Working at the Provincetown Playhouse

I currently have the distinct pleasure and privilege of working in the newly renovated Provincetown Playhouse at 133 Macdougal Street in Manhattan. The theatre has often been referred to as the birthplace of modern American drama because it housed productions of plays written and produced by the Provincetown Players, an early 20th century experimental theatre group that included Eugene O’Neill, George Cram Cook, and Susan Glaspell, among others. The group worked in this Greenwich Village site from 1918 to 1929, creating an innovative and influential American theatrical aesthetic.

NYU’s recent renovation and reconfiguration of the theatre was completed in August 2010, and I am now directing a production of three one-act plays from the original Provincetown Players. Our rehearsals for the project started this week, and the newly renovated space has embraced the company and our work with open arms. We are working with three plays: Aria da Capo by the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Fog, an early play by Eugene O’Neill, and Trifles, by Susan Glaspell, one of the founding members of the Provincetown Players. The company is also creating original scripted material that will frame the performances of these plays and address why it’s important for them to be remounted almost 100 years after they were written.

The last three days have consisted of read-throughs of the scripts and digging through historical source material, as I’m invested in telling the stories of the playhouse and these playwrights in and around their plays. The actors are making significant contributions to the development of this framework text through written and physical improvisations. We’ve discovered exciting relationships within the framework script, while also making some connections to the history of the space and to the playwrights themselves. For me personally, it has been a great experience to get to know these three playwrights on a more intimate level, as the research has uncovered elements of their personal lives that aren’t necessarily clear from simply reading their plays. Some examples:

- In his play Fog, Eugene O’Neill writes a character who reveals that he has contemplated suicide. He wrote the play in 1914, two years after his own suicide attempt. The parallels between his character and his own experience are striking and revealing.

- Susan Glaspell based her play Trifles on an actual murder case in Iowa that she covered as a news reporter for a local paper. However, upon further research into Glaspell’s work as a reporter, we’ve uncovered some remarkable messages that she conveyed to female readers through her writings when covering the society news for the paper.

- Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of the great female poets of the early 20th century, received her middle name from St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. Just prior to her birth, Millay’s uncle was rescued from the hold of a ship after being trapped inside of it for many days. He was discovered when the ship landed in NYC and taken to St. Vincent’s for treatment and recovery. Millay’s family honored the hospital’s work by including its name in her assigned birth name.

While these pieces of specific trivia are helping the company to hone in on the playwrights and their plays, what’s really magical is that the Provincetown Playhouse itself is giving us such support. Even though it is reconfigured and looking very different than it did when O’Neill, Glaspell, and Millay were working there, I definitely feel the presence of the playwrights and their influence each time we have worked over the past week. When NYU announced its plans to renovate and rebuild the theatre, many people expressed anger and concern over the plan because NYU was not preserving the “original playhouse.” As a historian, I can understand the urge to preserve elements of the past, lest we forget their importance. However, too rigid a grasp on the past can keep us stuck in the past as well. History is documented to remind us, not to hold us back. Having taught in this new space all last semester and now rehearsing in it, I can say with confidence that the new space has not lost the power of its ancestor. The true legacy of the Provincetown Playhouse is that it provided a physical structure that protected and cultivated new, experimental voices, ushering in the beginning of a truly American theatrical aesthetic. Even though its architecture has changed, that change is for the better, as the new Provincetown Playhouse can more adequately respond to the needs of contemporary theatre artists making new plays and mounting productions of classics. We feel its support as we work, and we look forward to audiences feeling the same.

The performance run of Plays from the Provincetown Players will be February 25-March 6. Follow our Twitter thread at #ptownplays, as members of the company tweet on a regular basis about the rehearsal process leading up to the opening. And stay tuned for more posts from me about the creative process.