Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Kevin Connell on directing *Curse*

Kevin Connell, S.J., is the principal at G-Prep and the director of *Curse of the Starving Class* (opening Friday at G.U.)
Here he discusses such topics as why nudity doesn't work onstage; Sam Shepard's sometimes unrealistic stage directions; Shepard's slight revisions for the 30th anniversary of *Curse*; why Connell chose *Curse* for production; the amazing prescience of *Curse* in these our benighted economic hard times; alcoholic and abusive parents; how Shepard's "family" plays echo Greek tragedy; how even ancient plays can have contemporary resonance — and especially, the considerable dangers of "space llamas."

Bobo: As a Jesuit priest, was it any easier for you to get administration clearance for the onstage urinating, semi-nudity and implied lamb-killing?

Kevin Connell: My position as a Jesuit really didn’t have any bearing on the approval of the play by the department. We discussed only the practical problems of “faking” someone urinating onstage and the potential headaches of involving a live animal in a production. There is no actual urinating or physical exposure, so that wasn’t a problem.
Even when I first considered the play, I knew I wouldn’t ask to include the nudity because I don’t think nudity ever really “works” onstage. I think it destroys our suspension of disbelief by forcing us to think about the actor as an actor, rather than as a character. Because of the way our culture thinks of nudity, it is very difficult for an audience not to focus more on the actor’s potential personal discomfort as a person more than on the character’s experience. The artistic obstacles nudity creates seem to me to outweigh any potential gain it offers, so I never considered including it.

We are not using a real lamb for two reasons: First, nearly every review of every production I could find mentioned how distracting the lamb can be on stage. Twenty years ago I appeared in a Flash Gordon-style production of Shakespeare’s *Pericles* at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. That show featured a “space llama” which, in just one brief scene, caused far more headaches (including spitting at audience members) than he was worth. That memory made me very hesitant to include a real lamb in our production.
Second, Sam Shepard is a brilliant playwright, but the prop demands he makes of theater companies are not always realistic. The stage directions of *La Turista* call for a chicken to be killed onstage, and when I appeared in *True West* at Harvard, we had to find an expensive-looking electric typewriter to destroy with a golf club in each performance. (The actor involved was also a college hockey player, so we ended up replacing most of the golf clubs too.) Shepard’s current Broadway show, *Kicking a Dead Horse,* requires as its main prop a life-size, completely realistic-looking dead horse. (I’ve read that in the stage directions Shepard helpfully suggests using a real dead horse, if possible.)
When he wrote a real live baby lamb into *Curse,* Sam seemed to forget that not every production of the show would take place in the spring. I did locate a local man who offered to provide us with a real lamb, but he informed me that come late October, it would be about the size of a German shepherd. That (together with memories of the horned space llama) was enough for me to pass on the lamb.

Bobo: I posted a link on my blog to a review of that ACT performance on the 30th anniversary. The insult "meatloaf" got changed to a more vulgar epithet — and of course Act Two divides in two for intermission. At what point, exactly? Any other updating of the language? When did you first seriously consider the play this time slot? How long ago did you realize that the "invisible money" and piling-up-debt passages would reflect our current financial crisis — the day the market first plunged?

Connell: We have retained the “meat ball” insult intact and not updated the language in any way. In fact, our production —helped along immensely by Prep’s costumer, Summer Berry, and by student designer Michael Cowley — is anchored firmly in the late 1970s. Then-president Jimmy Carter and the Partridge Family even have surprise cameos. Our major departure from the script is the re-imagining of the character of “Ellis,” a “Boss Hogg” –style character who appears in the play’s second act.
I contacted the ACT about getting a copy of the script they used (which Shepard himself adapted), but had no luck. We have divided the play into two acts right in the middle of the second act when Weston, the patriarch, passes out drunk on the kitchen table. This gives us very manageable play of two acts, each of which runs just under an hour.
I [wanted to do] *Curse* for several reasons. I think Sam Shepard is the greatest American playwright of our time, and I have wanted to work on a production of *Curse* ever since I saw the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production in the 1980s. I think *Curse* is the perfect Shepard play to produce at a university since the struggle between parents and the emerging adulthood of children is part of the students’ own experiences — and because it offers better acting roles for women than other Shepard works like *Buried Child,* *True West* or *The Tooth of Crime.*
I also wanted to do the play because I think it addresses the glaring injustice of the widening chasm between the very rich and everybody else in this country. But I really began to notice the freakish accuracy of Shepard’s economic prophecies as I was re-reading and researching the play this summer. The director of the San Francisco production commented on the appropriateness of their doing the show “when the half the homes in America are being foreclosed.” I started noticing the horrible similarities between our world and that of play after reading that. In rehearsals, we’ve spent more time on those sections of the play than I think we would have if the Tate family’s economic problems were only a dated 20th century “curse” facing them.
Even when it involves space llamas, I love it when our theatrical past illuminates our political present. I recall reading how just a year or so into the U.S. invasion of Iraq, audiences in New York were silenced when a character in production of Aeschylus’ 2500-year old play *The Persians* said, “We listened so closely to the rattling of our swords, we could not hear the rotting of our country.”

Bobo: Weston/Wesley, Ella/Emma — in what ways are you emphasizing the childishness of the parents and the grudging need to be responsible by the two teenagers, that whole inversion?

Connell: I think it’s easier for me to understand at 46 than it is for my actors to grasp at 19 or 22 that no matter how determined one is not to let it happen, we all to some degree turn into our parents. We have to tried to catch that in key physical moments — when the mother’s and daughter’s poses in a doorway are nearly identical, for example.
In many ways, I think Weston — who is very closely based on Shepard’s own father — is a textbook abusive alcoholic parent, physically and mentally mistreating his family out of his own self-loathing. We have tried to bring out that dynamic in the family’s interactions.
The strongest focus for our production, though, is the idea of the “curse” of the seeming impossibility of becoming something different than what you are — the mountainous obstacles to attaining even the simplest dreams in this country, which fills our heads with impossible dreams every chance it gets. I think *Curse* is an incredibly funny play, but I also think it’s incredibly sad. We have tried to emphasize that every character in the show, not just the Tates, have dreams they long to achieve — but the only ones who seem to succeed are the absolutely worst people in the play, whom we barely even see.

Bobo: The fridge strikes me as a heavy-handed, over-emphasized symbol. Perhaps you disagree. But if you agree, what steps are you taking not to hit the audience over the head with it?

Connell: I agree that the refrigerator is not exactly the subtlest of symbols, but we have not shied away from using it. A lot.
I took a cue from my director when I played Austin in *True West.* We thought the toasters were a rather goofy symbol of picket fence / “Beaver Cleaver” America. Still, rather than ignore them, we embraced them. We’d go through two loaves of bread every performance making toast. It actually made the show much funnier and oddly anchored it even more firmly in reality.
I have tried to do the same thing with the refrigerator. We actually use it more than Shepard calls for, but I’ve encouraged the actors to find creative ways of dealing with it that emphasize each character’s “hunger” for something better than what they have. A creative actor can do a lot more with a cool prop like a refrigerator than just open it.

Bobo: Naturalistic (trashed kitchen) vs. non-naturalistic elements (the poetry of Wesley's speech about his dad coming home drunk, etc.): Do you seek to balance the two, make your production a blend of real and unreal? Or not?

Connell: I think the technical aspects of our production balance the naturalistic and poetic aspects of Shepard’s writing very well.
Our set design, by GU’s visiting Technical Director, Marcus J. Todd, and two student designers (Laurel Clark and Ann Zimmerscheid) is insightful and eloquent. Just as the Tates’ house isn’t worth nearly what any of the Tates think it’s worth, our set both physically is there and isn’t there. One of the student designers suggested encircling the set with a fence. This has made staging the play more difficult, since it limits the amount of playing space and possible entrances and exits. But I think it has also made our staging truer to the world of the play and is a brilliant way of communicating the image of being “trapped” which dominates many of Shepard’s best plays.
All three of Shepard’s “family trilogy” of plays (*Curse,* *Buried Child,* and *True West*) follow the example of classical Greek drama in embodying the hopes and fears of a whole culture in a single family. The only difference is that instead of the House of Atreus, Shepard gives us some failed California avocado farmers in *Curse* — which also adheres faithfully to Aristotle’s call for a “unity of time.” Each act in the play’s original three-act structure covers one day from morning to evening. Our student lighting designer Katie Brosz has worked with Marcus Todd to catch that in a subtle shifting of lights that suggest the rapid passage of time, while limiting self-consciously artistic lighting to only the ends of acts.

Bobo: Funny/sad elements ("Why'd you cook my chicken?" and the sometimes complete disregard of others' needs or even physical presence) — in rehearsal, did you talk to your student-actors about how to make certain passages simultaneously funny and sad?

Connell: What I love about Sam Shepard’s writing is his ability to find epic poetry in 20th- and 21st-century English the way we speak it west of the Great Plains, while writing plays like *True West,* which explore the lighter side of the story of Cain and Abel. What I’ve tried to help my actors discover about playing Shepard is that his characters are just like us. Most comedies are funny because the characters are saying and doing things that even a grouchy middle-aged Jesuit like me can see are supposed to be “funny”: Malvolio is in love so he puts on some silly socks. Shepard sees that the rational, level-headed, and “important” things we do are usually the craziest, goofiest, funniest mistakes we ever make.

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