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Our Town
Masterpiece Theatre Our Town
Teacher's Guide [imagemap with 7 links]

From Page to Stage

Dramatic Readings

Act I
  • Stage Manager's opening speech
  • Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb: the legacy
  • Mr. Webb describing Grover's Corners
  • Mrs. Webb and Emily on being pretty
  • Stage Manager on the cornerstone
Act II
  • Stage Manager's opening speech
  • Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs on marriage
  • George and Mr. Webb on marriage
  • George and Emily at the drugstore
  • Stage Manager's opening speech
  • Emily as she revisits her parents

To bring the play to life in an English classroom, offer students the opportunity to do dramatic readings, as director James Naughton suggests in Production Notes. The monologues listed below are especially good for that purpose. You can also use them as audition pieces in a drama class.

As you assign different students to tackle these speeches or scenes, allow a variety of interpretations. Don't establish a "right" way to approach the material. Young performers shouldn't be expected to mimic the professional actors they've seen in the film.

Explore different ways to read the monologues, including speed, tone, and the nuances of humor and emotion. You may also want to invite students to try the material just sitting in chairs, reading from music stands, or with minimal scenery such as tables and chairs or stepladders.

Try adding incidental music such as a guitar or piano, live or taped. How does this new element affect the performance?

Producing the Play
Before you produce Our Town, decide whether or not you have a range of students who are capable of filling the roles. Remember that the Stage Manager will have to learn a large number of lines. You may want to team up with an English teacher whose curriculum includes Our Town. His or her English class may make an ideal audience for a special dress-rehearsal performance. You may also want to see if there is a local production that students can see before or after their own production.

  • The universality of the play allows for many possibilities. You may want to cast George and Emily from different ethnic backgrounds, adding a new element to their scenes together. You can also vary the ethnicity within the Gibbs and Webb households, with husband, wife, and children all from different backgrounds. Don't hesitate to use a female Stage Manager.

  • Mix up the tone of the play by casting sophisticated students in the more homespun roles such as Mrs. Soames, Constable Warren, or Howie Newsome. Ask shyer students to tackle the more well-spoken parts.

First Read-Through
  • Before the first read-through, share information about Thornton Wilder, the play, and its history to give students a good grounding. Suggest that they browse this Web site for additional background information.

  • You may want to stress the value of simplicity. As director James Naughton indicates in his interview, Emily's performance "got simpler" as she improved. Point out that even the most seasoned actors often find it hard to avoid excesses, flourishes, and over-emoting. Have students try to let Wilder's words speak for themselves.

  • Use a stopwatch to time the read-through. Afterward, ask the cast if the pace felt too fast or too slow. Work with the actors on varying the speed of different scenes.

  • Read the play again, but begin with Act III and go backward to Act I. Do the students' assumptions about the play change by altering the text this way?

  • Hold "character conferences" so you can give direction one-on-one. This is especially helpful if an actor is struggling with his or her role.

  • Play against the grain of the scenes on the page. Stress the dark tones in a humorous scene (Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb on the legacy; Mr. Webb taking questions from the audience). Conversely, emphasize the lighthearted aspects of a more dramatic scene (for instance, the Stage Manager's sermon at the cemetery). Actors will be much less likely to take the words at face value or pigeonhole material as completely funny or sad.

  • If you can, experiment with space. Move beyond the stage proper and use the aisles for some of the action. If possible, extend the event to the lobby. Can some aspect of Grover's Corners (a tableau of Our Town; actors in smaller roles going about the business of the town) greet the audience as it enters the theater?

  • Students probably won't be word-perfect on their first time "off book." Encourage them to explore how valid their substitute phrases may be in terms of Wilder's meaning.

  • Rehearse the play out of order to gain a fresh perspective.

  • Have actors switch roles in a scene (for instance, have the actor playing Mrs. Gibbs take on the role of Mrs. Webb or have Emily and her mother or George and Emily switch roles). How does stepping into the shoes of another character help the actors understand the scene?

  • Update the play's settings and events. Change the soda fountain to a school cafeteria or local coffee shop, the church choir to a rock group.

  • Hold a "speed-through" rehearsal on the day you open, sacrificing the normal pace of dialogue for fast pick-up of cues.

Set and Costumes
  • Decide what kind of costumes you will use and to what extent students will appear as early 20th century citizens. How might the addition of costumes affect the students' performances?

  • Given the absence of sets, lighting is critical. Depending on the scene, the designer (teacher or student) can vary the lighting to create mood -- with color, intensity, light/dark, etc. For example, does the cemetery scene in Act III change if the lighting is bright or dim? Should Emily's return home after her death be lit realistically, or as a fantasy/dream? Is the Stage Manager always treated as part of the onstage action, or should he be illuminated with a spotlight?

After Opening Night
  • Hold a discussion session the next day. What do the students themselves think worked or didn't work? Address the actors' own criticisms in a brush-up rehearsal.

Our Town: Case Study
The 7th and 8th grade students at Day Middle School in Newton, Massachusetts, traditionally perform a Shakespeare play each spring. In 2003 the suggestion was made that they try something more contemporary. Drama teacher Jessica Shulman immediately thought of Our Town. Like Shakespeare's work, the play "has so much room for interpretation," she notes. "The language of many current plays [written for middle-school-age actors] is very pedestrian and doesn't challenge the kids as much as it could. Although the language of Our Town is simple, the phrasing isn't, and the play itself is complex." Shulman had been in Our Town when she was in high school, and at the same time the Day Middle School cast was rehearsing their play, a community theater group also performed it, as did several neighboring schools.

Shulman decided to capture the essence of the play in several ways. The students begin the play in regular clothes, off the stage and close to the audience. "This reinforces the idea that 'our town' could be your town," she explains. The actors enter chatting about being cast in the play. The set is bare, with a few stools standing in for tables or chairs. Each time an actor exits, he or she returns wearing an article of old-fashioned clothing: a bonnet, an apron, a hat. By the end of Act I, the students are in full costume and up on the stage.

The Stage Manager, played by Esther Mobley, worked hard at memorizing her lines. Since she appears in every scene, her role is the most demanding. Esther remained undaunted. "I was very excited," she says, "because I had so much material to work with." To prepare, Esther -- like other cast members -- watched previous film versions or saw a live version. She says she wanted to make the Stage Manager "a person with feelings...the director of this play-within-a-play."

The students initially found the play "not the most dramatic." But as they rehearsed it and got further into their roles, they became the citizens of Grover's Corners. Esther explains, "Every time you [rehearsed], there was so much more." Once they started blocking the play, it went from "boring to amazing," recalls Tess Johnson (Miss Soames). To help the students develop their characters, Shulman held weekly "character conferences," in which the actors discussed their roles and asked questions. She was also able to offer them direction on a one-on-one basis. David Sumberg (George) felt that the character was a "wimp" at first, but then was able to better understand him in an early 20th-century context.

The students appreciated the opportunity to do a play that high school or adult actors usually tackle. Looking back, the cast agreed that it was an ensemble effort. Ari Miller (Howie Newsome) says, "It needs every single person for the play to work -- just like Grover's Corners does." Everyone was impressed by their classmates' ability to stay in character.

The play had an impact on many of their friends and family who came to watch the performance. "One of my friends said she cried at the end," Diana Raiselis (Ensemble) commented. Meredith McLaughlin (Ensemble) agrees: "Either you get it or you don't. If you do get it, it's powerful."

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