The Davidson College theatre season opens this weekend with an 18th century British comedy, reimagined in 1930s America.
Originally performed in London in 1773, playwright Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer is a "comedy of manners" with enduring appeal, presenting a sequence of comedic events that occur over the course of one, long night. But while the story is fun, the production proved quite challenging – challenging in a good way, that is.
"It's an incredibly demanding, 18th century comedy," Director Mark Sutch said, requiring a lot of study and collaboration among all involved. "But that's what's exciting about it."
Complete with class conflicts, a secret romance and jewels to inherit, the play pokes fun at polite society and reveals the disconnect between the ways we behave in polite company and the ways we might behave otherwise.
While Goldsmith provided the basic story and characters, the script leaves much room for interpretation and adaptation-of time, place and characters-and it is in that "gray area" that Sutch and his actors began to play.
At the onset of the project, Sutch decided to adapt the play to take place in 1930s New England. Many of the themes in the play – including class, social status and gender dynamics – lend themselves well to a Great Depression-era narrative, Sutch said, and he believed the time period and setting would be one to which a modern audience could better relate. He defined his overall concept for the play, drawing inspiration from 1930s screwball comedy films. As soon as he selected the cast, the group of 14 spent weeks examining the existing language, characters and stories, and filling in the blanks, during round-table discussions and research sessions.
The language of the play is complex. There are elements that needed to be re-written or tweaked to be era-appropriate. There are portions that needed to be changed so as not to unintentionally offend a 21st century audience. There are nebulous supporting characters that needed back-stories in order to come to life. And these are just a few of the challenges She Stoops presented for the team.
"The language was definitely a challenge, and hard to memorize," Graham Marema '17 said. "One of the hardest things to do was to integrate how they talked then [in the 18th century] into characters that are more current."
Marema, who plays the clever, scheming, main love interest Kate Hardcastle, also wrote some original music for the play. Goldsmith included lyrics to a tavern song, but no music for the song. Marema did some research and came up with a way to marry the 18th century language with 1930s folk music.
"I listened to a lot of Tin Pan Alley songs, Woody Guthrie and 1930s folk songs," Marema said. The daughter of folk musicians, Marema plays guitar and flute and performs occasionally on campus.
Once the actors, with Sutch's guidance, had adequately analyzed the language and began to feel more comfortable with the script, they shifted focus to character development.
The script does not provide much detail about its supporting characters, Sutch explained, which is both a challenge and a treat for the actors, who are free to create character arcs and back-stories. It also allowed Sutch and the actors to develop characters in harmony with his overall concept for the play.
"It's like a slapstick comedy soap opera," Spencer Ballantyne '18 said. He plays the lead role of Charles Marlow, a well-educated man, at times very rude, who lacks finesse with women. "I think the audience will really enjoy getting to know the different characters."
An experienced musical actor, this is the first non-musical play in which Ballantyne has performed, and the creative process for She Stoops is unlike any he's experienced before.
"It was a very open process, breaking down the show and dissecting it," he said. "It became a community project, as we defined what works for us. I loved it."
While the play gives the director and actors the opportunity to be extremely creative – an opportunity they welcome, Sutch said – it is a much more challenging project than a typical play in which the components are clearly defined. "You're basically creating a world almost from scratch," he said.
Such a project not only is fulfilling for the artists, but it also is in keeping with the Theatre Department's goals for students' experiences.
"The department encourages us to develop shows organically," Sutch said, which leads to better results. "You get a much more authentic experience for the actors and the audience that way."
The show is open to the public beginning at 8:15 p.m., Friday, Oct. 24, in the Duke Family Performance Hall and includes six performances. Tickets may be purchased online, or by calling the Alvarez College Union Ticket Office at 704-894-2135. The play is recommended for ages 11 and up.