Tuesday, November 9, 2010

InterAct Invites Academics to Respond to SILVERHILL

InterAct invited David Cregan, Assistant Professor of Theatre at Villanova, and  Elliott Shore, Chief Information Officer, Director of Libraries, & Professor of History at Bryn Mawr College, to attend SILVERHILL and write down some of their thoughts on the play. Cregan's piece explores how SILVERHILL follows a long, theatrical tradition of using historical events to comment on current day issues, while Shore puts SILVERHILL into a historical context that shows how many utopian societies struggled to pass their founders' ideals on to subsequent generations...

David Cregan, Assistant Professor of Theatre at Villanova:

SILVERHILL is an intriguing play inspired by the nineteenth century Oneida Community in upstate New York. Its allure is partially based on the prospect that the audience will be privy to the secrets of a hidden and defensively private community. The allure of this play is further compounded by the potential romance of entering a simpler time and by the notion that we will get a glimpse of foundational Americana. What one discovers in this production, however, is the reality that the past is not that different from the present, and that there are fundamental similarities in the drives and the passions of people who make choices that seem far away from our own. SILVERHILL employs the historical in plot and design to awaken curiosity and to draw its audiences away from the chaos of contemporary multi-media distractions, but not in an attempt to pain an anthropological portrait of a community built on the rejection of more cosmopolitan virtues.

Theatre has long used the facts of the past as the inspiration for playwriting and production, but engages history in a markedly unique fashion: it brings traditional historical memory out of the past and into the present through the immediacy of live performance. This practice of the proximity of history through actor, set, design, and playwriting allows contemporary audiences to engage critical historic moments and make connections with modern political, cultural, social, and personal issues. In this sense the theatre decisively connects the past and the present in a fashion unachievable by textual academic discourse or static media such as photographs or film. The audience finds themselves between light down and lights up, living in another place and another time. Theatre that mediates the past creates shared experiences and moments of cultural continuity that permit insight into how we have become who we are.

The Israeli theatre scholar Freddie Rokem offers useful insight into the theatre’s general contribution to historical consciousness and its impact on contemporary thinking, at time revealing the root what has become accepted as conventional wisdom:
By performing history the theatre, at times even more forcefully than other discourses about the past like historiographic writing or novels about historical events, engages in such ideological debates, frequently intervening in them directly. What may be seen as specific to the theatre in dealing directly with the historical past is its ability to create an awareness of the complex interaction between the destructiveness and the failures of history, on the one hand, and the efforts to create a viable and meaningful work of art, trying to confront these painful failures on the other.
Rokem’s insight reveals how SILVERHILL engages in historical debate in its ideas while simultaneously illuminating how the play connects with InterAct’s artistic mission to educate and provoke audiences. This mission has the potential pitfall to become overtly obvious in its political agenda, thus draining the interpretive and aesthetic qualities necessary for good theatre. In other words, InterAct is faced with the challenge of being provocative politically or culturally without reducing the theatrical practice of its mission to mere propaganda. SILVERHILL successfully combines the allure of drama through its historically voyeuristic glimpse of this otherwise closed community, with the culture tension which dominates our modern experience: free market capitalism. Thus SILVERHILL functions as both history and art as it reveals aesthetic in design and cultural failure in plot and character. Its primitive story of an isolated and peaceful community is aesthetically appealing while the conflict of its plot reveals just how similar issues of great and money are then and now.

InterAct’s production of SILVERHILL provokes a connection with the past that goes beyond wanting to trace through history a clear pathway of events that have delivered us into the present reality in which we find ourselves. Instead of simply viewing archaic events of the past, we are presented with virtues and vices that are timeless and continue to shape cultural discourse. But what is history if not a series of events that have happened in the past?

The French philosopher Michele Foucault theorizes history in order to uncover how ideas or even ideology are past from one generation to another. Foucault’s accounts juxtapose ‘traditional history’ and, what he describes as ‘effective history’ in order to provide insight into the process of the formation of history itself, thus contributing greatly to an analysis of this dramatic historical engagement:
The former transposes the relationship ordinarily established between eruption of an event and necessary continuity. An entire historical tradition (theological or rationalistic) aims at dissolving the singular event into an ideal continuity – as a teleological movement or a natural process. “Effective” history, however, deals with events in terms of their most unique characteristics, their most acute manifestations. An event, consequently, is not a decision, a reign, or a battle, but the reversal of a relationship of forces, the usurpation of power, the appropriation of vocabulary turned against those who had once used it, a feeble domination which poisons itself as it grows lax, the entry of a masked “other.”
 The most unique characteristic that SILVERHILL manifests is the influence of money and material possessions in shaping peoples values and choices. The play offers a much more complex argument between good and bad, religious and secular, and thus focuses on the seductive power of the desire for possession. While many desire a return to the values of the past, this play stands as a recognition that the insatiability of human possessiveness continues to pull us apart, perhaps at the expense of our communities.

Ultimately theatre is grounded in a series of relationships between actor and script, performance and audience and society. It combines both the events of the past and the ideas that continue long after the actual moment has passed. SILVERHILL is not a glimpse at the past but, instead, a criticism of the present. The initial distance established between audience and play is bridged through ideas and their living impact of recognizing our world in the theatrical experience. This recognition, under the best of circumstances, allows us to glimpse in the mirror. Theatre and history together in practice dissolves difference into similarity, allowing politics and cultural criticism to emerge through theatrical artistry, this aspiration is the impulse that drives theatre to awaken that which is asleep and have an impact in the moment.

[1] Rokem, Freddie, Performing History: Theatrical Representations of the Past in Contemporary Theatre.  Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000p.3.

[2] Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, p.88.

Elliott Shore, CIO, Director of Libraries, & Professor of History at Bryn Mawr College:

The urge to perfectionism is an old one in the history of Europeans on this continent -- it seems to be present from the start and it still inspires and haunts this country today. Want and the lack of opportunity induced desperate people to leave their homes and this flight was intertwined with successive outbreaks in Northern Europe and North America of messianic Christianity. Poverty and the promise of the holy land beckoned some to the place where, they thought, one could start from scratch. Religious revivals repeatedly fanned flames that burned bright with the desire to build the city on the hill, to create on earth that ideal world and bequeath it to future generations. Women and men were told or believed or were led to understand that the city was corrupt, that the virgin land, where no one had ever lived or farmed before, was the last best place to re-create the Biblical Eden from which humankind had been banished, where all could live together as one family. Keeping the garden safe often meant forbidding any and all of the corrupting influences of civilization.

All of the pieces of this narrative show up in the drama SILVERHILL, based on one of the most prominent of the utopian experiments of the 19th century. The play demonstrates the difficulties that all of these experiments had in passing on to the children the ideals of the generation which experienced the alienation that had led to the founding moment.

Those who had been shielded from living in the world, of course, did not have the fire of the parents' experience: the Puritans had trouble with their children and the Oneidans with theirs. This is all in SILVERHILL, with the added fillip that not all utopia experiments included: freedom of choice in sexual partners. But, in spite of excellent actresses and actors, a handsome set and fluent writing, the play doesn't take us far enough. The deeper issues are left on the table; one hopes that the author meant the audience to contemplate them afterward, but maybe it is the power of simple dualities and rigid solutions that are built into this way of looking at life that has so captured the American spirit that the author himself can only think within those inherited categories. Why do we all seem so stuck in the same flat view of the world, one where evil and good seem crystal clear, where solutions are absolute? Either withdraw from the world, or be engulfed by commercialism, either possess nothing--not even love for one's mate -- or wallow in the need to possess everything and everyone. The search for simple answers to simple questions -- witness the just completed national elections -- is reflected in mainstream American politics, its view of the world outside its own doors, and its religious fervor. This version of one utopian experiment is caught in the same reduction of the complexity of life into the shallow categories that it seems to condemn.

Links to more information about SILVERHILL:

Purchase Tickets

An Interview with Playwright Thomas Gibbons

An Interview with Director Seth Rozin

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