Audiences go to the theater expecting to watch a play safely behind an imaginary barrier, the theatrical “fourth wall,” and willingly suspend their disbelief. Generally, they do not expect to be directly addressed by the actors or that the production will purposefully call attention to itself. But that’s what “Our Town” does from its very first line.

“Our Town”

Tonight at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
at Mendelssohn Theater
Tickets from $9

“Our Town,” one of the most frequently produced American plays, opens the Department of Theatre & Drama’s winter season with a contemporary perspective on the 72-year-old work. This production amplifies the self-referential qualities of the play, which follows a narrator called the Stage Manager who serves as a mediator between the audience and the everyday interactions of the people in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire.

Director Jerry Schwiebert, clinical assistant professor of performing arts in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, said that his adaptation of “Our Town” isn’t a complete departure from the traditional tendencies of the production. However, specific, minimal design choices were made in order to place emphasis on the simplicity and richness of the text. The stage setting consists of little more than two tables and some chairs. The fly system (ropes, counterweights, and pulleys offstage that move curtains, scenery, etc.) is completely exposed on stage left. There will be no props used by the actors, and the lighting design will highlight areas of the stage rather than create an elaborate spectacle.

“If you have a fast horse, don’t put two jockeys on its back,” Schwiebert said. “What I mean is, if you have a really good play, you don’t need to mess it up. The approach was to tell the story simply, to make the stage look empty.”

“It’s a chance to see how powerful the theater can be without glitz, without trumping it up — just an actor on stage talking truthfully to you,” he added.

Characters in “Our Town” range from as old as 60 to as young as 11. Even though the actors portraying the variety of ages are all University students, Schwiebert explained that theatrical aging makeup will not be used because it seems too artificial.

“My thought was that the actions that (the actors) play define and age the character,” Schwiebert explained. “We’ll just let (the actors) be themselves, let them show the character and how they behave differently, and I think that just sort of magically brings you in without starting with a lie.”

Because of the lack of visual elements, heavy focus was placed on the script and acting choices during the rehearsal process. Students working on the production agree that this approach has been a one-of-a-kind educational opportunity, and they feel that it has both enhanced their personal experiences and the show as a whole.

“I get to see a different perspective on directing,” said Roman Micevic, School of Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore and assistant director of “Our Town.” “(Schwiebert) has a very interesting approach, where he focuses in on the text, and then through the text and working with the actors, he develops the characters and the action that goes on the stage.”

The director chose to stress certain interpretations of the play’s thematic elements to inspire choices for the production to create an overall arc of meaning for the audience.

“I think the line that is probably the most important in the show is: ‘Choose the least important day of your life, it will be important enough,’ ” Schwiebert said. “That’s really the idea.”

Carrie Fisk, a School of Music, Theater & Dance freshman who plays Emily Webb, explained that watching clips of various versions of “Our Town” showed that poignant moments of the show are often focused on seriousness and negativity — something this production steers away from.

“Just as with life, if we weigh too much on the negative, we lose track of the positive,” Fisk said. “So it’s been really fun to (work on a production) where we are exploring the positivity in it and the fun in it, and just the silliness of everyday life.”

“When we’re showing the regular life of these characters in the first two acts, we’re not commenting on the seriousness,” Schwiebert elaborated. “In fact, we’ve upped the tempo, making it go by quicker, at a normal family pace.”

Fisk explained that “Our Town” is very pertinent to college students despite its classic status and age. The play deals with the complicated nature of human connections, relationships and what it means when people are too worried about the details instead of appreciating them.

“We get too overwhelmed,” Fisk said. “It starts in the end of high school, but it gets really intense (in college). There is so much going on with homework to do, people to see and relationships to build and you just get so caught up in everything.

“I think it’s nice to see (in ‘Our Town’) how before any of the overhead of the digital age, these things did still happen,” she said. “We did still have human things to deal with, and we still have to take the time as a human being to stop and enjoy what we have instead of worrying about the time we don’t have.”

It’s this ultimately optimistic message, communicated through a simple, bottom-up production approach, that the Department of Theatre & Drama’s production of “Our Town” will bring to a play traditionally noted for its heavy subject matter.

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