STAGING A TOUCH OF THE POET
[Deborah Kellar, who directed a production of A Touch of the Poet at a community college in Washington last February and March, offers the following illustrated report on the experience to assist others who might wish to mount an O'Neill play with an amateur cast and a challengingly miniscule budget. May others follow her lead--both as proselytizing director and as enlightening reporter. Such contributions to the Newsletter will always be welcome. --Ed.]
In early December, 1979, I was presented with the opportunity to serve as guest artistic director in the Drama Department of Centralia College, a community college in Centralia, Washington. As a guest faculty member I was to direct a play of my choosing, preferably a drama. In addition, I offered to design the costumes. Upon mention of a drama, I immediately thought of O'Neill, for I had been longing for an opportunity to direct one of his plays for some time. The department chairman, Phillip R. Wickstrom, was quite responsive to my suggestion since the department had never produced an O'Neill, and also because the opportunity would provide acting students with strong dramatic roles. It was suggested, however, that the play selected contain more than one female role, and that as many student actors as possible be included. A Touch of the Poet occurred to me as an ideal choice, having three female roles and seven male roles, not all requiring experienced performers. I knew that casting the lead role could prove to be difficult, but a former student of the department, Thomas Roberson, was asked to audition and was subsequently cast as Melody (Figures 1 and 2). Most other roles, including Nora, Sara, and Cregan, were cast from within the department.
Though I was delighted
with this opportunity, I knew in advance of problems that would have
to be resolved. I would like to discuss these problems, explaining how
they were overcome. The first was the depth and weight of the
material. I knew that in a community college little course work would
be devoted to dramatic literature, theory and criticism, and theatre
history. There-fore I suspected that most of the students with whom I
would work would have little
During the first weeks of rehearsal, much time was spent discussing O'Neill, man and playwright. I provided the cast with his history, both personal and literary, hoping to impress upon them the magnitude of O'Neill's writing, as well as my own enthusiasm for his work. I devoted time to the unfinished cycle, A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed, attempting to place the characters of A Touch of the Poet in their proper context in the master plot of the cycle. The relationships between the characters were examined, with special attention devoted to Deborah, Sara, and the unseen Simon.
The above-mentioned sessions brought the cast a clearer understanding of the script, which was further aided by discussions of the structure of Greek tragedy. While most of the cast were unfamiliar with this structure, many did know several of the plays, such as Oedipus and the Oresteia. By discussing the plays with which they were knowledgeable, I was able to point out the various structural elements that were also apparent in A Touch of the Poet. We located and discussed the Aristotelian unities, Melody's tragic flaw, the chorus, Deborah's reference to Cassandra, the catastrophe, and the catharsis. Once these elements were under-stood, the actors were better able to grasp their characters and mold the production into a strong and dynamic performance.
A good deal of my time was also spent working individually with cast members, coaching them in their role development, working on the brogue and on the songs that Patch Riley sings. In any college situation, some actors will be far more experienced than others, and additional time for individual work must be allocated.
The second major problem concerned the set. O'Neill's meticulous description of the setting could not be overlooked, although the restrictive budget allocated for materials threatened to prevail. I was concerned that major concessions would have to be made to keep the set within the $375 budget. So I was greatly relieved when the staff scene designer, Joseph C. Wills, showed me his design concepts. By reducing the number of walls to two from the three or more typically associated with a box set, and by shifting the axis of the room from a position parallel with the proscenium to an extreme diagonal position, he felt that he would be able to preserve O'Neill's concept, break the monotony of a box set, and stay within the budget. Accordingly, the major walls were reduced from three to two, the windows from four to two and the tables from four to two; and the number of doorways was reduced to the street door (stage right) and an archway (stage left) that stepped onto a platform with the bar door straight ahead, the kitchen off-left, and the stairway leading off-right. Levels were provided by a platform in front of the street door, a platform through the archway, and three steps leading from it to an upper landing (see figure 3).
The only significant problem in the reduction in doorways was Sara's exit in Act III, when Melody stops to apologize, not realizing that she has left the room. This was overcome by placing Melody in the upstage chair at the round table directly in front of the archway. When Melody states that he is going to join Cregan in the bar, Sara, who has been standing by the archway, turns and quietly exits off-left into the kitchen. Melody, instead of delivering his lines of apology at the bar door with his back to the room, rises from his chair, still facing front, and begins to speak. Not hearing a response from Sara, he turns upstage to find her gone.
Also, to clarify the traffic up and down the stairway, a slam door was placed back-stage. Each time actors entered or exited by way of the stairs, the door would be opened and closed, providing the sound of their entering or exiting another room upstairs.
The setting was true to the period, with dark wood walls, massive beams, and a wide plank floor. Wills designed and built authentic furniture: the schoolmaster's desk, the hutch, the table chair (effectively used by Maloy, at the start of Act I, when he sat reading the paper as in an armchair), the mirror, and the bench (used for several Sara/Nora scenes far down-center). The realistic wood wall treatment was achieved by applying aniline dyes in a shellac and alcohol base over wet Swiftflex flexible glue. The floor planks were 12"-wide strips of 1/4" masonite painted with latex and glazed with clear latex. The woodgraining was achieved by using a tool constructed by the designer from ¼" cork board grooved with a linoleum tool, applied to a curved wood frame. The massive beams were constructed of styrofoam over a plywood frame, textured with methol ethyl ketone and painted with aniline dye in a shellac base.
The reservations I had about directing an O'Neill play in a community college situation were resolved during the production period. The performances were well received and proved to be very educational for all of the students involved in the production. The set received praise from the audiences and the press, and was quite striking, atmospheric and functional. From a director's point of view, the diagonal axis facilitated a variety of dynamic blocking patterns. The darkness of the wood and the massiveness of the beams greatly contributed to the somber mood of the play.
I am pleased that Centralia College presented an O'Neill play. The students deserved the opportunity to portray the excellent roles that A Touch of the Poet provides, and the experience was very beneficial to me. I am looking forward to another opportunity to collaborate with O'Neill.
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com