Making the Play Matter

Last night, six hours into an intense technical run-through for TheatreUSF’s upcoming Our Town, director C. David Frankel told a joke and blew the punch line.

“That’s why I’m a director, not a stand-up comedian,” Frankel said from the darkness offstage.

It was a small event, but it served its purpose.

“It was important to tell a joke because the atmosphere needed lightening,” Frankel later admitted.

The cast and crew have been rehearsing for about three weeks in preparation for Wednesday night’s opening of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Thornton Wilder play. Sunday was their longest rehearsal yet, and everyone skipped dinner to complete the rehearsal an hour ahead of the scheduled time, so Frankel’s small gesture was a needed break from the work.

And in a play that has been described by its author as an “attempt to find value above all price for the smallest events in our daily lives,” Frankel’s joke served as a clear manifestation of Wilder’s vision.

The play quite nearly leads its audience by the hand through roughly 16 years in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, making use of a stage manager who not only narrates to the audience but directs the characters and participates in the drama, as well.

Karla Hartley, a guest artist who is playing the stage manager, said the character serves as a type of modern Greek chorus.

“The stage director is the conscience of the play,” Hartley said. “She touches on how to get where we all want to be.”

The stage manager also introduces the audience to the two main characters in the action, George and Emily.

Tiffany Toro plays Emily, a young girl who falls in love with George, the boy who lives next door.

Emily also serves as the dramatic mouthpiece for the play’s moral as she asks the stage manager in Act Three, “Does anyone realize life – while they live it?”

According to Toro, the seemingly naïve Emily not only brings moral magnitude to the tale, but emotional depth, as well.

“[Emily] is really open about what she feels,” said Toro.

George is played by Damian Ladd. According to Ladd, George serves as an example of how the characters in the play don’t take enough time to realize the ordinary things that go on every day.

“In Act Three, the message really hits home,” said Ladd. He added that Act One serves as an introduction to the story, Act Two deals with the marriage of George and Emily, and Act Three offers the moral.

According to Trey Edge, who plays George’s father in Our Town, that moral is to experience life to the fullest.

“It gives you a good moral lesson to experience what you can while you can,” said Edge.

And on the set of Our Town, the moral rings true both onstage and off with the way Frankel directs his players.

“He tries to foster a fun environment,” said Hartley. “And, especially on a day like today, it’s important to keep a light mood.”

Eric Nance, who plays Emily’s brother in the play, added that Frankel had a better overall view of the production at the outset than other directors he’d worked with, and Frankel also offered balanced direction to the cast. “David makes it fun for us, but he’s serious about getting it right,” Nance said.

Edge agreed. “He’s a good director and he knows what he wants,” Edge said.

After all of the actors had left Sunday night, Frankel stuck around and discussed his approach to rehearsal.

“I try to keep the students focused,” he said. “I like to keep things moving and keep things light, but also tell them when it’s gone too far.”

Telling the joke came under the first two goals.