Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sunday Read: First Person - Joel Greenberg on Clybourne Park

Maria Ricossa (Bev), Audrey Dwyer (Francine) Joel Greenberg (Director) (photo credit: Robert Harding)

Clybourne Park has an unapologetic approach to uncomfortable issues
by Joel Greenberg

 Studio 180 Theatre is dedicated to plays of social and political purpose. Currently in our 9th season, past productions have addressed homophobia and hate (The Laramie Project), the Middle East (The Arab-Israeli Cookbook), sexual obsession and predatory behaviour (Blackbird), the Rwandan genocide (The Overwhelming), the Bush administration's ramp up to the invasion of Iraq (Stuff Happens), virulent anti-Semitism (Our Class) and the early years of the AIDS epidemic (The Normal Heart). All of these plays have demanded considerable advance research and the rehearsal process itself included a variety of similar tools - film, archival materials, professional speakers, etc.

Clybourne Park, the play we are about to present, is a departure for me. To start, it is a play with a very traditional-seeming structure and setting: the play is set in a modest home that has doors, stairs, windows. All of our past projects have been far less realistic than Bruce Norris' award-winning take on race and real estate in the America of 1959 (act one) and 2009 (act two). Whereas previous productions demanded enormous fluidity between scenes, often using chairs and tables to transform locations in choreographed style, Clybourne Park stays put. Nothing shifts - apart from our sensibilities and attitudes, sparked without warning by the playwright - until intermission when the setting reflects a lapse of 50 years - same house, different world. Clybourne Park is also a play that doesn't invite the degree of advance research typical of earlier projects.

But there is considerable preparation before matters related to staging and research.

The style of the play - a serious comedy - was another powerful factor.

The selection of a production is paramount, of course. The tone of a project is dictated by the material itself, and Clybourne Park struck an immediate chord because of its unapologetic approach to uncomfortable issues. The style of the play - a serious comedy - was another powerful factor. I read plays constantly, hoping to find scripts that fit our mandate while they enlighten and, most of all, as they entertain. Combining a degree of education with entertainment is a real challenge, so when a play like Norris' comes along you hope to hell that you can acquire the performing rights. And for a company like mine that can be perceived as an ethical barometer where humour is to be left at the door, Clybourne Park is an exciting and necessary change of tone and voice. By the way, we are not an ethical barometer and laughter has as much place in our work as anyone's.

Kimwun Perehinec (Lindsey) Joel Greenberg (Director)
Mark McGrinder (Steve) (photo by Robert Harding)
Once the rights were ours, casting the play was the next essential piece. And for Clybourne Park I was fortunate to have been able to cast 6 of the 7 roles with actors who have been in previous productions of ours. Two of these actors, Kimwun Perehinec and Mark McGrinder, are core artistic members of the company. In fact, this is the first time that I have been working with such a familiar cast - in the past I have more often started rehearsing without having worked with the majority of the acting company. And that lack of shared history, while not unusual in this business, adds a level of stress that isn't at play this time. The same is true for the entire creative team - we have established our working relationship with each other, we know the shorthand.

And now we are in the transitional period, moving from the rehearsal hall onto the stage. The rhythms change as we shift from a daytime to an afternoon/evening schedule. And the immediate focus for all of us is set, lighting, sound and all other elements that will breathe stage life into what, to date, has been spare and representative. It's an exciting transition but also one that causes me the most anxiety. While the rehearsal hall has been pretty much stripped down - lots of props to play with (some facsimiles of what will be created for the performances themselves), costume bits and pieces, furniture sitting in for the 'real' stuff yet to come - this week is dedicated to accommodating the new realities. And in a play that requires doors that slam, stairs that get climbed and a few technical surprises that can only happen in the theatre, our collected attention is now more on these details than on the text.

So, that's where we are right now. Audiences arrive next week, April 2 being our first. And I hope, as I'm sure we all do, that audiences will derive as much pleasure during their two hours with us as we have enjoyed in each other's  company this past month.

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