Activities and Investigations
The Play's the Thing
All in the Family
- Thornton Wilder once said, "I am not interested in the ephemeral -- such subjects as the adulteries of dentists. I am interested in those things that repeat and repeat and repeat in the lives of the millions." How does this statement apply to Our Town? Revisit the list students created about what makes a play a classic. Does Our Town qualify? Why or why not? Have students write a review that supports their conclusion.
- The Stage Manager claims, "There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being," but he doesn't tell the audience exactly what it is. Engage students in a discussion about their reactions to his statement. What do they think that "something" is? Do they agree or disagree with the Stage Manager's statement? Have students present their thoughts in a short speech or essay.
- Imagine you are the director of Our Town and have chosen to update it. How would you change the production? Create opening and closing speeches for the Stage Manager that would suit Our Town if it were being written now.
- What if a sequel called Return to Our Town were developed? Have students create an outline for the plot to the sequel. For example, would Emily return from the dead again? Would the Gibbs and Webb families return to their homes and comment on the new owners?
- Our Town was re-created as a musical in the 1950s. Working in teams, have students create their own musical version. What style of music would the play have -- show tunes, rock, rhythm and blues, rap? What might be its theme song? Students may wish to develop their answers in small groups. Ask for student volunteers to perform a song from the "new" Our Town musical.
- Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters is another well-known chronicle of small-town life. Ask students to match one of the poems to a scene or line in Our Town. What is each selection trying to express?
- Choose a contemporary song about small-town life, such as Bruce Springsteen's "My Hometown" or "Youngstown" or John Mellencamp's "Small Town" or "Little Pink Houses." (Students may be able to contribute other selections.) In pairs or teams, have students study the song. What do they think the songwriter is trying to say? What conversation might the songwriter and Thornton Wilder have had about small towns? Have students present their findings to the class as a dialogue, talk show, or performance.
- Many contemporary poets celebrate the value of daily life. Select a poem such as "Knoxville,Tennessee" by Nikki Giovanni or "Neighborhood Street" by Eloise Greenfield, or have students find other examples. Using the poems as inspiration, have students write their own poems about their appreciation of the "smaller things" in life.
The River of Time
- Mrs. Gibbs calls weddings "farces," and Mrs. Webb says sending girls into marriage is "downright cruel." Although the Stage Manager says theirs is "a good wedding," both George and Emily have second thoughts before they exchange vows. How do students think marriage was viewed at the turn of the 20th century or when Wilder wrote the play? How have conventions and attitudes about marriage changed since then? Ask students to interview their parents, grandparents, relatives, or friends about their weddings. Then have students interview one another about their own expectations. List the similarities and differences students discover.
- How are the two couples -- Mr. and Mrs. Webb and Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs -- alike or different? What might these two couples be like today? Choose a scene featuring one of the couples and re-create it for today's audience.
- Have students keep a journal of an ordinary day. Then ask them to imagine that they are George or Emily and write a similar account. Invite students to read their journals aloud. What are the similarities and differences within the class? Compare the students' entries with those of George and Emily.
It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves.
-- Thornton Wilder
The Way We Were
- Have students imagine they could go back in time to revisit a specific day in their lives. What day would they choose? Why? Have students convey their experiences as a diary entry, narrative, short video, or mural. Have them include as much description as they can, as well as their feelings about observing that particular day. How do their experiences compare with Emily's?
- Review the scene in Act I when the Stage Manager describes the Grover's Corners bank cornerstone. What does he say the time capsule will contain? In teams, have students decide what they would include in a modern-day time capsule for "people a thousand years from now" to examine. If possible, have them assemble the actual items. How do the students' time capsules compare with that of Grover's Corners? How are theirs the same or different from one another's? What do the time capsules say about our society, then and now?
It is a play that captures the universal experience of being alive.
-- playwright Donald Margulies
- As a class, draw a map of Grover's Corners as described by Wilder. Then have students use the library, town or city hall, local historical society, or museum to research what their city, town, or neighborhood looked like in 1901. Ask students to draw or copy the map of their town from that era. Compare and contrast it with the Grover's Corners map. Now have students bring their maps up-to-date. How have their maps changed? How might Grover's Corners look in 2003?
- Ask students to design a Web site for Grover's Corners. (If technology allows, have them actually build the site.) What would the homepage look like? Who would the Webmaster be? What would the content be? How often would you need to update it? Have students explain their plans.
- Ask students to assemble a sample copy of the newspaper that Mr. Gibbs edits, the Grover's Corners Sentinel. What would the features be? Editorials? Ads? You may want to have students research typical New England newspapers of the era to use as models.
- Legend has it that Our Town is performed somewhere around the globe every night. Relocate the play to a foreign country or the country of your origin. What changes might be made in the casting, set, or plot? Would the play work as well? Why or why not? (Note: More adventurous students may be willing to perform a scene from the "translated" play.)
- In the long-running television show The Simpsons, characters live out their mundane lives in the town of Springfield -- as distinctive a town as Grover's Corners. What do you think Thornton Wilder would have thought of The Simpsons? Write a memo from Wilder to The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening, imagining what Wilder's comments might be.
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