Thursday, June 19, 2008

Big River

Way back in my freshman year of college, I took an Acting 101 class as a kickstart to my double major of Theatre and English at Seattle Pacific University. The class was taught by the incredible Karen Lund. The first day of the class we went around the room in a circle telling everyone why we were in the class. When it came around to me, I stated that I was a) a Theatre major and it was obviously a requirement-that whole "acting" thing involved in Theatre and b) one of my career aims was to become a professional dramaturg. Karen replied to my admission: "Oh good! I'll hook you up!" with a glint in her eye. My interests have evolved slightly with time, but role of the dramaturg is an important one, whether for theatre or film and I hope that in the future my talents in this field can be broadened and used in a full-time capacity, whether in film or television.

About a year and a half later I took Karen up on her offer and emailed her asking what she might have in mind and firstly, if she remembered me. She absolutely did and after an interview with one of her associates I was hired to do research, create actor's packets, write dramaturg notes, make the lobby display as a contracted dramaturg for Taproot Theatre Company just north of downtown Seattle.

This Spring marks my third season with Taproot Theatre as dramaturg for hire. Our upcoming production of the musical, Big River based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, is the fourth production I have been intimately involved with there. I've worked previously on It's a Wonderful Life, Seven Keys to Baldpate and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Karen is an amazing director to work for. She is constantly surprising me with her various exploits in theatre as well as the television world. She is on a first name basis with James Burrows and has thus guest directed several episodes of Will & Grace. She has worked on several new pilots including one with Nathan Fillion, who played the evil priest, Caleb, in the seventh season of Buffy as well as our favorite captain of a Firefly-class starship in the show of the same name. Last time I saw Karen she pulled out her phone to show me a picture of she and Nathan hugging on the set of that particular show-looking like they were ol' buds. Taproot Theatre itself also has another association with Buffy in that Dean Batali, a story editor and writer on the first couple seasons of Buffy worked quite a while at Taproot before-from what I can tell-leaving for the default, "creative differences." I'm still investigating that one.

I recently submitted the following article to be published as the "Dramaturg Notes" in the Big River program in a few weeks.

Big River: A Boy's Story

Audiences became introduced to the dynamic duo of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with the publication of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876. Huckleberry Finn lived on in its follow-up novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn published nearly a decade later in 1885. The latter story tells of a young boy and his river and the adventures that ensue with their union. While Twain may have set out either to subvert the conventional children’s stories of the time or simply to carry a character through his formative years, Twain’s novels have become essential to modern American literature. His novels have also sparked tremendous controversy within academic and social spheres for Twain’s treatment of race, rebellion and the language of his time especially in the two aforementioned novels about boys in the south. Of Tom Sawyer, Twain is said to have felt strongly that it was "not a boy's book." It was a publisher who convinced him "to treat it explicitly as a boy's story," and sell it on that basis.

In my research of the books’ contexts and the controversy that often surrounds them, I came to see these statements as demonstrating a very important distinction between the "boy's book" and a "boy's story." Why should we assume that just because a story features a young boy on some “coming of age” journey that it is intended for youth? A similar case arises when the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm are considered. We are used to these fairy tales being marketed toward a younger audience, developed in children’s picture books and Walt Disney movies. Upon reading the original texts, one is quick to realize how very dark and gruesome these stories are—many which would garner an ‘R’ rating at the cinema.

While neither Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer nor Huckleberry Finn, which serves as the inspiration for Big River, possess such a degree of grisliness, commentary and public opinion have exposed the harder side of the story including its difficult lessons on moral and social responsibilities.

I know I am not alone in my expression of prudence over the portrait of boyhood and human experience as represented within the pages and in the character of Huckleberry Finn. In the essay, "Mark Twain as Orator," from a journal published on July 10th 1910, Charles Vale writes:

A caricaturist represented Mark Twain's fellow-passengers on the “Minneapolis” as all engaged in studying his various works, and assigned Huckleberry Finn to a small boy. That was an egregious mistake. Boys love it, no doubt: but it needs ripe experience to appreciate its irony, its humanity, and the subtler phases of its humor.

Perhaps the only character as well known as Huck is the river itself. The Mississippi River twists and winds its way across the landscape of Huck’s youth as he floats along. At times the river is wild, other times tranquil, but all the while the river is free flowing like the life Huck longs to live.

Huck and the River itself together paint a rich portrait of a lifestyle far removed from many modern readers, but that very pair also serves to take its readers on an enthralling, meaningful journey of growing up, through the grime of human experience, the joys of boyhood and the kind of humor only Mark Twain could bring. “Life teaches its lessons by implication,” Twain said, “not by didactic preaching; and literature is at its best when it is an imitation of life and not an excuse for instruction.”

My hope is that you, the audience—as has been the desire of the cast and crew—may come to understand Big River in a historical context even through such a lively and colorful medium as a musical. Enjoy this show, as we imitate life on our stage.

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