FORUM: Another Side of the Storyposted on May 5th, 2010 by Gillian Holmes
Hello Insite Readers!
Here’s another great batch of student responses! This time, to 1001, a play by Montclair State alum, Jason Grote, presented by the B.A. Theatre Studies Senior Class. Student Forum is very pleased to present our favorite three responses, by Joseph Rosario, Ally Blumenfeld and Gillian Holmes. These critiques were written for Dr. Neil Baldwin’s Play/Script Interpretation Class and fulfill the mission of Montclair State’s new Creative Research Center: to spotlight exemplary student writing. Montclair State’s Creative Research Center is directed by Dr. Baldwin. High-five, Neil! …and now, to Gillian Holmes!
“What are any of us but a collection of stories?” Jason Grote’s Scheherazade asks the audience of 1001. All things considered, especially in the context of theater, Scheherazade makes a great point. Which is precisely why 1001 was a poignant, compelling choice as a piece to be put on at Montclair State University by the Theatre Studies Seniors. Often it seems as though theatrical productions overlook the very important aspects of stories that beg to be told, forgotten in the wake of flashy musical numbers or a political message. If the story is neglected, it would be extremely difficult for the audience to understand the piece on a deeper level, after all, if we are all just a collection of stories, the easiest way to comprehend the message of a piece of theatre would be to use information from our own lives. Storytelling, a tradition that goes back to before theatre ever existed, illuminates issues, gives us ideas, and offers solutions - among a host of other things. Which is why this particular piece was a bold, challenging selection done at an extraordinary level, much to the credit of the director and ensemble.
This particular piece was most certainly a challenge to execute. Jason Grote’s text, as the nature of the piece was based on storytelling, is nothing short of a brain-teaser at some points, and just plain difficult to follow at others (which is not a bad characteristic for a play to have, rather, one that lends itself to an observant, focused audience). The most important characteristic of the piece, therefore, is the clear demonstration that the actors not only understand exactly what is going on, but the way that each character responds to each situation. If there seemed to be a lack of understanding on the part of the actors, the stories and the reasons for them being presented would become muddied and create confusion for the audience. A number of the actors, based on their performances, demonstrated an outstanding knowledge of the function of the stories and the necessary character responses to them in order to further their own story. Whitney Shields’s Scheherazade/Dahna and Caitlin Gutches’s One-Eyed Arab/Lubna were perhaps the two performers who most effortlessly shed light on the confusion of storytelling by having a visibly deep understanding for each story they told, the reasons they told it, and the repercussions each story bore for the entire piece.
The importance of storytelling also came through clearly, it seemed, through the directorial choices of Debbie Saivetz. Based on the staging and the overall vision that was demonstrated throughout the duration of the piece, it was easily translated to the audience that the strength in the stories is an ensemble of people working together to tell them. The way that the stories ran into each other, and the general manner in which they were presented–a number of different ensemble members portraying a number of different roles–indicated to the audience that the role of storytelling throughout the ages is to unite a group of people. Even more simply, stories are about people–the subject matter, the message, the intention, the reason, every story ever told is about people. When people unite, the stories (and the people who tell them) can grow. The message of the human experience through storytelling was beautifully expressed, especially with such a complex text-base.
The simplicity of the set pieces also forced the audience to look beyond the superficiality that theater pieces often present to the bones of the presentation (the bones being the stories). The ensemble literally moved the audience through the worlds and the stories by moving the set pieces through the space. The skeletal, straightforward construction of the different locations of each story–one plush bedroom, one staircase/rooftop, one modern day apartment–made it much easier to focus on the text and the action of the characters, rather than it was flashy or overbearing. It also, very interestingly, allowed the stories to run together more seamlessly; with the separate stages on wheels, it was easy to construct a change of location even within the context of a scene that was already present. For example, the stories shifted from Flaubert and the monster, to Dahna and Alan Dershowitz, to Dahna and Alan at Chelsea Piers, to the two dancing in a warehouse, to back to Scheherazade and Shahriyar in Medieval Persia, in rapid succession. It was easy to understand where the stories were going, and why they were going there–the affection of Flaubert for Kuchuk Hanem, to the disgust of the monster toward Flaubert because he tried to buy affection, to his story about true affection and feeling in Alan and Dahna, back to Shahriyar’s palace, where you realize that Shahriyar is developing true affection for Scheherazade. That connection could have easily been overlooked if these stories weren’t so aptly woven together by scene changes. While there were some moments during the performance that I, personally, found myself pulled from the story in fear because one of the set pieces rolled a little too far out of place, I think they were most definitely well-utilized, and an appropriate choice for this production.
After seeing 1001, I can say with certainty that it was well-executed by the cast and production team. It brought the story of stories to the audience, and gave me the fuel to leave wondering about the stories of my own life. After all, if I’m a collection of stories, I’d like to know how they’re impacting people now, and what the ensemble presenting them in hundreds of years will think when they read them. And with the ambiguity of the ending–not really being sure what exactly happens to Alan and Dahna–it leaves the audience with the extra question “how will my story end?” Any piece that can do that, especially in an audience of college students concerned with “living in the now”, has achieved something beautiful: thought. And thoughts, among other things, create stories.
Gillian Holmes is an undergraduate student in Neil Baldwin’s Play/Script Interpretation Class. This article is posted in collaboration with the Creative Research Center’s initiative to showcase exemplary student writing.