such a visceral experience for many who saw it.  Indeed, my theatrical Twitter stream was alight with commentary about the production when I asked about the play for SDC Journal:  the bacon, the water, the bacon.  Cromer’s Our Town was staged in the intimate Barrow Street Theatre in New York, with the audience only inches away from the actors.  His actors wore modern street clothes—jeans and polar fleece—as if they were contemporary small-town New Englanders.  That is, until Emily goes back in Act III, when the audience was both visually and olfactorily (did I mention the bacon?) confronted with a palpable new understanding of Emily’s words, “So all that was going on, and we never noticed.”

Wilder wrote that, “Our Town is an attempt to find a value above price for the smallest events in our daily life.”  Perhaps we keep staging this play because each production—however immediate, however holy, however deadly (in the Peter Brook sense of the words) they may be—reminds us, at least briefly, to realize life while we live it.


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