Monday, April 9, 2012

Stop and Discern the Subtext

Goofy wigs and all, perhaps the most illuminating and affecting production of Arthur Miller's weighty play The Crucible I've yet encountered was performed by the Farmington High School Theatre Guild at the Centene Center on March 10, 2102, the final evening of a three-night run.

As the curtain rose on Act I, Scene I, a violent lightening storm processed ever nearer, dramatically perturbing the atmosphere. The pounding rain thundered volubly on the roof of the auditorium making much of the feverish onstage action inaudible, heightening the sense of witness of what came to feel like an almost documentary emotional verisimilitude, the audience in effect peeking through the window of a 17th century time capsule, straining to hear the words of a society much like our own in its cynical throes of willful disintegration. 

All production photos courtesy of director Kevin Marler

When Tituba (played by Tista Pearson, in a going-for-broke performance equal to her character's dilemma), fell to her knees screaming about "conjuring" and "chicken blood," I abandoned my seat in row K to the empty front row center, where leaning forwardelbows on knees, fists under chinI planted myself with rapt attention for the duration.

I related this scenario to director Kevin Marler, who teaches drama, public speaking, creative writing, and yearbook at Farmington High School, as well as evening courses at Mineral Area College, when he graciously met with me on the patio at 12 West for multiple cocktails and hours of inquisition about The Guild's production of The Crucible. Sticking my head in a noose of my own making, as I relate it here, I experienced my talk with the straight-shooting Mister Marler as a rare chance to be disabused of many faulty assumptions and misguided hypotheses!

FM: Now that the show is over, do you feel a sense of letdown with the return to the mundane?

Marler: I know what you mean, but that changes and tempers with age. We began work at the end of January, pushing really hard over the last month; I'm ready to relax.

FM: I have to ask, get it out of the way: have you seen Christopher Guest's spoof Waiting for Guffman?

Marler: Yes, and I love it!

FM: That's a relief. You deserve kudos for using your good will and deep roots in the community to push the envelope by staging The Crucible. [Raised eyebrow] Or are you more casual about that than I am?

Marler: I think I am. I know it's an edgy play; I've looked at doing it for years. The students themselves were motivated to do it; they saved it for the big spring show—18 players on stage.

FM: Why were they interested in The Crucible?

Marler: They'd encountered it in the PAGE's program—a middle-school program for advanced students when they were younger. They're familiar with it: if they already know something, they get excited about it. Also, the play's heavy, so deep. They'd done a lot of comedy recently, and wanted something meaty.

FM: Oh, I thought maybe they were hoping to send a message to the adults who control their lives, their futures...?

Marler: No.

 FM: I'm curious about the placement of the risers—what was the significance of their being so very far upstage? Were you hoping to make a point about the distance between the audience and action?

Marler: No. The Centene Center was constructed as a concert hall, not a theatre. We have to build the set at Truman, haul it over here, and set it up. I would have liked to bring the show closer to the audience, but I needed the curtain to hide the wings. So we lived with it.

FM: And what was your intention with the wigs, many of them askew, such obvious artifice?

Marler: They were period driven. 

FM: Okay. Many of the performances were extraordinary, both in the expression of passion and dispassion, beyond their years, or so it seemed to me. How did you assemble such a talented cast and help them arrive at such authenticity?

Marler: It's one of the things I think I do well, finding the talent and putting it where it belongs.

FM: I was bowled over by the intensity of the anguish expressed by Connor [Purkett who played John Proctor].

Marler: Yes, well with him it was a matter of trimming him back.

FM: And the eroticism between Proctor and Abigail [nimbly played by MaKayla Godat].

Marler: That's difficult. With kids, when you don't want them fooling around, you can't stop them; but to get it on the stage, that's the hard part, to release their inhibitions. They're petrified. This was MaKayla's first show. It takes them a while to define themselves as actors, and step out and really do something. I help them tone it.

FM: How do you tone it?

Marler: I know what I want to see and hear and feel, when I need them to push it harder. Every actor is different. I can tell Gracie [Minnis, who played Mary Warren with such range, authority and finesse] something one time and she gets it.

FM: You give them line readings? Tell them how to say it?

Marler: Sometimes I have to. I have to clarify, I have to help them understand, especially in the fighting lines. They're too young and inexperienced, you have to stop and discern the subtext so they get a clearer picture of what's necessary. With Connor, for instance, I had to repeatedly tell him to back off, soften up on it, Proctor's no he-man. He was coming on too strong. Proctor's also helpless and frustrated in the face of the injustice bearing down on his family; I had to urge Connor to give his anguish a context, an emotional context.

Teenagers always think they know best. They're looking for power, confidence. Part of my job is trying to get them to believe in what they're doing. There are small success stories that people in the audience don't see. But I know what I've got, where we started, how far I've moved them. A director has to have a picture in his head, almost like in a movie. But the realities of high school will throw a bucket of cold water on that real fast.

Every director goes in with a vision and you get as close to it as you can, then see what happens. With the more seasoned ones, you can let them go and find it themselves—that feels good! But sometimes you have to explain things, a lot. Other times, you just put them together and let them run. Especially if they know me and they know each other, they can get there themselves, they know what I want. And that's a good thing.

FM: I want to ask you about the word “awesome” which I thank you for not using, and language impoverishment. In truth, the main reason I went to see the play was to get an infusion of language; I was craving an antidote to the chronic exposure to the A-word, for me something akin to being forced to breathe in second-hand smoke. I confess I was there unaccompanied on a Saturday night hungry for heightened language—complex, literary and theatrical. That the show itself was so riveting came as a total surprise, a welcome and delightful one.  Especially the actors' facility with language: unfamiliar historical words, words of jurisprudence and religion, odd turns of phrase, long sentences and speeches containing contradictory sentiments. They managed it all with aplomb.

Marler: “Awesome” is not in my vocabulary—it's too “ya-ya-ish.” As for language impoverishment, I agree...sometimes the students will sit side-by-side or just across the room and text each other instead of speaking face-to-face. The impoverishment is a result of the whole technological world of social interaction in which they live. I tell them this is one more thing to contend with, they didn't do it to themselves, it was our generation who gave them their cellphones, laptops and the rest of it—Facebook, Tweeting. It's a constant battle, constant distraction. They don't care about anything other than their little social world. They're young, free-spirited, without a sense of responsibility, saying whatever they want without consequences; it's a way of being mean to each other.

Theatre helps. They have to consider meaning, subtext, understanding. I love seeing that happen. Their language faculty is innate, but those who are articulate are so because they read. With musical theatre, singing, interpreting things—they immerse themselves in language. And at this age, I work with them on articulation, projection, their stage voice presentation, pacing; are they too fast, too slow?

The beauty of doing high school theatre is watching them grow into what you saw, and then the process starts again with a new group. Getting people up on the stage for the first time, then getting them a little seasoned, always thinking ahead. Even with the show itself, I anticipate problems, and when they happen, in my mind I already have it solved; my role calls for a lot of strategic thinking and preparation. If this one drops out, who can I move in? How will this role help student x, y, or z prepare for a greater role in next year's show?

FM: What about the politics in the play? You mentioned in the program that you viewed the play “as a timely parable of our own contemporary issues of society today.”

Marler: While I'm passionate about everything I do, for me the overall message of the play is about the perils of extremism—left or right, or whatever—with extremism it always go bad. We saw in this that the Puritans weren't so pure, their judgmental behavior, their assessments of “I'm good; you're bad.” I'm always seeking the common ground.

FM: But in the play's own terms, the hangings only stopped with the looming example of the rebellion in nearby Andover...!

Marler: Yes, the pressure to find a way out was tremendous.

FM: During rehearsals, I'm curious, did the students make any correlations between the action or message of the play and the gunning down of Callion Hamblin on the public's streets on February 20th?

Marler: No. For them it was a piece of local excitement, not an act of oppression. We don't do plays for that purpose...pushing the envelope. We did The Crucible because it was an award-winning American play by Arthur Miller.

FM: What about the social edge, Miller's use of the word “fornication?”

Marler: I didn't censor it; it's not a bad word. I censored the crap out of Of Mice and Men, especially the word “nigger” which was prevalent in a play about prejudice and inequality. But we can't have the good without the bad, can't show the right things without showing the wrong.

Adults can be out of touch with the teen mind. The kids aren't given the credit they deserve. I censor when I have to, but as my mentor always told me: “Ignorant people shouldn't go to the theatre!”

FM: Did you go into Arthur Miller's biography with the kids, his experiences being called to testify before the House Un-American Affairs Committee during the McCarthy era?

Marler: No, I did not. We did research into the historical characters as part of playing their roles. Then we talked about their perception of the characters.

FM: What crucible or crucibles do your students see themselves facing?

Marler: They don't look that far down the road.

FM: Do you?

Marler: Yes I do. I'm always wondering, what's the next group going to bring? As for this one...strongly, they stepped up, up and out of the shadows. That pleased me most.

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