Author: Lisa Andrews
A small group of advanced Oxy actors is preparing to perform a dramatized version of the Henry James novel The Awkward Age, which will be staged in the Keck rehearsal room April 13-15. The process has been challenging and enlightening for director and writer Professor John Bouchard and the students involved.
The Oxy Theater department decided to add a fourth, professionally directed production to its schedule this year, and Professor Bouchard began looking for a novel to adapt to the stage. The faculty wanted to find a dramatic piece for students who didn’t sing, since the main spring production is the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado. “There was no definition of what it was, so I could do whatever I wanted,” Bouchard said, but copyright laws immediately required him to look to older books. He settled on The Awkward Age for several reasons.
“I love Henry James,” Bouchard said. “James is extraordinarily complicated and complex.”
This particular novel has a lot of dialogue, with characters seeming to explain what their relationships to one another are and why they do what they do, only to reveal later that things are not as they seem. The story focuses on a boorish couple, the Brookenhams, and their effort to marry off their daughter Nanda to wealthy suitors. The complexity of the drama drew Bouchard to the book.
“You think you know what’s going on, but the more you see, the more you realize that you really don’t know,” he said.Once the novel was chosen Bouchard and the eleven students and three alumni that comprise the cast embarked on the collaborative, ever-changing process of bringing it to life. A basic script was in place before rehearsals began, but Bouchard was still writing as the actors were practicing.
“I wrote to the actors I had. In that way it became like a Shakespearean process,” he said.
This unusual situation offered an exciting challenge for Alana Dietze (senior), who will alternate playing the part of Nanda Brookenham with Brenan Dwyer (sophomore).
“Working on a script as it is being written is always challenging because the material continues to change throughout the process. As an actor you have to be available with a lot of flexibility to re-memorize and make adjustments over and over again,” Dietze said.
However, she also enjoyed the newness of the experience. “The characters are extraordinarily complex and it is such a fun, interesting experience to have a novel to reference during the work. Henry James is very detailed in terms of his characters’ thoughts and reactions, which is a great help and a very unique way to explore a play,” she said.
Another unusual element of this production of The Awkward Age is the way it will be presented. Time is an important element in the book, as it covers a year and a half of Nanda’s life. To get in all the necessary information, Bouchard essentially wrote two plays, and the end product is about four hours long.
For actors, four hours “is a long time to keep the energy, commitment, spontaneity and playfulness necessary for a convincing performance,” said Dietze. “It has been a great adventure for everyone involved, I think.”
To accommodate such a long play, the work will be presented in an unconventional way. The first two hours will be presented on Friday night, and the second two will play on Saturday night for one group of ticket-holders. An alternative is to see the whole play on Sunday with a dinner break between the two-hour acts. Unfortunately, not many Oxy students will be able to see the show. The only space available for the performance was the small rehearsal room in Keck, and the space can only fit forty people at a time. Half of the tickets are being held for special invited guests and the rest of the tickets will be allotted to theater students on a long wait-list. Bouchard has decided to use this tiny format to his advantage rather than see it as a liability.
“It allowed us not to have to operate within normal boundaries,” he said.
Those lucky enough to get a ticket for the show are in for a treat. The story should be intriguing, due to the fact that, as Bouchard says, “the characters are more clever, devious and calculating than real people are ever intelligent enough to be, which makes them very interesting to watch.”
The acting should be superb as well. Dietze says the small format “takes the focus for us actors off the audience and off of pleasing others and redirects that focus into doing our best work for ourselves and each other. Art for the sake of art, as they say.”
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