OT: our town
Our Town's timeless and cross-cultural appeal
"...If Our Town is a period piece, a reflection of another age, what is it about Thornton Wilder's play that endures? And why is it so very timely today?"
-- Donald H. Wolfe, The New York Times
Scott Hamilton Kennedy first met Catherine Borek at a party in Los Angeles in 1998. He "was completely smitten with her," and, since he studied drama in college, was intrigued when she told him that she planned to start a drama program at Dominguez High School in Compton, where she taught English. The two began dating soon after, and Scott made a few visits to Catherine's drama class to work with her students.
Scott admits to being apprehensive at first about going to Compton, and about Catherine spending so much time there. He couldn't help but think of the violent neighborhood portrayed on the news and in movies like Boyz in the Hood, but he felt "just about slapped in the face by how many of those stereotypes were broken, and fell for the kids and their charisma immediately."
A year and a half later, when Catherine decided to put on Our Town as the first production at the school in over twenty years, Scott immediately asked if he could bring his camera down to capture the experience. "... It seemed like there were so many different possibilities for a story. I never tried to raise money, or put a crew together; I knew that if any time was wasted trying to do all that, this moment was going to pass undocumented."
Scott introduced Catherine to the 1977 television production starring Hal Holbrook, which he remembered being charmed and even moved by as a kid. "While at times it felt slow and strange, the universal these and deep emotion of the play definitely connected with me even then." Not so for the students of Dominguez. When Catherine and co-director Karen Greene showed it to the kids, they became even more resistant to the notion that an all-white town of a century ago had anything to do with Compton in 2000. At that point, Catherine, Ms. Greene and the students decided to bring more of themselves and Compton to Grover's Corners.
Scott knew he wanted to use the structure of the play within the documentary early on, but wasn't sure exactly how it was going to work. "I knew the themes of the play were going to be the themes of the documentary: The first act is called 'Daily Life,' the second act is 'Love and Marriage,' and the third act is 'Death.' I thought what a wonderful way to get into these students' lives, but there is also a great deal of conflict because at first these students don't think that they have anything to do with this play. I had that structure in mind during shooting, but it really came together during editing."
Another daunting, and then thrilling part of the editing process was choosing and placing quotes and footage from the Holbrook version of Our Town in OT: our town. "I'll never forget when I was trying to figure out an ending to the Compton/Dominguez into and, after all these shots and quotes about how tough Compton and Dominguez are - gang violence, riots, kids' hatred for the school - we cut to Holbrook: 'Nice town, you know what I mean? Nobody very remarkable ever come out of it... as far as we know.' Suddenly the movie just clicked in a whole new way. We have this famous American play in this infamous American town and, in both places, we wonder at the potential for somebody remarkable to come out of there."
At Dominquez High School in Compton, California, basketball is valued above all else. The end of the year is marked by a traditional cycle of proms, riots and graduation. And there hasn't been a play at the school in over twenty years. In an effort to make a change, English teacher Catherine Borek attempts to mount a theatrical production of Thronton Wilder's Our Town, the classic American play about the classic American town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. In the process she takes her fledgling students on a journey of self-discovery. With no budget and no stage, Ms. Borek chooses Our Town for its universal and timeless themes of community, family, love and loss, life and death, with the hope that her students might see themselves reflected in the roles they play.
The student actors have a hard time relating to the material at first, due to the striking differences in time, place and ethnicity. But Ms. Borek and her co-director, Ms. Karen Greene, motivate them to update Our Town and make it relevant to their friends and families who they hope will attend the performance. In the process, the students get the chance to re-imagine their own town, not only transforming themselves into the residents of Grover's Corner but transforming Grover's Corners into Compton. They also discover the joy of transformation itself: the opportunity that theater gives students to become a character and to get up on stage, confident in their abilities, and show their community what they are capable of.
"A value above all price..."
In a review of the Westport Country Playhouse version of Our Town, Michael Kuchwara (writing for the Associated Press) noted that "one of the problems facing any production of Our Town" ... is that "the play has the curse of familiarity about it." While that may be true for the many white, middle-class Americans who have read the play in high school and perhaps seen it performed by a local theater troupe, it is less true for the majority of world citizens.
Writer Penelope Niven has noted that "Our Town is an American play, written by an American author, set in an American town yet it has been performed around the world - in Poland, Germany, Russia, Japan, China, Korea and elsewhere. Why and how does this play translate into so many other languages and cultures?"
In 2002, the New York theater company Transport Group staged Our Town with a teenager as the Stage Manager and a couple in their sixties as George and Emily. Jack Cummings III, artistic director, explained that, "the non-traditional ages of these ... actors should not change the reading of the play - it is my hope to uncover or awaken layers in the play that are not found in most productions. The cycle of life, the connection to life at different ages and the idea that even if you have lived many years you can still never have "lived" are just some of the thoughts I hope to explore with an audience. I cannot predict how an audience will react to this production or any for that matter. The only thing I can do is put in front of an audience what I and my collaborators feel and interpret and then hope for the best."
Wilder himself explained his intentions in his preface to the play: "Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation of conditions of life after death. It is an attempt to find a value above all price for smaller events in our daily life... I have set a small village against the largest dimensions of time and place."
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