When "demolition" becomes inspiration

In preparation to direct the three plays that will be featured in Plays from the Provincetown Players, I needed to come up with an idea, some kind of concept, that would allow me to unify three seemingly disparate one-act plays.  While each one is a gem on its own, presented together they can become a bit more unwieldy.

Part of what has fascinated me about the controversy surrounding the renovation and reconstruction of the Provincetown Playhouse has been the opposition of many community members to structural change within the theatre.  History tells us that the original building was a stable, then a bottle factory, and then finally a theatre when in 1918 George “Jig” Cram Cook rented the space and renovated it to be suitable for performances by the Provincetown Players.

To address the community members’ concerns, NYU agreed to maintain the integrity of the four walls of the original structure, but the interior would be gutted and redesigned to reflect the needs of a modern, 21st century theatre-making process. However, at one point during the demolition of the interior and the adjacent building, a large section of the theatre’s north wall was adversely affected.  Some say that NYU was trying to demolish the building.  I know from having worked in the space before the renovation/reconstruction and working in it now that the more likely reason was that the wall itself was extremely delicate and had actually been weakened in prior renovations, long before NYU even owned the property.

Regardless of what side one chooses to believe in that argument, the more important concept for me lies with dramatic possibilities of a wall collapsing and what might lie beneath and within that collapse.  I became interested in the idea of what might have been buried under the wall or even encased in the wall.  Could the Provincetown Players have left artifacts behind, and what would happen if someone found those artifacts?  How could I use an incident like this as the catalyst for performing these three one-act plays?

In brief, Aria da Capo by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a tough nut to crack.  It pulls from the British Harlequinade tradition and Greek tragedy, while simultaneously following the musical structure of a da capo aria, hence the name.  However, the play is interrupted at several points along the way and has subtle messages within that give insight into the time when it was written: 1920.

Fog by Eugene O’Neill is the story of two men trapped on a lifeboat after their passenger vessel crashes off the coast of Newfoundland.  Written in 1914 and one of O’Neill’s early plays that takes place on the sea, it reveals O’Neill’s interest in the struggle between art and business, as well as his own personal obsession with the Titanic disaster from just two years before.

Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles is the most realistic of the three plays and tackles the age-old conflict between men and women and how these two sexes see the world differently.  Using the story of a woman who allegedly killed her husband as its backdrop, Trifles allows an audience to watch the pieces of a puzzle come together for some and not for others.

Very different stories that need some kind of unifying framework in performance.

This is where the collapsed wall comes in.

We’re not going to include a collapsed wall in our production, but I have asked the scenic designer, Andy Hall, to take us backwards in recent time, to a moment when an imagined Provincetown Playhouse is being renovated.  In our initial discussions about scenic possibilities, I realized that all three plays have an element of discovery, and that the characters ultimately come to see what’s actually present in their own worlds.  Similarly, I think that in the renovated Provincetown Playhouse, even though it has changed radically, we can still see what’s there: the legacy of these three playwrights and many others who’ve worked there over the last century.  Legacy doesn’t disappear when a physical structure changes.

So, in short, five NYU students enter the active construction site of the Provincetown Playhouse to complete a school project.  Through a series of unfortunate events, they uncover a box containing a set of artifacts linked to the theatre and these three playwrights.  The young people encounter some other forces at work in the theatre, forces that lead them to discover scripts for these three plays.  Somehow, they find themselves enacting the plays, and the lessons learned from history and from art bring them to some conclusions about themselves.

Below, I’ve included photos that move from the Provincetown Playhouse under construction through to Andy Hall’s working model of the scenic design for the production.  The images serve as source and inspiration for me in the creation process, and I hope they pique your interest and encourage you to come out and see how we’ve turned a “demolished” wall into a catalyst for something theatrically compelling that also teaches about the history of the Provincetown Playhouse through the words, actions, and relationships of the people who used it, not through the bricks that were there in 1918.

This is the exterior of the Provincetown Playhouse during the renovation in March 2010.

This is the exterior of the Provincetown Playhouse during the renovation in March 2010.

Model for Plays from the Provincetown Players, designed by Andy Hall

Model for Plays from the Provincetown Players, designed by Andy Hall

This is the interior of the Provincetown Playhouse during renovation, March 2010

This is the interior of the Provincetown Playhouse during renovation, March 2010

An interior view of the Provincetown Playhouse, January 2011.

An interior view of the Provincetown Playhouse, January 2011.