Dreamwell - Dreamwell Theatre has a long history in Iowa City. It's known for producing lesser known works such as Kimberly Akimbo by David Lindsay-Abaire or controversial works such as Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi. Its venues have ranged from the Unitarian Universalist Society building to the upper level of Old Capitol Mall to Old Brick. They rarely have sell out crowds and there have even been a few times over the past decade when the actors outnumbered the audience. Yet still they persevere as new faces join their board and old friends depart. They have a few things in common. They are all volunteers. And they all love theatre.
In 2009, for the first time in history, Dreamwell will present a season of shows around a common theme. They describe as a season of "inciting theatre". The four shows they've chosen to incite us with are An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, The Drag by Mae West, Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge, and Master Harold and the Boys by Athol Fugard. I recently had a chance to sit down and discuss this new direction for the theatre with artistic directors Chuck Dufano and Rachael Lindhart and past president of the board Brian Tanner.
Could you explain what you mean by "inciting theatre"?
Rachael: I'd say that we wanted to select plays that have incited responses in some drastic way(s)--perhaps because audiences disagreed with and felt threatened by them, or perhaps because playwrights responded to audience reaction and criticism of their work. It seems to have gone both ways.
Chuck: Yes, these were all plays that at the time they premiered they were subject to controversy or were immediately shut down. What we think will be interesting is that when these plays are seen by people today they'll wonder, "What's the big deal?" It is in this way we're hoping to illustrate to audiences how theatre both reflects the views of the time and can be an instrument of change.
Why are all the shows going with that theme?
Rachael: We felt it would be possible to choose plays of great variety in this context and be in keeping with the mission of Dreamwell: to be a theatre of exploration and discovery. What plays have incited audiences of the past and will they do the same (or something different) in the present? Of course, we tried to choose plays that we felt would NOT now be hopelessly dated, or prove staid and boring in our own time. In other words, plays that are historically "inciting" but are still good plays with enduring themes. The plays chosen go from 1882 through 1982 and from Stockholm to rural Ireland to NYC in the Roaring '20s to Johannesburg with apartheid very much in effect. What a journey in time and space we feel that this will be!
Chuck: And I especially agree that these are still good plays with enduring themes. A play that merely presents controversial subject matter can become boring once the shock wears off. These playwrights each wove an excellent story that touches on the basics of comedy or drama; things that still make us laugh or evoke sorrow.
Dreamwell doesn't normally do a season theme--why the change?
Brian: When Chuck and Rachael first brought this idea to the board, I was excited about the idea from the start. I don't think it was doing a theme for the sake of doing a theme, but I think this is a topic of significance for theatre in general, and particulary for ours. Dreamwell has always striven to be cutting edge and not always playing it safe. I think it's good to take a look back at shows that have broken new ground before, to examine them and see if what made them controversial at the time would remain controversial today. When we've done that, we can look at modern plays from a different perspective. Will the shows that are shocking now, still be so in 10, 20, 50 years? Were they shocking for merely for the sake of being shocking or did they advance our culture? Will the ideas expressed still be relevant or will they be archaic? I'm really looking forward to the discussions that should come out of viewing these shows next season.
Rachael: I agree about looking forward to discussions that we hope will come out of doing these plays.
We all recognize An Enemy of the People is a classic - what is it about it that made you choose to include it?
Rachael: The "inciting theatre" theme is, I think, interpreted relatively broadly in our selections. An Enemy of the People was written by Ibsen in the wake of vitriolic criticism in the press of his play Ghosts. So the playwright was "incited" to write the play, so to speak. Of course, Ibsen wrote a number of play that were very controversial in their time: A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler being, of course, at the forefront of the list. Enemy is a great choice for our season from among Ibsen plays for another couple of reasons. One is because of the relevance that the theme of environmental crisis surely has in our present time when we are daily made aware of the potential (and real) damages of global warming. It is at the center of this play as well as the theme of the individual against the majority.
Mae West wrote plays? Seriously? How did you find that show?
Chuck: Actually, if Mae West hadn't been a playwright it is likely no one today would ever have heard of her. It was by performing her own work that she became noticed. I found this play after reviewing several plays with a homosexual theme. Homosexuality is frequently the subject of many plays today, but it is hardly as controversial as it once was. In fact, we originally considered doing The Boys in the Band but after reading more about it, we discovered it was actually a great success at its premiere in 1968 and had a good run. But in doing this research I found a number of references to earlier homosexual-themed plays that were not as well received which lead me to find The Drag.
Rachael: Mae West not only wrote plays, but she wrote plays that were the first to portray gay men at all seriously on the American stage. And she produced these plays herself and backed them to the hilt. Several of them were closed down immediately after opening and she paid lots of money to bail out the actors and get the shows going again. In other words, she was a real champion of controversial themes in the theatre. We couldn't ask for a better examplar for "inciting theatre."
Now Playboy of the Western World is referred to as a "poetic drama" on your website. How is it poetic?
Rachael: I'd have to say that it is poetic mostly because it's Irish--and comes from that long literary tradition of lilting speech that can't help being poetic. The reason that the play is included in this season is because, when it premiered in Dublin, it literally caused riots and had to be taken off. The Irish audience was incensed by Synge's portrayal (however poetic) of a rural Ireland of ignorant people where a young man was celebrated for killing his father. But the play eventually was revived and is a landmark in Irish theatre. Especially when you think of the events of individual plays, the work of a modern Irish playwright like Martin Mcdonagh, especially plays like The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West, were made possible today because of Synge's work. It is also a beautiful example of comedy as a tool of incitement!
Q: Last but not least, Master Harold is the most recent of the plays. Were you trying to get plays from different time periods?
Chuck: No, actually, it just turned out this way. But the significant point your question brings out is that inciting theatre still occurs in modern times. Remember, Master Harold and the Boys premiered in 1982, which is only 26 years ago. We can look at examples of other inciteful plays in even more recent years that have been performed locally. I remember when Dreamwell Theatre did Corpus Christi by Terrence McNally which premiered in 1998. When we did it in 2001 I heard that there were still parts of the United States where theaters received threats when performing this play... we didn't have any trouble. I also remember when followers of Fred Phelps came to Iowa City in 2003 to protest Riverside Theatre's production of The Laramie Project. Fortunately, the anti-protesters far outnumbered the protesters, but still, who would've ever thought you'd have to elbow through a crowd to get to the theatre?
Rachael: Chuck is right--we didn't deliberately plan to do plays from different time periods, especially because Dreamwell has done several recent controversial plays--such as Corpus Christi. However, Athol Fugardis a playwright who has incited a lot of controversy world-wide, but especially in South Africa. Under apartheid, his plays were banned there--especially Sizwe Bonsi Is Dead and The Blood Knot. I wanted to do Master Harold because it is, I feel, the most accessible of his plays; that is, a play which our audiences can most easily relate to. Most of us have never lived under apartheid, but we have been adolescent and lost our innocence about the world and about race relations in our own sphere. So this play seemed a natural choice for a season of "inciting" plays.
Talk a little bit more about the selection process you go through for a season. How many plays do you read? How do you choose them?
Chuck: I guess I don't think of it as much as a "process" as that it's just a couple of friends talking about theatre over breakfast on Saturday mornings. Rachael and I meet up once a week or so at a local restaurant and either she'll mention a play she knows, saw or heard about or I'll mention a play I know, saw or heard about. And from there we think "wouldn't this one or that one be great to check out!" I know this all sounds so academic, but one we get going only our waitress can distract us and even then it's only if the English muffins have been toasted twice for extra crispness. But in between our meetings we each read plays, both published and unpublished--and I can't tell you how many we've read (more than a few; less than a hundred). But we read plays and then get together to share our dramatic interpretations and look at what seems feasible for Dreamwell, such as considering any technical problems, other concerns, or stressing that this is a play Dreamwell absolutely needs to do.
Rachael: Thanks, Chuck, for describing the process so well! I would only add one thing to that description and say that I think we both try also to see as many productions and as much theatre as we can. That is an important part of the process--not only for us to familiarize ourselves with a lot of theatrical material, but to see how that materials seems to work onstage in front of an audience. We try to keep ourselves current with what's being done and how it is received. You can never see too many plays, is my motto! Thanks for giving us a chance to talk with blog readers about our season. We are really excited about it!
Thank you all for giving us the inside scoop!
For more information about Dreamwell's next season, go here.