Backstage Blog

Happiness, Defined.

Greg Watanabe & Jo Anne Glover in Maple and Vine. Photo by Daren Scott

Greg Watanabe & Jo Anne Glover in Maple and Vine. Photo by Daren Scott

One of the joys of being a dramaturg is the simple task of discussing the core of whatever script you happen to be working on with anyone and everyone who is willing to engage you in conversation.  A few weeks ago I had the privilege of talking with our teaching artist for Maple and Vine, Tim West, while he presented his lesson plans to me as part of our Engaging the Stage workshop series.  As a fellow passionate history buff and seasoned theatre artist, he and I delighted in geeking out over the many social issues threaded throughout the script.

In many ways, Maple and Vine is a dramaturg’s dream.  It is rich in historical content, touching on everything from the most popular car model in 1955 to gender roles and social attitudes towards various minority groups.  I got to look up the most popular ring tone in 2011, what Sanka was (or is, given that it is still currently sold in stores), and when spray paint was invented.  I had to research the history of the LGBT rights movement and post-WWII attitudes towards Japanese-Americans.  I learned that the year Rosa Parks refused to give her seat up to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama was the same year the McDonalds Corporation was founded, two dogs slurped a spaghetti noodle and ended up smooching, and the happiest place on earth opened for business.

Now as much as I enjoyed this work, deep down I knew… that’s not what this play is about.  Not REALLY.  It’s all essential information for making sense of the world in which this story takes place, sure.  And one of the key functions of a dramaturg is ensuring the accuracy and dependability of the world in which the characters exist.  But is the play about glamorizing the role of the 1950’s housewife over the 21st century powerhouse corporate woman?  Is it about the wrongful treatment of Japanese-Americans during and after WWII, or the struggles of being a homosexual man during a time when loving someone of the same sex was widely considered a psychological disease?  No.  At least not in my opinion.

What is happiness and how do you define it?  What would you sacrifice for happiness?  What does it mean to live life authentically?  These are the questions at the heart of Jordan Harrison’s thought-provoking play.  Maple and Vine strategically presents the downfalls of 21st century living right alongside the positives of life in 1955, forcing us to question whether or not we really are happier in this age of progressiveness and convenience.  And as our director, Igor Goldin, states in his program notes, “Everyone will have their own opinion which will be informed by their own histories, but with every answer will come a contradiction… As in life, nothing is black and white.  Life is messy and untidy.  There are no easy answers, nor does Mr. Harrison try to create any.  He just presents the hypothetical and leaves the rest for us to debate.”

So won’t you join us on Sunday, February 9th after the 7:00pm performance of Maple and Vine for what is sure to be an engaging talkback on the matter of happiness?  We are pleased to welcome back Dr. Edith Frampton, professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University.  Joining her in leading the talk will be SDSU colleague Dr. Peter Herman. You can purchase tickets here.  See you there!

Bringing back the 50s with director Igor Goldin

Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, last month we were able to Skype with Maple and Vine director Igor Goldin from his New York apartment where he was working on a new musical. He provided some very interesting insights about the process of bringing the new comedy to the Cygnet Theatre stage. Maple and Vine by Jordan Harrison, runs January 16 through February 16.

CT: This is your first time directing at Cygnet Theatre. How did you get connected?

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Igor Goldin and Sean Murray

I was in San Diego directing for Diversionary Theatre and had a chance to see several productions and fell in love with Cygnet. I saw Cabaret and It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play and loved the creativity and specificity in which they were performed and directed.  I also had seen a Caryl Churchill play produced years ago at the Rolando Stage, A Number, and was extremely impressed with the texture and gray areas in the piece and how it didn’t spoon feed the audience, but trusted them to come up with their own answers. Sean [Murray] and I went to North Carolina School of the Arts together. He saw my production of Yank! and thought of me when they put Maple and Vine on the season. We had both wanted to work with each other for some time so I’m thrilled that it worked out with Maple and Vine.

CT: Maple and Vine is about a modern day couple who choose to leave the big city and move to a gated community where the residents live like it’s 1955. How will you present these opposing settings?

Set Model by Sean Fanning

Set Model by Sean Fanning

I’ve been skyping with set director Sean Fanning and we are both excited about the addition of a turntable to the Cygnet stage. The structure of the play is very episodic with short scenes involving quick scenic, costume and lighting changes.  The turntable provides an opportunity to shift eras and locations quickly and keep the show fluid. It’s a dark comedy that deals with important social issues and I’m certain audiences will debate them after the show, but during the performance, it’s important to keep things moving, with each scene flowing seamlessly into the next.

CT: What about the look and feel? How are you working with designers to create both eras?

We are limited by the resources and economy of a nonprofit theater, but that is a challenge I rather enjoy. I’d much rather solve problems creatively within constraints than have a bloated budget and throw everything at the audience. We’ll be working with simple iconic set pieces that are clearly grounded in the era they represent. In fact, the concept of limited resources is one that resonates within the play because going back to the 50s means we don’t have everything at our fingertips as we do today

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Preliminary costume design by Jeanne Reith

I’m also working with costume designer Jeanne Reith to capture the quality and specificity of each era. The 1950’s Ozzie and Harriet/Leave it to Beaver look has a warm and cozy feel, while the urban sleek style of today’s New York has a totally different feel. We’ll also be working with a variety of rigging solutions for quick changes. The lighting and scenery will define the 2 eras with a sleek, angular, urban starkness for 2011 to a saturated, warmer and softer look for 1955.

CT: The comedy looks at attitudes about gender, race and sexuality. What is it “really” about for you?

It’s a light but penetrating comedy that explores what happens when we are stripped of the liberties of this world and forced to live within the narrow social structure of 1955. In the 50s there is a veneer of contentment that cloaks what’s lurking underneath. It’s about what we are hoping to reclaim within ourselves by living in a world with less freedom and equality, what we are willing to walk away from and what we lose and gain through the process. It about what it means to live your life authentically.

CT: What would you miss most if you had to return to the 1950?

My freedom as a gay man.

CT: What would you miss the least?

The constant bombardment of information and the false sense of connectivity and accessibility that we get with our hand held devices and social media.