Our Town, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
- Credit: Archant
Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer prize winning play calls for no scenery, no curtain and no props so its perfect to stand in for the hamlet of Grover’s Corners in Regent’s Park
Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer prize winning Our Town calls for no scenery, no curtain and no props.
Perfect then for Regent's Park Open Air Theatre to stand in for the hamlet of Grover's Corners.
His delicate tale of small town American families at the turn of the 20th century celebrates the universality and bittersweet nature of human existence while highlighting the constructs of theatre and storymaking itself.
Ellen McDougall has longed to direct a production: "I just love the play. When I first saw it, I wanted to ring my mum and say 'hello.' It sets you thinking about the people you love in you life, how much quality time we give them, and how important a community is. That idea of community feels incredibly important right now."
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Experimental when written in 1938, the three act drama of lovers George and Emily who meet, marry and part, is introduced by a Stage Manager who is putting on the play in our very theatre, and talks directly to the audience.
Wilder felt the overblown Broadway fare of his day was "inadequate and evasive" and saw his characters as "halfway abstractions in an allegory".
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McDougall loves the humanity and poetry of a piece which shows audiences a story rather than trying to persuade them it's real.
"Wilder talked about 'box theatre' as deliberatey designed to be comforting for an audience, where they can be moved but not feel it really affects them. He was interested in how the Greeks and Elizabethans told stories, with barely any furniture on stage. There was a feeling of shared space and complicity.
"The stage manager tells the audience; 'I want you to remember being young, that feeling of falling in love', then we watch the scene where that happens. It's asking us to actively participate in it. Because it transcends the boundaries of time and space, you think about the millions of people who have gone before and will come after who have done that."
Wilder insisted this story of life love and death was played without sentimentality, and McDougall agrees it's about tone.
"These lives are maybe insignificant compared to classical characters, but it's about digging deep into those small experiences and the life of a small community and trusting the humanity of it.
"It has an incredible power that's hard to pinpoint. It's moving and joyful but you don't need to explain to an audience that it's sad or joyful - we all know when our emotions are being manipulated - we hope they are meeting us in it rather than us pushing it along."
With a diverse cast and acapella singing which revels in the warmth of human voices, McDougall may not follow Wilder's stage instructions "to the letter" but insists she's honouring his intentions and ideas about "what theatre should and can do."
"He's written something that understands the constructs of theatre, the form is also political. It's an imaginary place and time, a community that stands for so many others, we are all here now telling this human story and the people telling it should be as diverse as possible."
Ultimately she says Our Town looks at how people coexist across many differences and what "individualism and capitalism has done to the way we think about ourselves and each other."
"For me it's about humanity; Do we ever realise life while we are living it? How often do we really ask the questions that we want to or talk to each other about what's important or in our hearts? We are hard wired to avoid those emotional conversations but what is the cost of not having them? The play feels like a prayer to see each other clearly."
As previews approach in a wet May McDougall is "completely fine" about being a hostage to fortune to the British weather.
"Whatever happens with the weather it works for the play. They talk about the weather all the time, if it's doing what we say it's doing, it's ok. If it's doing the opposite, that's fine too."
Our Town runs until June 8, Bookings at openairtheatre.com