Why we do what we do

In previous posts, I’ve shared some background for Geva‘s productions of You Can’t Take It With You and Freud’s Last Session, the first two productions in our 40th anniversary season, as well as 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, in the Nextstage. I thought that it might be interesting, this week, to take a step back and look at why we’re doing the all of the shows that will make up our season. If you want the full information on any show, take a peek at our website. For this post, I’ve asked this season’s directors to share their passion for each show with us.

You Can’t Take It With You
Artistic Director Mark Cuddy will start the season off directing this 1930’s classic comedy. When I asked him what about this play interested him, he responded:
“Pundits have declared that the last four years of this new millennium have been akin to the 1930’s when the Great Depression altered the financial, social, and cultural landscapes of America. The uncertainty, the sacrifice, the realignment that cut across Americans then, is felt so deeply now. Everyone wants to know, “what is the new normal?”
You know, I think that’s the wrong question to ask: to attempt to define it. The very concept of “normal” is being exploded every day in every way, so why worry about it? The Sycamores of You Can’t Take It With You certainly don’t. The whole family follows Grandpa’s lead as they pursue their passions with the joy and warmth of a protected species. Love and respect are the only rules at the Sycamores. If you want to collect snakes or write plays or sell candy or make fireworks, so be it. And when strangers wander into their home, they find that same refuge from the cruel world outside. They find their place. Like those of us who work in theatre.
That’s where I want to live, too. That’s why I love this play.
When Mr. Kirby, the Wall Street titan, states that he has spent his entire life building up his business, Grandpa responds “And what’s it got you? Same kind of mail every morning, same kind of meals, same kind of meetings, same dinners at night, same indigestion…Don’t you think there ought to be something more, Mr. Kirby? You must have wanted something more than that when you started out. We haven’t got too much time, you know – any of us.”

44 Plays for 44 Presidents (in the Nextstage)
Sean Daniels joins the Geva staff this year, as our “artist at large,” and director of artistic engagement. I asked him to talk about 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, his Geva directing debut. “It’s an American Civics lesson in 2 hours. It’s the story of the choices we’ve made as a county. And before we get ready to make the next choice, it’s great to look back and see what we think of our past choices…I’ve directed the play twice before. When we did it for Jimmy Carter (in 2002) and he laughed all thru the Ronald Reagan piece, when we did in Louisville (2008) we asked Louisville audiences to pick the 44th president (McCain won all the matinees and Obama won the night shows) and every night an almost fight and a true conversation broke out! It was a brief moment where we could talk about our differences and our similarities in the long view.  Which brings us to this production – we are partnering with Rock The Vote and the local colleges in an attempt to use this piece let younger artists talk to younger voters – and create dialogue and conversation and chaffing before they get so settled into their ideology  that anyone who disagrees must be un-friended stat. And it’s part of a national festival I’m organizing playsforpresidents.com – from Geva to Little Rock High School ( the same school where Eisenhower sent in the national guard for the Little Rock Nine in 1957). There will be 44 productions of this happening around the country. Voter advocacy around the country, now that’s sexy.”

Freud’s Last Session
I asked Skip Greer, Geva’s artist in residence and director of education why he was excited to direct this one. “Well, there are a number of reasons, really. First, the question of the existence of God, and of the mystery of life after death are two of the universal issues that we all must face at some point in our lives, whether we like it or not. Playwright Mark St. Germain has given us an intoxicating dialogue between two of the leading minds of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, as they use diametrically opposed viewpoints to wrestle with these very questions. How does the believer explain Hitler, and how does the non-believer explain Jesus? These potent questions can help navigate us through life’s biggest challenges. Second, the relationship between religion and politics, between church and state, grows more precarious with each passing year. The faith/science debate is creeping steadily into our politics – to the point that even the theory of evolution and how it’s to be taught is increasingly called into question. This may become the greatest debate of our generation, and Freud’s Last Session places us in the middle of that confrontation. Finally, perhaps what is most important to me is that Freud and Lewis are able to use their exhilarating discourse in a civil manner to develop a heartfelt respect for each other in their brief time together. This play is a fine example of two opposing forces ultimately respecting each other’s point of view, and respecting their right to hold that point of view. I find that civility sorely lacking in our country’s national debate, and that’s a reason to be doing the play right now. Well, that combined with the great humor in the play – and the fact that Ken Tigar and Ron Menzel, whom I believe to be two of the finest actors on the planet, have agreed to play Freud and Lewis respectively – has me chomping at the bit to begin rehearsals in September. I’m already relishing the exploration.”

A Christmas Carol
I asked Mark Cuddy to talk about what intrigues him about A Christmas Carol, which he adapted in 2011 with Gregg Coffin. “All the cliches about it are true.  It’s a story about redemption, and my favorite Shakespeare plays are the romances, the final plays, where someone is given a second chance. That redemptive spirit, I think it’s very American – we give people second chances all the time. I think that’s something that’s in us. We root for people to undergo some sort of spiritual change. Dickens wrote a number of indelible characters, but Scrooge is unlike any other. He is timeless, because there’s a part of Scrooge in everybody. Dickens created this man who is so seemingly apart from the human race, but that people really love, that you want to be in the theatre with him, and you want him to get that second chance at life. Dickens called the play a ghost story of Christmas, but to me it feels more magical than ghostly – a celebration of miracles, and of the generous spirit.”

Next To Normal
This musical, a co-production with the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, will be directed by Scott Schwartz. Here’s what Scott had to say about Next to Normal.
“Next to Normal is one of the most important musicals of the last decade.  It has this thrilling pop-rock score (that won a Tony Award), but it also has the depth and complexity of a play.  At its core, it’s a powerful family drama, and I’m most excited to explore that. There are really three key themes I find in the work that I think will speak to audiences:  the theme of loss and how we deal with loss, not only the loss of a loved one, but the loss of one’s dreams, the loss of one’s self.  All of us have dealt with loss in one way or another, and this play follows characters who are all experiencing some type of loss and who are dealing with it in different ways.  Our sense of family and home – what is the nature of home, both the light and the dark side?  On the positive side, it’s a place of protection, of support.  On the negative side, it can also feel like a prison.  People in your family can try to keep you from being who you really are.   And, I want audiences to be confronted with the question – what does it really mean to be normal?  Is there such a thing as “normal,” or is it something we’ve manufactured? I think audiences will see themselves in the piece and in the characters.”

The Whipping Man
Tim Ocel is a long-time Geva director, and will be directing the co-production (with Indiana Repertory Theatre) of The Whipping Man. Tim’s response to me follows:
“I look forward to working on The Whipping Man because the play will give me the opportunity (a forum?) to discuss race…and to a certain extent, religion: two concepts that are confusing the heck out of us here in the United States.   I don’t even know what that means, really: to discuss race.  I’m a white male who was raised Catholic and is now agnostic.  How can I understand and tell the story of two former slaves and their former master, on top of which, all three of these guys are Jewish?   Empathy, imagination, and trusting the playwright helps.
One of the productions I directed for Indiana Repertory Theatre (IRT) recently was Romeo and Juliet.  IRT wanted the Capulets black and the Montagues white in order to provoke a discussion about race.  I don’t think I was particularly qualified to lead that discussion, and in hindsight I’m not sure I thought it was my discussion to lead because I’m not black.  I was afraid.  And that was a lost opportunity.  What I should have done was openly ask my cast all the questions I had about having the discussion starting with “What is the discussion and is this my discussion to lead?” and continued from there.  I’m happy that David Alan Anderson is in The Whipping Man cast; he played Capulet in Romeo and Juliet.  I’m hoping that as we continue our artistic intersection, we can crack open some ideas about the discussion of race.
What is a discussion about race?  I don’t know if it’s a discussion of our differences or our similarities.  Is it a discussion of history or of contemporary times?  Ethnicity and race are different, aren’t they?  Or do those two words mean the same thing even though they technically mean different thing (we use the phrase “racial profiling” but we mean “ethnic profiling”…don’t we?)  I think we…the world…hasn’t a clue as to how to begin a discussion about race much less come up with a way to eliminate to racism.  We don’t know what to talk about.  We don’t know what it means to have an African-American president. We don’t know how to rejoice in our points of intersection or to hand shake on our points of departure.  We’re so afraid of giving unintended offense or looking stupid, we avoid the simple exchange of thoughts…that is unfortunate, because it is the actual act of exchange that will change the world.  In the play the master/slave relationship no longer exists, so the play asks: what are we now, what is our vocabulary with each other, how do we exist as equals together?  Are all men created equal?  Yes, we are.
One of the terrific things about The Whipping Man is that it’s a new play, with a contemporary sounding language, but it takes place in an historical context; it’s counterbalanced between then and now…and reveals that we still need to figure out how to survive together.   The final image of the play is incredibly strong.  I won’t spoil it for you by giving it away.  My desire (and my job) is to tell a group of strangers (the audience) as clear a telling of the story as possible, so that when Matthew Lopez ends his play, the final image is carried by the audience into the next round of conversation.”

The Book Club Play
Sean Daniels, Geva’s “artist at large” will make his Geva mainstage debut with The Book Club Play. “I think this is one of the great new comedies of our time, as it deals with the realization that all of us face in our thirties…that our lives may not be as interesting as we had hoped….so these characters do what some people do – make up some drama to keep it going. In the way that Avenue Q was one of the first shows to successfully tackle the year right after college, this does the same thing to your thirties. I also turn 40 while we’re doing this, so I feel I’m uniquely qualified to comment and mock people in their 30’s…..those young whipper-snappers. GET OFF MY LAWN!”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
It’s an experiment they’ve never tried before. Artistic director Mark Cuddy and artist in residence Skip Greer are co-directing this one.  Here’s what Skip had to say: “Here are 10 words that quickly leap to mind when I think of A Midsummer Night’s DreamLove, foolishness, transformation, texture, supernatural, terror, innocence, youth, discovery and illusion.  Now who wouldn’t want to work on a play that combines all of those elements with some of the greatest language ever written – into a single evening of theatre? By transforming each of the characters in his play, Shakespeare also transforms all of us, the audience. First, by transporting us to his forest, a wondrous place filled with illusion, discovery, texture, terror, foolishness, and the supernatural.  And then, by using the happenings of that forest, he reminds all of us of our own innocence, youth, and love.   When we walk out of Midsummer we’ve been handed a new lens with which to view the world. A lens that allows us to see what’s really important in our lives – a reason to put our arm around the person sitting next to us, or to hold someone’s hand on the way home after the show. That’s why I want to work on this play.   I want to spend two months peering through that lens and letting it affect my life the way John Cariani’s Almost, Maine did three seasons ago. Oberon, Titania, Puck, the four young lovers, and Bottom with his rude mechanicals all lead us on our journey toward a new appreciation.  Midsummer reminds us that love is a risk every day, or it’s nothing at all.”

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