Fresh Eyes on The Skin of Our Teeth: 1st Installment
Rehearsals for The Skin of Our Teeth began this week for the five actors who make up the Antrobus household; the rest of the cast will join us next week -- a staggered beginning to rehearsals that allows us to spend extra time exploring the core relationships of the play. The first day’s rehearsal focused on reading through the script (with production staff pitching in to read the lines of all the characters besides the Antrobus family and Sabina) and then working through questions and ideas as they arose.
Reporting on rehearsals for The Skin of Our Teeth is our latest group of Fresh Eyes: Jessica Barr, Katy Hubbard, Lorraine Prince, Max Tapogna, and Isaiah Zimmerman. They will be attending 4-5 rehearsals in the coming weeks and sharing their observations with all of us. Here are their thoughts from the first rehearsal:
When I initially tried to read The Skin of Our Teeth in eighth grade I put it down after the first act. I understood that it was supposed to be funny and farcical but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why? Coming to the first read through with the main cast and seeing a table read with as much energy and vibrance as one would see at a performance, I finally am starting to understand the play’s complex layers. Since the age of 13, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town has been one of my favorite plays. Being an atheist, it gave me an explanation of what may happen after death. That was comforting to me since having a mother who had stage four breast cancer for most of my life meant someday soon I would have to let go. While both plays are seemingly different, Wilder uses a narrator or some sort (the announcer) in both to show a slice of life in the big universe. In The Skin of Our Teeth characters Mrs. Antrobus and Mr. Antrobus represent Adam and Eve, and other characters represent biblical stories and people as well. While the play is downright absurd at times, there is a certain emotional depth and humanity to the characters. Anthro, a prefix meaning human, illustrates that the main characters are constantly struggling with the question, “What does being a human mean?”. I found that this question lies in the deep love that the Antrobus’s have for their children, which the Character Sabina says separates them from savages. Looking at the play through the rehearsal process was extremely helpful. The actors first read through an act, then went back and broke the parts down into sections they had trouble understanding, and found places for discovery. The cast made quick decisions for their characters the second time reading through, leaving the text up to interpretation for each character. I think this was my favorite part, hearing people’s different ideas about why something is written in the play, and what purpose it has to serve the piece.
I am the daughter of a high school theater arts teacher, and as such, grew up listening to Broadway musical soundtracks, attending myriad theater productions and watching my dad prepare his students for One Act and Shakespeare Festival competitions. Playwrights’ names floated in and out of my consciousness, and Thornton Wilder was certainly among them. However, to date, I believe I’ve only ever seen one of his works performed in the theater - the ubiquitous Our Town.
To prepare for this Fresh Eyes experience, I read the script of The Skin of Our Teeth. How shall I put this? I was concerned that my propensity for the literal was going to get in the way of my potential enjoyment and appreciation of this whimsical play that spans 5,000 years and takes place in New Jersey. But that all changed this afternoon, when I, along with three college-bound Grant High School theater students, had the privilege of listening in on the first reading of ART’s production of ‘Skin’.
To begin, the Artistic Director, the insightful Dámaso Rodriguez, led the abbreviated cast through a discussion of just what this play is about. He explained that it is actually three One Act plays, with a distinct and unique flavor to each act. He said that the ideas of humanity, community, climate change, even infidelity were reflected in the work. He said Wilder was responding to WWII, but that he felt that the play was meant to be inherited or reinterpreted by each generation - that no matter when it was produced, it is always about NOW. Dámaso was very respectful, inviting everyone to contribute and often turning to the dramaturge, Luan Schooler, for her well-researched answers.
As the actors began their reading, I began to understand much more about the story. Lines that I had read that sounded stiff or serious in my mind, came to life and I found myself laughing out loud. The character Sabina breaks the fourth wall several times throughout, a method often employed on television today (think “The Office”), but which I would imagine was relatively innovative when Wilder wrote the play. And I loved hearing Dámaso fill in all sorts of dialogue that *could* be added to explain the feelings behind the actors’ lines.
All in all, a great first experience in the rehearsal room. Can’t wait until next week!
The day before the read through, my high school theatre class read through the first act of The Skin of Our Teeth and the play felt discordant and confusing. I was not sure whether I would enjoy such a “modern” play. However, after listening to the actors at Artist’s Rep I found Wilder’s writing to be wickedly funny and very clever. Wilder’s allegories and allusions to Classical and Biblical myths are like a great big inside joke that everyone is in on. Still they are so many in number, it leaves a lot of work for the dramaturge! And even after seeing the renderings of the set, I’m still struggling to visualize how this play will appear on stage. I eagerly await the production.
The most challenging aspects of this play to me seem to be first grasping and making sense of the language. Mr. Rodriguez referenced what must be a very difficult third act of the play, although I did not get to hear read aloud, if it is stranger than either of the first two acts it must quite a piece of work. Another challenge is that story of the Antrobus’ is really a play within a play. To make matter's worse, that play is a failing one and is rife with insubordinate cast members. Making sense to the audience as to why that aspect of the play is relevant to the story seems very hard. Luckily most of the major themes of the play (apocalypse and destruction) are as in vogue today as they were in the 1940’s, so Mr. Rodriguez does not have to worry about the current relevancy of Wilder’s 70 year-old play.
NOTES ON DIRECTOR'S COMMENTS:
“Some plays, especially mine, are blank checks for the artists to leave their mark.” - Thornton Wilder Twitter Account @ArtistsRep // [Play is] applicable to todays events, such as global warming, the recession, ect. // Larger tech crew to work with larger set transformations and to fill in a larger looking cast // Community engagement is stressed // Things will be different every night, and things will go wrong: Organized Chaos! // Seen as a 5 person family drama, just… with other people in it // Trust the play, and take it very seriously. It shouldn’t be played as a commentary. // [The director] wants to play with the laughs, but he wants to maintains the humanity of the piece. “It goes off on tangents.” // The play wants 2 intermissions. Physically needs time to transition. // Written as 3 one-act plays -- ach act is so different than it was before. Musically, each act is very different, and sets are transformed quite dramatically. // Act 1: Set with a contemporary feel, yet in the 50s; classic styles but modern. // Act 2: 60s feel; It wants to look like a contemporary political convention. // Act 3: Contemporary sources, like Walking Dead. // Challenge: How to integrate everything together with the language of its time?
ACT 1, FIRST READING:
“In the midst of life we are in the midst of death.” // [Actors] playing the comedy even in a read. Very prepared and familiar even in a read, flowing smoothly. // Mrs. Antrobus played a lot more calm than I expected, played passively rather than outright aggressive. “Don’t let your family see that you’re worried.” -> Key into Mrs. A’s character. // “Nobody actually starves.” …Sabina including the Fresh Eyes people as the audience. // Biblical and Mythological Allusions -- Muses, Judge Moses (created all the laws), Cain and Abel, Homer // Making dinosaur and mammoth go out into the cold to die: go extinct.
RE-READING ACT 1:
Starting to direct actors with their lines and why they’re saying what they’re saying. Actors ask questions of director, director asks questions of actors // Excelsior means “always rising” // Antrobus = Anthropos: human // Dramaturge talking about 2 different stories of Adam and Eve- Lilith as the first woman, before Eve. Lilith is lusty, hungry // Discussing characters and their origin/purpose/initial motivation. // Director emotes the lines that he actors are saying, and occasionally mouths along. // It’s very cool to see the actor’s performances transform just with different discussion at the table.
Next week, our Fresh Eyes will be in the room again for a reading with the entire cast and presentations from the designers. We look forward to more observations then!