Theatre senior seminar production cancelled

For the second year in a row, the Theatre Major Senior Seminar class did not result in the anticipated theatre production. The cancellation of the seminar play, conceived by the entire class and written by John Magary ’00, left many tensions unresolved and raised interesting questions about issues involved in the artistic process and the extent to which one’s experience and perspective dictate what subjects he or she can write about.

Last spring, the then-junior theatre majors met and decided to create an original production, with Magary as the playwright. Centered around the topic of phrenology, the study of the lumps on the skull, the play was expected to touch deep personal issues. “We wanted the piece to be about curiosity and exploration of an ‘other,’” said Julie Sandy ’00, who was to direct of the play. “We were interested in the gray areas in which curiosity becomes obsession, and exploratory actions between people become offensive.” According to Zelle Bonney ’00, who was to be one of the actors in the play, “We wanted to create a controversial piece that aroused anger, hatred and humor about what used to be, until we found out [that] what used to be still is.”

The racial and sexual content of the play was at the heart of the controversy that surrounded its production. “The play deals with a white man’s obsession with a black woman,” said Magary. “The three main characters – the man Sam (to be played by Magary), his wife Samette (to be played by Channing Powell ’01) and the black woman Rhonda (to be played by Bonney) – are all pretty nasty people. Sam meets Rhonda and fantasizes about her. Samette finds out she’s pregnant. At one point, Samette makes a racist comment to Rhonda and Rhonda acts on her feelings for Sam, which we find out are reciprocal.”

Nancy Moeur ’00, who was the lighting designer for the play, said that the racial issues that arose were not central to the cancellation of the production. “The final reason for canceling was the necessity of doing justice to the artistic integrity of what we had created,” she said. “This was more important because of the racial issues in the piece but would have been equally important in any other piece of theatre.”

Sandy agrees, saying that the final version of the play did not meet the expectations of the class. “We read the script, and it was really quite different plot-wise than [the senior seminar] had expected. In the discussion which followed, we began to realize that there were issues involving the text and the subject matter and just personal issues that had not really been effectively addressed before that point, and the reading sparked them to burst out at once.”

That reading left Magary feeling frustrated and upset. “It was pretty clear during the read-through on Feb. 4 that Zelle was not happy with the play. A couple times, she giggled while she read the lines, and it often looked like she just didn’t want to read the play out loud…she seemed tired and annoyed and offended.” These frustrations on both sides boiled over at the end of the reading. “We had a huge fight – me crying and yelling, Zelle yelling, some others crying I think, the chorus open-mouthed and stunned,” Magary said. “The fight both was and wasn’t about race. Explicitly, it was about my crummy writing and her lazy effort; it was about the time that we’d have to fully dedicate to this project; it was about great resistance.”

In the week following the fight, the class had a series of meetings and resolved to produce the play. However, Chair of the Theatre Department David Eppel, who taught the Senior Seminar in the fall, decided that it should not go up. “He had become convinced, and after four and one-half hours had convinced almost all of us, that it was not only going to kill us to try to do all that we had to do in such a short amount of time, but that it wasn’t right for the play,” Sandy said. “We all liked John Magary’s script for the most part, and felt that it really had too much promise and was too delicate to butcher by rushing forward to production without time to really fix those things that were wrong with it. It wouldn’t have properly represented what we wanted to say to our audience.”

Eppel said that the play was simply not ready to be realized on stage in the time the class had to do so. “The process, one of the most valuable and exciting in our field, lends itself to enormous risk, and this year’s seniors embraced that with courage and talent. One of the risks, indeed, is a miscalculation of time, and that is one of the functions of the collaborative process. It would, in my opinion, have been disrespectful of the work, to rush toward an opening night, and so I decided that we would cancel.”

Despite claims to the contrary, Magary was not convinced that time was the major factor leading to the play’s cancellation. “The fight is at the root of the breakdown of the process,” he said. “It’s true, of course, that we ran out of time, but saying that the seminar was cancelled because we ran out of time is like saying that Drunk Bob died in the car crash because his head ran out of room. It relieves us all of personal responsibility. And I think responsibility became a big issue. Mine, Zelle’s, David’s, everyone’s.”

Bonney expressed a more critical view of why the play never was put on stage. “We did not put a play up because we did not want to put a play on stage that was structured around ambiguous real world and fantasy sequences of a married white man curious about a black woman, that had no point. It could have been controversial but it had no point and the play ended without any meaning, leaving your only question to be: ‘What? I missed it.’”

During the period before Eppel cancelled the play, Magary, Sandy and Moeur met and made changes to the script which addressed some of the problems that people had raised. At this point, Magary said, Bonney made the issue of race explicit. “She didn’t like our changes, because she now felt that I was unfit to continue writing…she felt that I was unconsciously racist,” he said. “She felt that I unconsciously had Rhonda instigate every problem, that I unconsciously had Sam come out victorious (though he didn’t), that I was full of unconscious prejudice, and that I was incapable of not being unconsciously racist. And she said she felt that way about all of us now…This was one of the most disturbing speeches I’ve ever heard – I had never in my life been so completely insulted. And you know why I was offended? Because I’m not a racist.”

To Bonney, a number of unanswered questions were raised from this experience, one of which concerns the importance of one’s viewpoint and experience as an author. She asked, “Is it possible for a white man to write a play about race involving a black woman when he has had limited contact with black culture or black people in general? You can replace ‘black’ and ‘white’ with any two different ethnicities, but I guess part of the answer could be that you just can’t write a play or a paper about something you don’t understand, whatever it may be.”

Magary did not completely accept this judgment. “I realize that I probably don’t have the background to write for a black woman,” he said, “but to completely dismiss my writing as racist or foolish because it doesn’t feel exactly right is just lazy acting…and pretty damn cowardly.” He felt that actually getting the work on stage was a crucial part of the artistic process, and one that was denied to him. “[Julie] said that she’s learned what she needed to learn, and that putting on the play wouldn’t have taught her much more…performance is, of course, possibly the most important side of creating an original work. We never rehearsed more than one scene of the play, so basically, we had no idea how it worked on stage.”

While everyone involved with the seminar is at least somewhat disappointed that the play never reached the stage, there were also many positive feelings about the process. “I feel like the point of senior seminar is to learn how to think about theatre conceptually and then collaboratively translate that framework into reality, running up against all the practical concerns that exist,” said Sandy. “And by that definition, our seminar succeeded – we developed a piece from nothing, from ourselves, and took it to the point where it became solid enough to collide with those physical criteria – time, money, energy. The actual production is really the very last step in the process, and in my mind the least important in some ways.”

Moeur agreed with her contention, asking, “Am I sorry we did it? No, not at all – and I regard the project as a “failure” only in that we were unable to produce a performance – I do not think that the ideas or the ways in which we were working are inherently flawed, and they are very important to our education and growth as theatre artists.”

Magary remains upset about the experience. “Yes, there are a million reasons why the seminar was cancelled, mostly based around trust and around ego and, yes, race. I still don’t really trust anyone I worked with, and I don’t feel like talking to them; perhaps it’s irrational, but this was a major blow to work on a play, stick with the play, and then watch your collaborators tiredly pull out right before the play takes real shape,” he said. “I think that if I had had one supporter by the end, we would be performing it in April. And then the play could have had life, could have had some meaning. As of now, it’s just a little, dormant volcano.”

If nothing else, the experience of the theatre senior seminar may help to bring to the surface certain issues that lie beneath life at Williams, and in the world at large. “It is very important to me that the campus realizes what went on in our little class, that we ran up against these very real and huge issues of race and gender that people talk about in abstract but don’t always get to experience,” Sandy said. “It is more like real life than any other experience I’ve had at Williams thus far.”

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *