Audience Dramaturgy: Your Turn to Ask Questions about PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

By Anne Flinders

One of the traditions at BYU theatre productions is the weekly Thursday night post-show discussion. The post-show discussion is always a great way to get a behind-the-scenes peak at how a play is put together. Any audience members who choose to do so are invited to remain after a play to visit with the cast members and designers and ask them questions about their work.

Director Barta Heiner and playwright Melissa Leilani Larson enjoy a moment during a post-show discussion following a performance of BYU's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

Director Barta Heiner and playwright Melissa Leilani Larson enjoy a moment during a post-show discussion following a performance of BYU’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

Last week the first post-show discussion was held for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and there was a great turnout. The event was moderated by the production dramaturg, Anne Flinders. Members of the audience asked the cast questions about things like acting choices, their preparation for playing particular characters, and their training in manners and customs for the period and the society the play represents. The designers were asked about their research and choices for their work. Even the audience was asked a few questions about their engagement with the play, and had an opportunity to share bits their experience with this new production with the cast and crew.

As a special treat, Thursday’s post-show discussion included an appearance by the playwright, Melissa Leilani Larson, and the director, Barta Heiner. Audience members took advantage of the opportunity to ask these women about their work, and got some interesting insight into the collaborative process of producing a new work of theatre.

A final post-show discussion is scheduled for Thursday, April 3rd, following curtain call, and will be moderated by BYU’s dramaturgy specialist, Janine Sobeck. Audience members are welcome to stay after the show, and those who may have already seen the play are also invited to return and join in.

We are nearing the close of the run of Brigham Young University’s world premiere of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE adapted by Melissa Leilani Larson. The play is sold out. Stand-by tickets may still be available minutes prior to curtain, but there is no guarantee.

Animals Backstage at Pride and Prejudice Rehearsal

Excerpts from an article by Marvin Payne (appearing as Mr Bennet in BYU’s production of Pride and Prejudice)

Marvin Payne

Marvin Payne

I’m in rehearsals for a production of Pride and Prejudice “down to the BY,” as my wife’s grandfather would have said. I’m Mr Bennet (the British don’t punctuate “Mr”). For rehearsals involving only the Bennet family, I’ve typically been the only guy in the room—totally female family, female director, female production staff, and two female dramaturgs.

A word about dramaturgs: Good luck defining what the heck one is, besides brainy and nice and one of them has a dog that acts (in this very show!). I think the definition of “dramaturg” is something you feel rather than try to articulate. And it takes a certain kind of person to feel it.

On a recent Thursday evening our director, Barta Heiner, gave us an assignment: Carefully research and choose an animal that your character might be if your character was an animal. Don’t tell anybody what it is, but come early on Saturday morning prepared for an “acting exercise.” Everybody else probably had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Not me.

I wasn’t able to think of as many as five animals to choose from, let alone an animal who embodied the essential characteristics of an English country gentleman living in a high estrogen zone. So I asked Mr Google “What kind of animal would my character be?” Instantly I had at my fingertips a few dozen quizzes I could take that would determine the answer scientifically, unanimously, incontrovertibly. So I just started answering the questions the way I knew Mr Bennet would. The first quiz concluded that Mr Bennet was a wolf. I took another. It affirmed that Mr Bennet was an unspecified bird. The third quiz made him a dolphin, the fourth a bear, and the fifth quiz (the first one wherein the questions were composed with conventional grammar) identified Bennet as a mole.

Actually, mole attracted me, because the site said that both Bob Dylan and John Lennon were moles. But I wasn’t confident I could pull it off, so I took a sixth quiz. It said “Cat” and something inside me went “ping” in an affirmative manner. Cats are something this actor can take or leave, but here are the parallels: Mr Bennet is mostly about emotional hiding out. See the cat, when something chaotic is happening, tiptoeing off to somewhere the heck else.  Also, cats have retractable claws which are mostly retracted but can, in a crisis, un-retract them.

And fundamental to cats is this totally unearned sense of dignity. Carrying themselves erect, landing on their feet, moving among lesser creatures as though they, the cats, never doubted for a moment their absolute superiority—a superiority born, not out of accomplishment or even aspiration, but merely out of being cats. The hereditary aristocracy of early nineteenth-century England is just like this (without whiskers).

Here’s how it went down that Saturday morning. We all lay on tumbling mats on the floor with the lights dimmed. The company, who seemed to know innately exactly what to do, had arranged big black blocks of varying proportions in almost random patterns, some forming little walls, some tunnels, some leaning on others in diagonal ways. In the silence, with our eyes closed, we followed Barta’s instructions to breathe in energy and breathe out tension. We were allowed to endow these gasses with colors, if we thought it might help. This was not general, lung-centric breathing, but was dispensed to every part of our persons from toenails to the hair follicles upon our heads.

Once we had reached a meditative state that would have made the Beatles jealous, we were invited to contemplate our chosen animals. I thought, “How could I possibly be more ready for the acting exercise?” Still on the mats, after some contemplation of our critters, we were invited to admit them into our bodies and allow them to take over.

That’s when the fur hit the fan. Instantly I was surrounded by a frighteningly authentic menagerie. All my Bennet daughters and my Bennet wife were flying things, warbling and tweeting and quacking. Only Elizabeth, Mr Bennet’s favorite, the one with whom he has an emotional and intellectual bond, was not a flying thing. She was—get this—a lioness. A cat just like dad, but bigger and better! Remember we didn’t tell anybody what we were gonna be? Slam dunk!

The other lioness was Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Imagine what happened when those two met up! Lady Catherine’s sickly daughter was a fawn, cowering next to a controlling mother who might at any moment devour her. Darcy and Bingley, as wolf and dog respectively, rough-housed so authentically that Bingley emerged with bleeding knees.

Mr Collins’s meerkat was astounding, snaking about underground and then poking up, glassy-eyed, into the risky world like a, well, a meerkat. There wasn’t a trace of human in the whole guy. It was at once beautiful and deeply scary.

For the first half of the morning, Barta thought I was an orangutan. Mr Bennet’s second youngest daughter, Kitty, never did let go of the impression that I was a penguin. But I’m taking comfort in the fact that nobody thought I was a dramaturg.

I was so astounded by the talent and abandon and commitment of these players that I could hardly remember to purr, and mostly forgot that cats walk on all fours. I felt like somebody had tossed me a paper helmet and shoved me out onto the grass in LaVell Edwards Stadium, with Cougars bearing down on me from one direction and screaming Utes from another. More than once I reflected with relief that I’d chosen an animal who hides. Which I did. A lot.

At the end, we all lay down again and Barta gently talked us back into humanity. She

Misty, appearing in BYU's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

Misty, appearing in BYU’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

finally directed our attention to our departing animal, which turned back at a distance to give us a last look. And here was the big surprise. What I felt in that moment was gratitude to the cat, for visiting me and teaching me so well about the tender and tormented Mr Bennet. Didn’t anticipate that.

Now I know what an acting exercise is.

By the way, the dog that can act? She wasn’t there. Barta didn’t think she needed it.

[To read the entire article, use this link: http://www.ldsmag.com/article/1/13940]

Fireworks, New Year’s Tradition, and Artistic Decision

by Bianca Morrison Dillard, dramaturg

Fireworks have been a New Year’s tradition in this country since I’ve been alive; we see them particularly on New Year’s and the 4th of July. They connote celebration, excitement, awe, the new year, love of country, and that excited feeling you get during a really great kiss! As a visual symbol, they are pretty packed when it comes to meaning.

Holiday is a play that rings in the new year on stage. Our director, Barta Heiner, was toying with the idea of “fireworks” being seen through a window on stage as the play clocks in the new year, so she asked me if the characters would have been able to see fireworks through their window in 1928.

Here’s what I discovered.

The text suggests that the family lives on 5th avenue in New York City. A Google search tells me they would certainly have been able to see the Times Square fireworks from their house, had there been any that year.

So the question remained: Would there have been fireworks in Times Square or elsewhere in New York City in 1928?

Here’s a little about what I discovered about the history of New Year’s Eve in New York City.

Before the New Year’s celebration was held at Time Square, it was hosted in lower Manhattan’s Trinity Church. In 1903, as a marketing strategy, Time magazine decided to host the celebration in their new building on Times Square. (This came as a great relief to the church, as the parties could get quite raucous–there was not only drunken, disorderly conduct, but one account I found reported that people would throw bricks in the air as part of the celebration.)

A fireworks display rang in the new year until 1906, when it was outlawed, as it posed a hazard for the spectators below. (Funny, there was no mention of outlawing the throwing of bricks–but then who am I to question tradition?) In 1907 the fireworks were replaced by the famous “ball drop.” When did the fireworks become legal again for commercial displays, and when did they re-enter the New Year’s scene at Times Square?

I found a source that suggested there may have been fireworks over Yankee Stadium on the 4th of July in 1927 and again in 1928 when the Yankees won the the World Series, though both of the sources I found were never quite clear as to whether the “fireworks” were the symbolic kind, made when something really exciting and magical happens, or the literal sort, where an explosion is intentionally set off for visual effect.

As Barta and I discussed my findings it seemed to me that the decision (fireworks or no fireworks on stage) was ultimately up to her–she should feel free to make this decision based on her artistic sense of the moment. I asked, “Is it a symbol that effectively communicates to our audience today what you want to communicate?”

This experience left me wondering, what if a historical answer was definitive? Would that decision, or the decision-making process have looked different? Would Barta still have felt empowered to make the artistic decision she felt worked best for a modern audience, or should she have felt constrained by historical findings? Should historical research constrain us in this way? What should be the most important considerations as we work to communicate an older text to a contemporary audience? Who ultimately has the final say, historical research or artistic choice?

These questions don’t have to be rhetorical. What’s your take? For those of you who have actually seen the production, does the choice she made work for you? What experience have you had with contemporary anachronism effectively or ineffectively communicating to you as an audience member or as a member of a production team? Have you seen contemporary anachronisms effectively communicate historical situations in a way that was easier for you to understand as a contemporary audience member?

For more reading on the History of New Year’s at Time Square click here.

To watch a fun video overview of the History of New Years at Time Square
click here.

To discuss click below.