– By Sam Hendrian –
This past November, eleven JPCatholic acting students brought to life Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town under the direction of adjunct acting professor Angie Bitsko. Set in a small New Hampshire town at the beginning of the twentieth century, it tells the simple but poignant story of the daily routines and ruminations of everyday folk. Professor Bitsko and several of the actors generously shared their reflections on bringing this classic play to life.
Professor Bitsko chose Our Town for the JPCatholic acting students to perform because of its thematic beauty and intentionally simple set-up. “The play is traditionally performed without much of a set or props, allowing the actors to focus on building characters and the relationships between characters,” she explained. “In turn, performances give audiences the opportunity to share in the story and the relationships that the characters create.” When asked what her favorite part of directing the play was, she replied, “[It] was definitely working with my talented cast of actors… As young professionals, they displayed great maturity in their approach to building their craft as performers and students of dramatic literature and tradition. And of course it was beautiful when we prayed together, sometimes at the beginning of rehearsal when we would pray for strength, and sometimes at the end of rehearsal when we would give thanks for the artistic experience that we were able to share with one another.”
There are several transcendental themes at the core of Our Town, and Professor Bitsko hopes that audiences walked away from the show pondering them in their hearts. “On the surface, Our Town may seem to be merely a simple story about plain people in an ordinary town, but Thornton Wilder presents us with the beautiful story of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary… In today’s world, people can be distracted and overwhelmed by the constant presence of social media and technology. Those elements of our culture have their place, but I feel that every once in a while, we need to slow down, to stand still, to be quiet, to listen, to observe, and to connect with each other, with our faith, and with ourselves.”
Megan Geier, who portrayed newspaper editor Charles Webb, was attracted to the story of Our Town because “[it] is simple and relatable to everyone… Everybody has a place they grew up that formed them into who they are.” When asked how she prepared for her particular role of Charles Webb, she explained, “It was a difficult role for me because it meant that I was playing a male role, which took a lot of preparation in itself… I based the role largely off my own father, as a man who is dedicated to his work but is even more dedicated to building up and cherishing his own family.”
Clare McKay, who also portrayed a fatherly figure in the character of Dr. Gibbs, said that she prepared for her role “by learning my lines and listening.” She then went on to explain, “I spent most of my time listening to the other actors and their formation of the characters, and I made my character based around how they acted, because that is what a doctor or normal person would do.” When asked what her favorite part of the experience was, she said, “Actually performing the show. I enjoy having an audience to play off of because if the energy’s right, it’s a lot of fun.”
Annie Buchheit, who portrayed the character of the Stage Manager, was also attracted to the simplicity of the story like Megan was, saying, “It may not offer wild comedy or intense drama, but it manages to portray the depth and complexity of real life all the same.” When asked if there were any challenges in bringing Our Town to life, she replied, “One of the biggest challenges was character work: relationships, objective, etc. Because Wilder wrote the show in such an everyday manner, things like objective can be hard to find, as it is buried underneath the ordinariness of life.”
Nicholas Pape, who played the role of George Gibbs, did not really have an appreciation for Our Town until he started acting in it. He admitted, “Initially, I was attracted to the play because I would be getting a grade. When I was brought onto the play and started diving into the characters, my biggest attraction [to the play] was the simplicity.” When asked about challenges, he replied, “One of the challenges is trying to find a way to empathize with the character you are playing. For me, the difficult part was finding out how similar George Gibbs was to myself.”
Each actor had her or his own thoughts on what she or he wanted audiences to take away from Our Town. Megan said, “I hope audiences took away the fact that life is beautiful, and that many times we run through life without noticing the beauty and people around us. I hope they really enjoy each moment that God gives them so that when their time is up, they won’t regret anything.” Clare said, “Honestly, I hope they took away what they needed to. There was a lot in that play that could land on a person in various ways, and it is not for me to decide what they should or should not have taken away. I do hope they understand a little bit more about life and how we should pay more attention to each other before it’s too late.” Annie reflected, “If the audience could take anything away from this show, I hope it’s that we can’t live our lives to the fullest while we’re living in the past and the future rather than the present.” Finally, Nicholas Pape concluded, “I hope that the audience took away a deeper appreciation for the fragility of life.”
Our Town delighted audiences at JPCatholic and was an enriching, memorable experience for everyone involved. Thorton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning text was already beautiful and rich, but the talented students made it even more so. The university plans to continue putting on great productions in the quarters to come.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.