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ESSAY

Making a New Play Out of Old Pieces

By Jack Marshall

After decades, indeed centuries, of conclusive evidence to the contrary, many play-goers persist in believing that all a director does is tell actors where to move, just as many believe that an actor's greatest challenge is memorizing lines. Undoubtedly, there are some directors, even some well-known and critically acclaimed ones, who don't do much more than direct traffic, and there are definitely professional actors who can't learn lines. But Drama Under the Influence, the latest addition to The American Century Theater's "Reflections" series, demonstrates the stage director's creative and substantive role in communicating ideas, subtext, historical commentary and emotions that would not register on the audience without his efforts. When a director does this, and good directors to it often and well, it is an act of creation that uses the original work (or in the case of this play, works) as a springboard to a new and original artistic statement.

Drama Under the Influence is a collection of seven short plays by six female playwrights who were active in the 1920s. Director Mazzola had long been interested in exploring the essentially forgotten works of early 20th Century women writers as a source of enlightenment on their times as well as a trove of still engaging plays that never had a fair chance to succeed commercially. With valuable suggestions and assistance from historian Deborah Martinson, he found many suitable plays from the period. A typical director would have just chosen the "best" that could fill out an evening, arranged them to maximize set change efficiency and casting economy, and put them on the stage, each standing on its own with little relationship to the others.

Most one-act evenings, sad to say, are constructed exactly like that, with a unifying theme or title ("the short plays of Tennessee Williams"; one-act comedies; stage adaptations of short stories) and nothing more, creating the dramatic equivalent of a musical variety show. Such shows are diverting but somehow unsatisfying, like a buffet dinner in which one's plate includes Beef Wellington, garlic scampi and Waldorf salad.

Mazzola, however, took the necessary next step, beginning the inherently scary process in which the director must not only become an artist, but must take on the responsibility of shaping another artist's creation, a creation that was a personal statement, made in her unique voice, of inspirations generated in her brain. If the director destroys the essence of that creation, he buries the last living spark from a remarkable mind that exists no more. If he has integrity and respect for the artist, he must find a way to preserve her message while employing it in his own. This is a test of skill as well as character. Many directors think nothing of warping and distorting a playwright's work to fit their own agendas. Think of all the feminist versions of The Taming of the Shrew, complete with newly written endings, Peter Sellars' King Lear as a mundane modern dress play about the homeless problem, and The Importance of Being Ernest with an all-male casts. No matter how clever or well-executed such exercises are, they are examples of the original material serving the director rather than the other way around.

Drama Under the Influence is something very different. The plays themselves are not altered at all; each playwright would recognize hers and find it free of interpretations and characterizations that undermined its original intent. The plays do, however, reinforce each other, and form a collage telling us much more about what it meant to be a woman during the Prohibition years than any one of the plays could. We see courageous women, desperate women, mad women, angry women, women who feel sisterhood with one another and women who have a sense of humor. Launched into our evening's journey by Sophie Treadwell's expressionistic dissection of the disparate and incomplete roles society forces women to play---daughter, lover, sex object, wife---we see the fault lines and stresses of a gender in crisis and flux, paraded before us in distinct styles and attitudes using a remarkable emotional palette that no one playwright could bring to the stage. Tying it together further are the design elements: the set, the lights, and especially the music, matching and contrasting feelings, smoothing transitions, intensifying atmosphere.

The result is one play, not seven, and yet seven too. The combined work has a different feel and message than any of its parts, and yet it is consistent with all of them. They are made stronger by their association with each other. Drama Under the Influence is a new play, fashioned by the director from old pieces abandoned in the American theater's attic. And it is a powerful example of the responsible way a skilled director can make his own voice heard in harmony with the voices of great artists of the past.


Author's Note: Director Mazzola did not have any notice that this article was being written for the Audience Guide. If he had, he almost certainly would have asked that it not be included. But I feel that it is critical for our audiences to appreciate the origins of this play and his extraordinary role in bringing it to our stage, and so, while extending him my apologies, the article remains. JM.

~ Originally published in 2007 in the Audience Guide for TACT's production of Drama Under the Influence.


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