Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of "Our Town"
February 4, 2013
The cast of the Ford’s Theatre production of Our Town, directed by Stephen Rayne. Photo by T. Charles Erickson
On January 22, 1938, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town premiered at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey. Seventy-five years later, the play remains one of the most celebrated American dramas of all time. To celebrate this milestone anniversary, Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, is staging a new production of the show, directed by Stephen Rayne. Originally trained as an actor, the British-born Rayne began directing at the York Theatre Royal and the Cambridge Theatre Company, eventually moving on to the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre. Rayne has also directed productions throughout the world, including Spain, Cuba, Argentina, Korea, and three previous shows at Ford’s.
Although his resume is unequivocally impressive, Rayne still may have seemed an unlikely directorial choice. After all, he’s an Englishman who had never actually seen a staged production of Our Town when he took on the project. But this “unpolluted” perspective, as Rayne called it, has also allowed for an inspired interpretation, making the show as relevant today as it was when it first premiered. We spoke with Rayne a few nights after Our Town opened, and discussed Wilder's original intention, Rayne's own directorial influences, and why he currently has a case of the post-opening blues.
NEA: Do you remember your first experience either reading or watching Thorton Wilder?
STEPHEN RAYNE: I'm one of the few people who's never seen Our Town. I've read the book The Bridge of San Luis Rey and then when I knew I was going to be doing the production, I read his other books and his short plays. But to be honest, my only experience of Our Town was that I saw the original 1940 movie years ago. And I saw on TV the Paul Newman version. But I've never seen it in the theater. I had a copy of it, strangely, in my library at home, but I've never really studied it. So I came to it really fresh.
NEA: Not only had you never seen Our Town, but you're also British, which is worth noting since this is considered to be the quintessential American play. Can you tell me how these two facts helped you bring fresh perspective to the show?
RAYNE: I think I bring a sort of objectivity. I think [Americans] have a kind of a perspective and opinion, whether it be [on] the Civil War or whether it be Thorton Wilder, or whether it be Our Town, because most Americans seem to study it at school or they see productions when they're very young at a community theater or summer stock. So I came to it completely fresh and completely unpolluted, if you like, by having not known it at school or at college.
[Regarding] my British sensibility, Thornton Wilder was a great anglophile and a great lover of European theater and European literature, and obviously spent a great deal of his youth in Italy and Germany and Austria and England and France. And so he was hugely influenced by the Greek classical theater. He was also hugely influenced by Elizabethan theater, Shakespeare. He was also influenced by the playwrights he was seeing in the late 1920s and early 1930s in Germany and Austria. He had seen Pirandello's Six Characters and Bertolt Brecht's plays and I think both of those things, along with the friendships that he had formed with the modernists in Europe at the time, were hugely influential in his writing Our Town. He said from the very outset that the play wasn't about New Hampshire. It wasn't about Grover's Corners per se; he just used that as an excuse to write the play he wanted. He'd been studying at the MacDowell Colony in the summertime. The New England character was what he was attracted to, and that suited the play very well. The dryness, the un-sentimentality, the wryness of the people. He wanted the play to be universal. He thought he was writing something that was much more universal based on sort of a classical form. So coming at it from my perspective, being an English director who has worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre where most of the texts are great classic texts, I think I absolutely understood what Wilder wanted from his play when it was originally done in the 1930s. I think he felt the original production slightly betrayed his original intention, and certainly subsequent productions did. It became this kind of slice of Americana, cutesy play about New England at the beginning of the 20th century, which is not what he intended at all.
NEA: Can you describe what you think his intention was?
RAYNE: [When] he wrote the play, he said no scenery, no props; he wanted it to be very, very simple, very classical. He said the great theater---the great theater of Greece, the great theater of Rome, the Elizabethan Theater---had no scenery whatsoever. So the perception of the audience was totally based on the people, what they said, the characters they presented, and the narratives that were in front of them. It was a very pure form of theater. He had become very disenchanted with the theater of the 1930s, which he thought was cozy and soothing and not at all challenging to an audience. So he wrote something that I think was very influenced by those classical writers.
I have tried to imagine if he'd written the play today, how he would like it to be presented to a modern audience. That not only led me to the multi-racial nature of the cast, but also to taking an even more astringent and austere view towards the design and the presentation of it. I think that since the 1930s, audiences have become lazier and lazier. They're so used to television and advertising and visual imagery, which we're very skilled at now, but we're not very skilled at listening anymore. So I tried to get back to his original intention. This is a narrative, I have a stage manager figure who is the narrator, who will give you all the information you need through the spoken word for you to be able to engage your own imagination. I've tried to take that as far as I can in terms of the presentation at Ford's. I have deliberately steered away from any particular social or historical context, which is quite hard in terms of costuming---we are so skilled at making assumptions about character and background from what people wear. In terms of the staging, the setting of the play, I have limited [it] to an open space with a few chairs. And that's it, that's all that people have to look at. And an empty theater, which was originally his intention.
I did some research at the library at Yale, and they have his first hand-written draft of the play. He referred two or three times to these chairs, which don't appear in the final script. I think he said, in his original, hand-written draft, that there are 24 chairs. And I thought that was a really interesting idea, that he thought he could do the play just with chairs. He'd been experimenting with that idea in some of his short plays, in The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, and The Long Christmas Dinner. He'd been exploring the idea of not having any furniture, not having any properties except chairs to tell the story. So I think I'm being very faithful to his original intention.
NEA: You touched on this briefly in terms of the multi-racial cast, but could you elaborate on how you think this production reflects our own town---Washington---today?
RAYNE: I think it reflects any town, really, whether it be in America or Europe or wherever in the world. We are living in a multi-cultural world now. There is huge cultural diversity through immigration across the world. And certainly in Washington. The fact is we are living in a multi-cultural society and families are often made up of many different backgrounds and many different ethnic sources. All I have done is said, “Look, race isn't the issue in this play; it isn't an issue in what Wilder was writing about.” What I'm trying to represent [within the play] is as wide a spectrum as the mix that we have in America today. We have people with Korean backgrounds, with Polynesian backgrounds, with Spanish backgrounds, with African-American backgrounds, with Caucasian backgrounds within the cast. I've also chosen to mix those within the family. You don't have a white family and a black family; within each family, you have a mix of races. It's about the communal and universal experience that Wilder is writing, not about a particular place or a particular time or a particular culture or a particular ethnicity. He's writing about human experience, the big subjects of love and marriage and death. So I thought that by trying to have the cast as diverse as possible, it would take people away from thinking that I was trying to talk specifically about one group of people at one point in history, which certainly was what Thornton Wilder wanted to avoid.
NEA: Did you feel any particular pressure in directing this anniversary production?
RAYNE: It's always an extra pressure when you're working with a very famous text, mainly because people arrive at the theater with very clear ideas about what they want to see and what they think the play is about. What you have to try and do, very early in the evening, is try and stop people from pre-judging. I think by casting an African-American woman as the narrator, it immediately will make people sit up and hear the play differently because the stage manager in the original production was a 60-year-old man in a tweed suit smoking a pipe. He's kind of a Hal Holbrook figure. That was probably representative of what a stage manager was in 1938. It certainly isn't representative of what a stage manager is today in professional theater. I wanted people to immediately check their pre-conceptions at the door. When the play began in that way, with a very modern, very contemporary voice as the narrator, it would give [the audience] an opportunity to see and hear the play afresh.
NEA: If you could work full-time in another art form, what do you think it would be and why?
RAYNE: I don't know if I could do anything else. I don't know if I would be any good at anything else. I love the fact that I can go from doing a play to doing a musical to doing a dance show to doing a new play. I like the variety, and it’s a variety that includes working in different countries. You always learn something from different cultures; it always feeds back into your work one way or another. So I'm not sure if I could work in another art form. I'm not sure I would want to work in any other art form actually. I think theater, because it’s such a wide umbrella in terms of the types of theater there are, is what I love. I love nothing more than being in a rehearsal room with actors discovering a play. That's when I am happiest. And I think it’s true of any director. Once the show is open, you always suffer what I call a little post-production depression. Your part of the creative process is finished, and it’s now the actors’. It’s their creative process from then on. So I always feel depressed when the show opens, but the good thing is that if you can go on to another project quite quickly, you tend to not get too blue about it.
NEA: That's so interesting. I always figured you’d get upset once a show closes, not after it opens.
RAYNE: No, it’s once it opens because then it’s the actors’ property. They own it, they are doing it every night, and your part in bringing it to life and bringing it to the stage is over. It becomes another thing, another animal after that.
NEA: My last question is who or what would you describe as your greatest artistic or theatrical influences?
RAYNE: Directorially, Peter Brook. He was the greatest director certainly when I was a student. And then the person I got to work with, and I have worked with many times and is a very good friend of mine is Trevor Nunn. I had seen his productions when the Royal Shakespeare Company was at its height. In fact, I remember the very first production that I saw, which was Antony and Cleopatra with his then wife Janet Suzman, which I thought was extraordinary. That's why I wanted to join the RSC. I was there for four years before I even met him because he was off doing other projects. But the very last show I did at the RSC was a production of Othello, where I worked with him. He then asked me to work with him for his own company. I worked with him a number of times during the ‘90s and then went with him to the [Royal National Theatre] when he took that over. So I think he was a huge influence---his work during my student years and seeing his productions, and then being able to work with him. So Peter Brook and then Trevor Nunn were the two biggest influences. But in modern times, there are many directors whose work I admire and I always try and see. You try to keep open and keep fresh to new people as well to inspire you.