When I brought this selection to the season advisory committee, I was interested in this play’s lovely generational and gendered themes, the dive into the real life historical pioneers, both real and imagined, as well as their mentors – the women who fought for the rights of generations to come. I was curious about the connection of knowledge to power and the academy. I wanted to investigate who owns knowledge, who are the gatekeepers and who is allowed to create new knowledge. Inherent within those questions were other questions on sacrifice; what do we give up in order to know more? Who has the right to know? And finally, I wanted to explore the intersections of the pursuit of knowledge in connection to the pursuit of happiness. With these young women, how do love and knowledge intersect?
As I began the process I saw the concept centered on two main stories that continually intersected; the themes of glorious self-discovery in connection with the struggle for equality over time. I was interested in exploring the stories of the main characters, these young men and women in love with learning but also wanting to experience each other, and understand their struggle with changing gender roles at the end of the 19th century. My initial spine/ central action for the play was The long arc of change is only won through failure and the ability to get up and move forward. This spine was in connection to the starts and stops with the romantic relationships in the play as well as the starts and stops with the long fight for equality that we are still a part of today, all connected to a deeper understanding of self and resilience.
From the beginning I was interested in opening this story up beyond a traditional telling in a realistic format. The cinematic quality of the piece, with so many locations and quick episodic scenes that took us through the course of an entire year, begged for the use of projections. I was also struck by how projections could open up the ‘larger than life’ gigantic feeling of the oppressive nature the patriarchy, especially in regards to the academy during the end of the 19th century. This is when I approached the Department of Film and Media Studies at Bucknell for a collaboration. First meetings with Prof. Eric Faden and Prof. Daniel Nienhaus exceeded my expectations when they not only agreed to the collaboration but made exciting suggestions as well! Profs. Faden and Nienhaus would film many of the scenes of the play (male professor scenes that I would choose and cast) and they would also work with us to edit the film and format it to match the projection mapping onto the set. In addition, they suggested the idea of creating the illusion of period by adding filters that ‘aged’ the film to match the time frame of the production, which was early in the film making genre. I embraced this idea, which then allowed me to suggest silent film type title plates between scenes that would help us understand when and where the scenes were located in the story. Set design then took on the wonderful challenge of housing screens within a nineteenth century world without taking the audience out of the play with the anachronism. Costume design too had to be reconciled with the sepia tones of the films vs the rich saturated color of the set and the deeper lighting choices that highlighted the more serious elements of the story. Lastly, we added a series of projections to side screens to help guide the audience through the quickly changing locations and time of year. In addition to the choice to add film, I was also interested from the very start, to support the generational element of the story by casting actors of the correct age as the professors. This became the wonderful delight of casting professors as professors, challenging our undergraduate actors to collaborate and creatively investigate the script with colleagues outside of their peer groups.
Although it took the better part of a year before the production to cast, rehearse, shoot and edit the select scenes, the filmed components of the play set the tone for the production in very successful ways. As an external reviewer noted it was a risk, but one I am very happy we took because it not only allowed the oppressive nature of the patriarchy to take stage in a playful yet clear way, it made for exciting acting challenges for the actors as well as offered a helpful edge for the pace of the production. Creating scenes with filmed actors to look and seem real, especially in larger groups or one on one was particularly challenging and the technique of creating the illusion of authenticity in the moment was an excellent research opportunity both for me and my undergraduate actor/scholar/collaborators. The filmed scenes on the screens above also allowed for transitions on the stage below to happen more quickly, which allowed the whole pace of the show to move more fluidly. Colleague Prof. Elaine Williams set design also supported the fluidity and cinematic quality of the piece by offering the world of the play through the open yet beautifully rendered ground plan in addition to the cleverly placed projection screens which framed the world without interrupting the period. Collaborator Heath Hansum’s projection design also drew the audience into the play without stopping the story, highlighting the historic components as well as the imagery of time period. Prof. Hansum’s sound design was clever, delightful and appropriate to the pace of the show and Prof. Paula Davis’s costumes were simply gorgeous, saturated in color demonstrating the period but also the very different nature of each of these multifaceted characters. I was also so grateful to costume designer Prof. Davis for her last minute flexibility with students and acting faculty who needed modifications for their costumes based on health issues and concerns. Prof. Davis was able to work within the time period and collaborate in order to offer safe options for the actors, highlighting our department’s commitment to responsible artistry and mentorship of all of our cast members. Lastly, casting age appropriate actors made a huge difference both in the quality of the production but in the experience for our undergraduate actors. Learning from professors from the humanities who brought such richness to the characterizations as well as their backgrounds into the discipline specific research of the period was inspirational. Acting program faculty also raised the bar for all of our actors on professionalism, risk taking, bold characterizations and commitment. Learning from acting faculty allowed our undergraduates an experience on par with a conservatory or an R1 institution. This was a very successful production, thanks to these many collaborations, and was very well received.