Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Teasing Social Relevance from Traditional Scripts

One might wonder why Second Wind, a company that specializes in plays with social or political relevance, would choose a simple ghost story. The Woman in Black has no pretensions about being more than a good yarn, so it’s certainly a stretch for it to fill our mission. Whether you’ve wondered or not, today I’ll talk about what we did to tease out social relevance, because I think it is a technique that can be used much more broadly—in looking at a variety of scripts, but also with concepts like non-traditional casting.

First, I’ll be blunt: it is a stretch. It was meant to be a stretch. Being alive and vibrant as a company means bending a few rules, even when it comes to your mission. Then you look at how to bend them back. Second, I believe every story, every relationship, has social relevance when examined within its true context. Ghost stories are traditionally morality tales in Western culture, so I began by looking for moral resonance. Young Kipps, a lawyer (okay, some weird morality issues right there…) displays a considerable amount of arrogance and a sense of superiority, especially when dealing with the town people. This seemed like a nice touch, in that we tend to look for reasons why there is a downfall. It was also the first step towards identifying status and power issues.

The script is completely obtuse about the time of the play. It seems to be set somewhere close to the turn of the century, but if you try to add up the dates, ages, and bits of technology (flashlights, cars, telephones, etc.) what you get is complete nonsense. By adjusting the length of time between events, however, I found that the play situated itself nicely at 1931, the heart of the British Depression. That opened up the possibility of exploring ideas of poverty, economic disparity, and what it forces people to do. There were two references to money in the play—“You’ve paid me for the day,” and later a line about a young woman who had to give up her child because “she had no choice.” Both of these references are typically run-over with little emphasis in other productions. We didn’t run them over. Instead, I added two points where the old solicitor pays the young actor for the day. Then, during one of the transitions, I started the scene with the actor mending his coat with needle and thread. With the young woman’s voiceover, we made sure to highlight her necessity, and between each of the characters we spent time exploring and defining their economic status. The British, certainly during that time period, were very class conscious. These seemed like good starts, but it’s all subtle work. I looked for other avenues to get at the idea of money. The pre-show music highlights not just jazz from the era but Depression songs, including “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”, and “Are You Makin’ Any Money?” At intermission I contrasted that with several waltzes, an aristocratic dance. Costumes also played an vital role in defining class and economics. Overall, the teasing out of social themes was quite understated, but I think it adds to the richness of the show, and sense of detail. I also hope it makes the characters more three-dimensional, and easy to identify with. You’ll have to tell me whether it worked or not.

From a company standpoint, we also did some things to take the work beyond the proscenium arch. As I’ve said before, The Woman in Black is also a celebration of theatre. A play within a play, it relies heavily on the most basic elements of the theatre: sound, lighting, set design, as well as suspension of disbelief and the audience’s imagination. In that spirit, we focused this Vlog on more technical aspects of producing theatre, rather than drone on and on about the show. We started a Twitter account ( specifically for theatre tips and inspiration. And finally, the theatre ads you see in the program we donated to the companies in an effort to support other Bay Area groups.

In the end, we didn’t want to turn The Woman in Black into some avant-garde or revisionist production. The story is just too darn good for that. How good? Yesterday, Albert Goodwyn wrote: “Second Wind Productions effortlessly enthralls with their taut, gripping suspense and intense pacing. The suspense in this play makes the grueling tension all the more scary.” You can read his full review here:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ian,

The woman in black sounds scary. I don't do scary films or plays. Advise (smile).

Wanda Sabir

October 29, 2009 at 7:10 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home