Sunday, August 17, 2014

Welcome to the 2014-15 Theatre, Film & Dance Season!

by Clyde Fitch
Radio-style reading of the first play ever performed at HSU (in 1914)
Conducted by Derek Lane
Van Duzer Theatre
October 3, 4


Based on the children's story by Neil Gaiman
Book by David Greenspan, Music/Lyrics by Stephin Merrit
Directed by Rae Robison
Van Duzer Theatre
October 16-18, 23-26

Inspired by world events of 1989
Devised theatre by HSU students
Directed by Mark Swetz & Shea King
Gist Hall Theatre
December 4-6, 11-14

Based on the comedy The Birds by Aristophanes
Directed by Michael Fields
Van Duzer Theatre
February 5-7, 12-15

Artistic Director: Sharon Butcher
Van Duzer Theatre
April 9-11, 16-19

Faculty Adviser: Susan Abbey
Van Duzer Theatre
April 22-25

 A play by Daniel Talbott
Directed by Shea King
Gist Hall Theatre
April 23-25, April 30, May 1-3

Sunday, April 13, 2014


Ambar Cuevas, Anna Duchi, Queena DeLany, Vanessa Fragoso, Michelle Purnell

The first women actors on the English stage pioneer a profession in Playhouse Creatures by April De Angelis, at Gist Hall Theatre for two weekends: Thursdays-Saturdays April 24-26 and May 1-3 at 7:30 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday May 4. Tickets are $10, $8 seniors/students, with a limited number of free seats for HSU students at each performance, from the HSU Ticket Office (826-3928) or at the door. Directed by Mark Swetz, produced by the HSU Department of Theatre, Film & Dance.

Media: Mad River Union, Humboldt State Now, North Coast Journal, KHSU Artwaves.

Review: Mad River Union: "powerful...enlightening...entertaining...Directed with polished, adventurous flair by Mark Swetz...Produced by Margaret Kelso, with production manager Derek Lane, this outstanding show is yet another reason to extend collective “bravos” to the HSU Department of Theatre, Film & Dance for the consistently high quality level of their 2014 productions."
    Giovanni Alva, Anna Duchi, Adrienne Ralsten

Confronted by Puritan disapproval and royal lust, they faced the unique challenges of their times as well as familiar struggles for fame, integrity and survival.
Playhouse Creatures is the acclaimed play by contemporary British playwright April De Angelis. It was first produced by a feminist theatre company in the UK in 1993, and has since been staged by major theatres and universities in the U.S. as well as the UK.
     Ambar Cuevas as Nell Gwyn

Until royal decrees by Charles II in the mid 17th century, women characters in Shakespeare and other stage dramas had to be played by males. In Playhouse Creatures, most of the characters are based on the actual women who became those first actresses.
                                  Vanessa Fragoso, Anna Duchi
Mrs. Barry: “God if you just let me have this one thing. Just to be an actress...The world outside is gray and boring. But here, everything is different. It’s magic. Magic.”
               Giovanni Alva, Anna Duchi
Beset by titled men and not always accepted by audiences, they ultimately brought new realism to the stage.
               Back:Ambar Cuevas, Queena DeLany, Adrienne Ralsten. Foreground:
               Vanessea Fragoso, Anna Duchi

There’s comedy, drama and tragedy backstage as well as onstage in this provocative glimpse of women lost to history, whose legacy greets us from every stage and screen.

Playhouse Creatures: Our Cast

Queena DeLany as Mrs. Betterton

Adrienne Ralsten as the Puritanical Mrs. Farley

: Doll: Michelle Purnell
Mrs. Betterton: Queena DeLany
Mrs. Barry: Anna Duchi
Nell Gywn: Ambar Cuevas
Mrs. Marshall: Vanessa Fragoso
Mrs. Farley: Adrienne Ralsten
The Earl of Rochester: Giovanni Alva
Otway: Kyle Rispoli
Michelle Purnell as Doll Common

Vanessa Fragoso as Mrs. Marshall

Playhouse Creatures: Our Production

Director: Mark Swetz
Scenic/Prop Design: Derek Lane
Costume Design: Kaden O'Keefe
Make-Up Design: Brigit Yeager
Wig/Hair Design: Kimberly Haines
Lighting Design: James P. McHugh
Sound Design: Keith Brown
Stage Manager: JuanCarlos Contreras
Assistant Directors: Patrice Elise-Byrd, Ellen Martin
Asst. Stage Managers: Gabriela Pelayo, Samantha Silva
Dramaturgs: Stephanie Buck, Marissa Menezes
Asst. Production Manager: Jillian Park
Properties Mistress: Margaret Champoux
Asst. Lighting Designers: Ian McBride, Santiago Menjivar, Brodie Storey
Costume Shop Supervisor: Catherine Brown
Technical Director: Jayson Mohatt
Master Electrician: Greta Stockwell
Costume Design Mentor: Rae Robison
Sound Design Mentor: Glen Nagy
Producer: Margaret Kelso
Administrative Support: Lorraine Dillon, Debra Ryerson
Photography: Kellie Brown
Publicity/blog copy & design: Bill Kowinski

Playhouse Creatures: The Director

I know better than to anticipate any audience member’s reaction, but the impressions I leave rehearsal with regularly are -- history is fun, sexy (and sexist), tragic and very three-dimensional," stated Mark Swetz, director of the HSU production of Playhouse Creatures. "The great script by April DeAngelis opens many doors for the audience and knocks down many perceptions of ‘dusty history’ and particularly, women’s roles in shaping history. The script explores aspects of each of their individual stories and in the process gives some great insight into workplace politics, performance history, relationships and ambition."

"I have tended to specialize in devised or original work. It was attractive to work on a ‘period’ play (that shows off the best of historical and contemporary acting), from an exciting and very rich part of history.  It is also, ultimately, very much a company play and this appealed to my sense of collaboration.  Ironically, although the play is about women who were and aspired to be ‘stars’, there is no central role or figure in this play – everyone gets equal attention and enough of a story to be interesting to a broad range of possible audiences."

Swetz suggests audiences should expect "gorgeous period costumes from designer Kaden O’Keefe, great hair from designer Kim Haines and wonderful make-up from Brigit Yeager. The impressive wooden set from Derek Lane is evocative of an actual playhouse from the period and the world backstage and onstage in 17th century England. Fantastic performances from the company – real people and living history. The rude, dirty and funny parts of history – not the dry stuff of textbooks."

"I am most consistently impressed with the talent, dedication, imagination and skill of the actors, designers and production personnel who have collaborated on this project."

Playhouse Creatures: The Playwright and the Play

April De Angelis is a comtemporary British dramatist. Born in London in 1960 to a British mother and Italian father, she joined the Old Vic Youth Theatre as a teenager and later attended an acting school in London.

 While an actor with a feminist theatre called Monstrous Regiment she became interested in writing parts for women. She wrote a play for a local young writers’ contest because she felt it was “now or never.” Her play Breathless was the 1986 joint winner of the Second Wave Women’s Writing Festival.

 Since then she has written award-winning radio dramas and the libretti for three operas as well as plays for British theatres, from small companies to the Royal Court and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her 2011 play Jumpy was a commercial hit in London, and has since become a UK television series.

 In 2012, when the UK was cutting back arts programs in schools, the Guardian newspaper asked “playwrights and leading cultural figures” about “childhood experiences that inspired them.” De Angelis wrote that her life in drama began in primary school when she got the role of Toad in Toad of Toad Hall.

 “Drama at school was the key that unlocked me with its premium on curiosity and inventiveness; the joy of working in groups yet feeling your individual input was integral. Being inside the complex world of a play with its debates, strategies, motivations and allegiances was brilliant for confidence and developing a love of language. I wasn't a kid who was taken to the theatre, so school was the place. In the school mag at the time I said the cast felt like family. Drama creates engaged, articulate beings who are attuned to their connection with others – which is why it's been suppressed – it's a political act.”

 The Play

 De Angelis wrote Playhouse Creatures for a feminist theatre company called Women’s National Theatre (now called The Sphinx.) It opened in 1993, and has since become one of her best-known plays. It is one of several plays she set in the past, usually about women.

Playhouse Creatures is set in "approximately 1670."Until 1660 women characters on the English stage were played by men (most often by boys). This was true in Shakespeare’s time (as dramatized and satirized in the movie Shakespeare in Love.)

Then during the English Civil War, Parliament closed the theatres and banned all plays. Puritan soldiers raided illicit performances. The king, Charles I, was executed in 1649. But when England was once again ruled by a monarch, Charles II reopened the theatres. This inaugurated the period in theatrical history (as well as history in general) called The Restoration.

 But Charles II went further. During his exile in France, he’d seen women actors on the stages of Paris. So he decreed first that women actors could appear in England. After a brief period in which women and boys competed for roles, Charles II decreed further that women characters were to be played only by women. (According to Brian Cook, who directed Playhouse Creatures at the University of Oregon, this ironically got grudging official approval from the Puritans, who believed “unnatural boys” playing women was worse.)
Nell Gwyn

 As events in the play show, this was not entirely an enlightened decision by Charles II. He had an eye for actresses and conducted affairs with his favorites, Nell Gwyn prominently among them.

 For Playhouse Creatures De Angelis used as her main source a book by Elizabeth Howe, The First English Actresses.  All the actresses and other characters in Playhouse Creatures are based on real figures of the time (except for Doll Common, who is telling the story years later.)

 Not everything that happens in the play is historically accurate. (Mrs. Betterson didn’t stop acting in the 1670s because of competition from younger actresses. She continued acting until 1694.)  But De Angelis mined Howe’s book (and presumably other sources) for the historical atmosphere, and the general movement in the status of actresses as well as the lives of individual actresses. Howe writes that “no respectable woman became an actress. Society assumed that a woman who displayed herself on the public stage was probably a whore.”

 Audiences weren’t always approving. Yet as this play shows, women soon became essential to theatre and theatre companies.

 De Angelis does not attempt to mimic the speech of the historical period, but her dialogue is not exactly contemporary either. She gives each character a distinctive voice, from the street argot of Nell Gwyn to the ornate locutions of Mrs. Betterton, who in some ways anticipates older women characters in Oscar Wilde.

 But De Angelis is not trying simply to dramatize history. She is not attempting a naturalistic portrayal. Her comments are filled with words like “playfulness” and ‘fun.” The press notes for the Old Vic production described the play as a “tragicomic burlesque.” It incorporates comedy, drama, tragic fates, and the mixed emotions of actresses who feel exploited and yet feel “a longing, a longing” to be on stage.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

April 2014: PHYSICAL REALITY Dance Concert

                     Aimee Page in "The Coriolis Effect" by Allie Phinney

Whether it’s Alice in Wonderland or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the dynamics of a relationship or of deflecting molecules, it’s dance that can give them physical reality.
         Walter Fogler, Aimee Page in "Going Out" by Linda Maxwell

That’s the premise of Physical Reality, this spring’s HSU dance concert, presented on the Van Duzer Theatre stage for an expanded run of two weekends: Thursdays-Saturdays, April 3-5, 10-12 at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee at 2 p.m. on April 13. Tickets are $10/ $8 seniors and students, with a limited number of free seats for HSU students at each performance, from HSU Box Office (826-3928) or at the door.

Media: Mad River Union, Tri-City Weekly, North Coast Journal, KHSU Artwaves, Humboldt State Now.  Review: North Coast Journal.
   Claire Patterson, Adrian Padilla, Ingrid Hodel, Emily Steele, Walter Fogler in "Murmured Tenacity" by Shannon Adams

More than 40 dancers perform in ten original works, employing styles from Middle Eastern to hip-hop.
Emily Mensing, Natalie Johnson, Nathalie Mostrel, Adrien Padilla in "Freely Bound" by Alexandra Stock

“This group of student dancers has been one very pleasant surprise after another,” said concert coordinator and dance professor Sharon Butcher. “I’m so impressed with how organized they are, what good team players they are, and what great work they are doing in such a short period of time.”
                          Eric Sorensen, Julia Kandus in "Closer" by Melina Calderon

Themes of the student-choreographed dances vary from an examination of post-traumatic stress on returning soldiers (by Kelsey Brennan) to explorations of the dynamics of a love affair (Melina Calderon) or a search for personal balance (for example in dances by Shannon Adams and Alexandra Stock.)
    Kimberly Henderson, Amanda Perez, Eboni Session, Jenny Wright, Emily Pinckney in "Wonderfully Mad Curiosities" by Amanda Perez

“The dance based on Alice in Wonderland by Amanda Perez is hilarious,” said Butcher. “It’s the same characters in a different story. And in ‘The Coriolis Effect,’Allie Phinney brings the stage to life with the beautiful colors and movements of long, flowing veils.”

Natalie Johnson in "Ya Msafer Whadek (The Lonely Traveler)" by Shoshanna

Two faculty members contribute dances: Shoshanna presents a new dance in traditional Egyptian (or “belly dance”) style, and Linda Maxwell devises a ballet with a jazz flair.
      Keili Simmons-Marble, Bevan Brye, Fiona Melina in "When I Die Leave the  Balcony Open"

Guest artist Laura Munoz created “When I Die Leave the Balcony Open,” which was featured at the recent American College Dance Festival, along with another work on the program, a solo performed by Camille Ruiz which she devised with Dani Gutierrez entitled "Appetite." 

 Laura’s dance is one of two that features a score by composer and musician Tim Gray, known for his work with Dell’Arte as well as songs for HSU’s Humboldt Unbound. “He adds multiple layers of texture and interest to those dances,” Sharon Butcher said. “It’s a perfect example of how the right sounds can elevate a dance and help to convey the choreographer’s intent.”
This year as always, local businesses have generously donated prizes to be awarded by random drawing. Proceeds from tickets for the drawing help defray traveling costs to the American College Dance Festival and other educational purposes.

 Prizes include an Ipad mini, and various gift baskets with themes such as relaxation, which includes coupons for massage, bubble bath and soothing tea. Drawings will be held at the Sunday matinee. It’s not necessary to be present to win.


     Adrien Padilla, Kassie Guimapang in "Freely Bound" by Alexandra Stock

Faculty Coordinator: Sharon Butcher
Sound Technology Design: Glen Nagy
Stage Manager: Nikia Klat
Master Electrician: Greta Stockwell
Costume Manager: Catherine Brown
Technical Director: Jayson Mohatt
Makeup Supervisors: Briana Hare, Allie Phinney
Administrative Support: Lorraine Dillon, Debra Ryerson
Photography: Kellie Brown
Publicity/ web page copy and design: Bill Kowinski


                               Julia Kandis, Eric Sorensen
 Choreographer: Melina Calderon
Performers: Julia Kandis and Eric Sorensen
Music composed by Bon Iver, performed by Birdy.
Costume design: Monica Siegenthaler

 Exploring the dynamics of anger, love, sensuality and other emotions, as two people try to get closer.
                          Ginger Greenlee, Alexandra Stock

Ya Msafer Whadek (The Lonely Traveler)
 Choreographer: Shoshanna
 Performers: Lisa Drew, Ginger Greenlee, Shelby Harris, Jessica Jewett, Natalie Johnson, Emily Mensing, Hannah Moss, Nathalie Mostrel, Amanda Perez, Emily Pickney, Eboni Session, Kirsten Stambaugh, Ava Stavros, Alexandra Stock
Music by Mohammed Adel Wahab.

 A popular piece for 50 years with a song made famous by diva singer Um Kalthoum. The genre of this dance is Egyptian Raks Sharqi, often called “belly dance.” In this interpretation, one dancer seeks companionship among dancers in her mind who enter and leave like wisps of smoke.
                     Claire Patterson, Ingrid Hodel, Adrien Padilla.

Murmured Tenacity
 Choreographer: Shannon Adams
Performers: Walter Fogler, Ingrid Hodel, Emily Mensing, Adrien Padilla, Claire Patterson, Emily Steele and Leah Watts.
 Music composed by Andreas Berthling, Johan Berthling and Tomas Hallosten. Costume Coordinator: Shannon Adams

An abstract exploration of how elements of control, release and spontaneity interact and influence each other.
        Claire Patterson, Camille Ruiz, Ariana Chapman, Lauren Baker 
The War Within
 Choreographer: Kelsey Brennan
 Performers: Lauren Baker, Ariana Chapman, Dani Gutierrez, Camile Ruiz and Claire Patterson.
 Sound Design: Excerpts from All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque, performed by Tim Gray.
Costume Coordinators: Kelsey Brennan and Catherine Brown

 Exploring Post Traumatic Stress Disorder through the emotions of returning soldiers struggling with recovery.
Jenny Wright, Kimberly Henderson, Eboni Session, Alexandra Stock, Emily Pinckney
Wonderfully Mad Curiosities
 Choreographer: Amanda Perez and Dancers
 Performers: Lauren Baker, Lizzie Chapman, Roland Garcia, Kassie Guimapang, Kimberly Henderson, Ingrid Hodel, Jeanne Martin, Emily Pinckney, Eboni Session, Alexandra Stock and Jenny Wright.
 Costume Coordinators: Amanda Perez, Channell Washington.
 Set Design: Derek Lane and Amanda Perez.

 A dance adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories influenced by musical theatre, as familiar characters try to convince Alice to overthrow the vicious Queen of Hearts.
                     Keili Simmons Marble, Bevan Brye, Fiona Melia
When I Die Leave The Balcony Open
 Choreographer: Laura Munoz
 Performers: Bevon Brye, Fiona Melia, Keilie Simmons Marble. Sound Design: Tim Gray and Laura Munoz.
 Costume Coordinator: Laura Munoz

 As they relate to each other in motion, three dancers help each other overcome inhibiting social forms to make their inner processes visible, so they can move forward with their lives.
                                                      Camille Ruiz
 Choreographers: Dani Gutierrez and Camille Ruiz
Performer: Camille Ruiz
Music by Ludwig Goransson
Sound Design: Glen Nagy
 Costume Coordinator: Ryan Ayala

 Exploring the metaphor of hunger, in this case for happiness and fulfillment, using tension and space to express obsession and desperation.
            Fiona Melia, Emily Steele, Kelsey Brennan, Allie Phinney

Going Out
 Choreographer: Linda Maxwell
 Performers: Shannon Adams, Kelsey Brennan, Lisa Drew, Walter Fogler, Dani Gutierrez, Kyle Hinshaw, Matt McGovern, Fiona Melina, Hailey Oster, Aimee Page, Claire Patterson, Allie Phinney, Emily Steele and Leah Watts.
 Music: Excerpts from Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin.
Costume Coordinator: Linda Maxwell

 A ballet with a jazz flare, loosely based on the dreams and emotions of youth going out into the world.
                        Kelsey Brennan, Aimee Page and Ginger Greenlee

The Coriolis Effect
 Choreographer: Allie Phinney
 Performers: Lauren Baker, Kelsey Brennan, Ginger Greenlee, Dani Gutierrez, Kyle Hinshaw, Jessica Jewett, Julia Kandus, Hailey Oster, Adrien Padilla, Aimee Page and Emily Pinckney.
Sound Design: Glen Nagy
Costume Coordinators: Sharon Butcher, Allie Phinney, and veils donated by Shoshanna Rose.

 Combining the shapes and creations of human bodies with the bright flow of 4-yard veils in a whirlwind of dance, this lyrical, modern piece is inspired by playful winds and the connections between the spirit and the elements.
Jenny Wright, Emily Mensing, Adrien Padilla, Kassie Guimapang, Nathalie Mostrel
Freely Bound 
 Choreographer: Alexandra Stock
Performers: Kassie Guimapang, Krystina Iles-Bunk, Natalie Johnson, Emily Mensing, Nathalie Mostrel, Adrien Padilla and Jenny Wright.
 Music by Arvo Part.
 Costume Coordinator: Alexandra Stock

 Fusing movements drawn from Middle Eastern, ballet, modern and hip hop dance styles, this piece explores the search for balance between freedom and manipulation.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

SPINNING INTO BUTTER: February-March 2014

Mary May, Giovanni Alva
It’s an ordinary autumn day at Belmont College. The Dean of Students thinks she’s doing a good deed: matching a promising student with a “minority” scholarship.

But when a black student reports a racial hate note pinned to his dormitory room door, everything starts to spin out of control.

 Bold, witty, incisive and provocative: Spinning Into Butter, the prize-winning play by Rebecca Gilman, presented by HSU Theatre and directed by Cassandra Hesseltine. Thursdays through Saturdays, February 27-March 1, March 6-8 at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday March 9 in Gist Hall Theatre on the HSU campus in Arcata. 

 Tickets are $10, $8 seniors/students, with a limited number of free seats for HSU students at each performance, from the HSU Ticket Office (826-3928) or at the door.

Media: HSU Now, North Coast Journal Stage Matters, Mad River Union, KHSU Art Waves.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Spinning Into Butter: Reviews

Beti Trauth begins her review in the Mad River Union:

"Spinning Into Butter, a remarkable play by Rebecca Gilman, is an absolutely must-see, powerful HSU production...It's definitely, without question, going to be one of the most outstanding (and controversial) shows staged anywhere in Humboldt in 2014."

In her review for the A & E blog of the North Coast Journal online, Kate Haley concludes: "I enjoyed the show, and it's lovely to see theaters embrace the challenge of presenting plays that are not necessarily “fun” to watch. Spinning Into Butter applies a lens to the issue of racism that we are not accustomed to examining it through."

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Keith Brown, Mary May, Nadia Adame
At the center of the whirlwind is young Dean of Students Sarah Daniels (played by Mary May). Her latest relationship (Cody Miranda) suddenly on the rocks, she faces an explosive situation while dealing with the demands of two older deans (Nadia Adame and Keith Brown) and the needs of students (Giovanni Alva, Indiana Steinkamp). At times her only ally is a veteran security guard (Galen Poultron).

 But it is her dramatic confrontation with her own demons that guides her through the revelations, betrayals, pomposity and hypocrisy, to the honesty of human contact.
In decades past, battles for racial equality were fought and many were won. “Whites Only” signs are gone, and not all of the faces on TV are white.

 But as the country changes, the agreeable silence can mask new complexities—new avenues of unconscious bias, confusions, good intentions, self-deception and denial. It’s race in America: the next generation.

 That’s the central subject of Spinning Into Butter. “It deals with more current forms of racism—not blatant racism but the kind of prejudice people might express without realizing it,” said director Cassandra Hesseltine. “The playwright chose to take on an historically old subject and see where it is now—checking in on society, as plays often do.”
Spinning Into Butter premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where it won the Joseph Jefferson Award for new work. It was produced at Lincoln Center in New York in 2000, and won the Kennedy Center’s Roger L. Stevens Award. In the year following, it became one of the three most produced plays in America. A movie version starring Sarah Jessica Parker was released in 2009.

 “There are parts of the play that are kind of hard to hear,” said director Hesseltine. “But we’re not here to point fingers at anyone. Our job is to present the play well, so that people really watch it, and maybe self-reflect. They might look at things in a way they might not have looked at them before.”

Spinning Into Butter: The Director

Photo: Rotary Club of Eureka
Cassandra Hesseltine is directing at HSU for the first time since she was a student here. “I grew up in Orange County and fell in love with science and the environment. I only applied to HSU. I loved theatre, too, and I had great teachers in high school, but I didn’t think I could make a living at it.” She laughed.

 After graduating in psychology with a theatre minor, she applied theatre as therapy in working with at-risk teenagers in Eureka. Her career has been in theatre and film ever since, in southern California and the Bay Area as well as in Humboldt. She is currently Film Commissioner for Humboldt-Del Norte.

 The topic of racial attitudes at the center of Spinning Into Butter is a major reason she decided to direct it. “I look white but I’m half Mexican,” she said. “That’s not why I was offered this play—I don’t think anyone knew. But being half Mexican has given me certain experiences while being half white has given me others. I’ve drawn on both for this play. If I had the view of just one or the other I don’t think I would have taken this on.”

 “For me, growing up in Orange County and looking white but being half Mexican, there’s a lot of little things that ring true for me in this play, like hearing things that people don’t realize are prejudice. I’d hear a white friend say, ‘oh, those dirty Mexicans,’ and I’d say ‘what about me?’ ‘Oh, I don’t mean you—you’re not one of them.’ It’s those things that people don’t realize are just as hurtful.”

 She also recalls an experience from the other perspective. When she was a producer for a film company in the Bay Area, she was in the back seat of a car driven by the owner of the company. Beside him was his wife, also a producer. They are both black. A police officer pulled them over for making an illegal left turn. Her boss “started emptying his pockets while his wife cried, because he’d never been stopped and not been arrested. But then the officer saw me in the back seat and let us go.”

 “I had these experiences in L.A. and Orange County, San Francisco and Oakland, and now I seem to be this white woman in Humboldt directing this play. But I bring all that to the table.”

“The play treats racism in a more current way. I’ve been calling it 'micro-prejudices' as opposed to the macro, the traditional racism that we think of from the 50s and 60s. I read an article about this that supports the idea that racism and prejudices are still with us but in a different way. They’re not as blatant but they are forms of prejudice, without maybe even realizing it. This play does shine a light on that—more on an upper class white culture where there are still issues with 'minorities' which are no longer a minority. It’s a snapshot of that, and suggests that we’ve switched to a different way of how we’re functioning with each other.”

 In some ways however the subject was not as daunting as the play itself. “It’s about a sensitive subject, and one that might be hard for us to take in. It’s not a love story or a murder mystery, or anything else than audiences are used to. Plus all the action is in one room. The challenge is to bring it all alive, because the subject deserves it, the students who are working so hard on it deserve it, and the audience deserves it.”

 “So we’ve been working on ways that the actors tell the story with their movements as well as the words. What’s been great is that the actors have been warm and receptive to my concerns and my attempts to pull them all into the same reality in the same place. They all have their own tool bags and ways to do things, but they are allowing me to get us all to talk the same language.”

 In working on the play they found variety in the characters themselves. “There’s definitely all facets of people represented in these seven characters. All except one are white, but there are age differences, and you can see how each generation is dealing with this new reality. There are socio-economic differences, and you can see how they affect the characters’ beliefs and how they got them. They are complex individuals and so are their relationships.”

 “Everyone is taking this very seriously and respectfully,” she adds. Perhaps with the help of her psychology background, she has also been sensitive to what the actors may face as a result of the attitudes of their characters. There are no overt racial slurs but there are lines that “are hard to hear” and therefore hard to say.

She anticipated problems that might arise and discussed them with the student actors. They've talked about the emotional impact of facing an audience while saying particular lines, and the possibility that some people won't completely separate the actors from the characters they played, once they're back in their normal student lives.

 In the end the play is meant to inspire honest discussion. “We’re not here to point fingers at anyone. Our job is to present the play well, so that people really watch it, and maybe self-reflect. They might look at things in a way they might not have looked at them before.”

Spinning Into Butter: The Play and the Playwright

After earning her MFA in playwriting at the University of Iowa, Alabama-born Rebecca Gilman moved to Chicago to work for an educational testing company, and to become a member of Chicago Dramatists. Several years later she was temping for an accounting firm by day, writing plays at night and piling up the rejection letters—150 of them. She had one play produced, in a tiny suburban theatre.

 Then she wrote Spinning Into Butter. In 1999 it was produced at Chicago’s fabled Goodman Theatre and became an immediate critical and popular hit. Its run was extended three times. Even before a second production at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, Gilman was one of the most famous and sought-after young playwrights in America.

Spinning Into Butter became the third most produced play in America in 2000.  It was made into a movie released in 2009 starring Sarah Jessica Parker, with script by Gilman.

 Spinning Into Butter is set at fictional Belmont College in Vermont. Gilman had attended Middlebury College, a similar small college in Vermont, though she later graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama.

 Writing about Gilman in American Theatre magazine, Chris Jones notes that “In the case of Spinning into Butter, her status as a white woman gave Gilman no qualms about exploring (sometimes in a comic mode) the effects of racism on an East Coast college campus.”

 He notes the effect of the play’s most dramatic moments on its first audiences, spoken by Dean of Students Sarah Daniels: "This seemingly kind and sympathetic character confesses her own veiled racism in a searing second-act monologue that shocked the audience at the Goodman Studio into a silence so complete it seemed born of personal agony."

"Gilman’s point, of course" (Jones continued), "is that liberal intellectuals often talk a good game about diversity, but so fail to have the requisite experience or true understanding of minority experiences, that they end up as part of the problem."

But there's another factor that Gilman herself mentions.  “While the concept of political correctness has made us more sensitive to how we perceive each other,” Gilman says, “there’s also a danger that the rhetoric will be allowed to mask some of our really angry feelings. People are now often afraid to articulate what they actually feel about each other.”

After seeing Spinning Into Butter at the Royal Court Theatre in London, critic Michael Billington wrote, “It is rare to find an American playwright dealing with ideas as well as emotions.”

Gilman, an admirer of playwright Wallace Shawn, agrees that this play centers on its subject. “I think the first two plays of mine to receive any attention—Spinning Into Butter and Boy Gets Girl—could be described as issue-oriented plays. I started with a theme with both of those plays whereas I usually start with characters or situations.”

But, writes Aimee Levitt in the Chicago Reader: "... once you experience them, Gilman's plays at their best amount to more than dramatic explorations of controversial issues where characters function less as people than embodiments of different points of view. Gilman never seems to forget that she's writing about human beings.”

" In my play Spinning Into Butter, which deals with racism on a small college campus in Vermont," Gilman said, " I tried to strike a balance between a comedy of manners and a serious exploration of white racism. But I worked very hard to make sure that the comedy wasn't simply a diversion -- that the ideas of the play were still being explored, although satirically. I think that the subject matter actually allowed for that."

The Goodman Theatre Artistic director Robert Falls adds, "Rebecca is both subversive and exciting.  She uses a simple and sparse language with characters that remain unsentimental and truthful. And there’s a real ferocious comic voice behind her writing.”

Why set a play about contemporary racism at an elite college, with almost all white characters? One answer might be speaking to the likely audience. " I think theatre is still a middle- to upper-class art form,” Gilman told Chicago Magazine. “I love Glory of Living, but it’s one of my least produced plays, I think, because poverty is depressing to theatre audiences."

Glory of Living, based on a real murder spree in Alabama, was that first play in a tiny suburban theatre.  It went on to be directed in New York by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Since Spinning Into Butter, Rebecca Gilman's plays include Boy Gets Girl (named best play of the year by Time Magazine), The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, Blue Surge, A True History of the Johnstown Flood, The Crowd You're In With, and adaptations of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter and Ibsen's A  Doll House.

 Now living in Wisconsin and teaching at Northwestern, her latest play went onstage at the Goodman Theatre in January: Luna Gale, about a social worker who must decide the fate of a drug addict's baby.

The fun of writing plays," Gilman says, "is that you have to inhabit everyone's point of view. Everybody, no matter how hideous, thinks they're justified. Why people do the thing they do—unless they're a sociopath, everyone thinks they have a good reason. That's why I love to write plays. I get to write reasons."