Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet-Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

Amongst his many awards, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has received the Paula Vogel Award 2011, the Steinberg Playwriting Award 2015, MacArthur Fellow 2016, Windham-Campbell Literature Prize (Drama) at Yale 2016, Critics’ Circle Theatre Award Most Promising Playwright Gloria & An Octoroon 2017, USA & John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowships 2020, and the inaugural Tennessee Williams award.

He holds an MA in Performance Studies from NYU and is also a graduate of the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at the Juilliard School.

Plays

Neighbors 2010
War 2014
Appropriate 2014—Obie Award for Best New American Play with An Octoroon
An Octoroon 2014
Gloria 2015—Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist 2016
Everybody 2017—Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist 2018
Girls 2019

Quotes

He said he hopes his students will use the form to provoke thought: "There is an anti-intellectualism in the theater right now. There's room for more challenging work that's talking to the moment, which is filled with so much unease" (Souccar).
"I'm not interested in a linear tale of divorce in the black community," he says. "My dream audience member would turn to the audience member next to them and say, 'What just happened to me?'" (Marks).

On Everybody

For Jacobs-Jenkins, there’s little distinction between adapting a play and creating one—primarily because he can’t resist commenting on what he’s adapting. “For me, adaptation is about challenging the original play. I’m not translating it for an audience so much as actually trying to explore what this piece meant in its context and what it might mean now. That’s my process, starting there and unpacking that way” (Haun).

Everybody is dedicated to the memory of James Houghton the founder of the Signature Theatre and director of the drama division at Julliard from 2006 until his death. Jacobs-Jenkins is a member of Signature Theatre Residency Five program joining in 2013 and an alum of Julliard.

Video


Haun, Harry. “ Why You Need to Know the Name Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.” Playbill. Feb.  27, 2017. www.playbill.com/article/why-you-need-to-know-the-name-branden-jacobs-jenkins. Last  Accessed:  Jan 17, 2021.

Marks, Peter. “A playwright who’s at ease with causing discomfort.” Washingtonpost.com, 24 June 2016. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A456073426/AONE. Last Accessed: Jan 16, 2021.

Souccar, Miriam Kreinin. “40 UNDER 40; Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, 32.” Crain’s New York Business, vol. 33, no. 13, 27 Mar. 2017, p. 0015. Gale General One File, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A487852264. Last Accessed Jan 16, 2021.

Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet-Everyman

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

Very little is known about the morality Everyman. It is a translation and adaptation of the Dutch Elckerlijc but there is no surviving record of its production history until modern day; when or where it was seen; if it was indoors or outside. Nor any description of the size and shape of the stages it used (Tydemann, p 1). But that does not mean that Everyman was never produced. “It could, of course, have been staged, though unrecorded, any number of times in the early sixteenth century, and would have been ideal for presentation as a school play” (Davidson).

Despite its missing production history, it was known to have had at least four print runs to attest to its popularity (Davidson). And has been described by modern writers as one of the best examples of a morality play (Poláčková, p 325).

Much of the first half of Everyman looks backward over Everyman’s life. The acquaintances they has made and material goods acquired. And with the coming of Death, there is a realization that none of these things will make the journey to judgment. “The things of the world are banished, in other words, as part of a gradual triumph of the things of the spirit” (Garner, p 281).

At first blush, the story of Everyman may appear to be terrifying, meeting with Death, faced with mortality, and being sent to judgment. But the lesson of Everyman’s chance for redemption and a life after death makes it a tale of hope (Kaula, p 10). “The reluctant journey of Everyman’s contrite soul toward God as judge becomes a glad pilgrimage toward God as Savior” (Cunningham, p. 168).

In his “Sermon Themes and Sermon Structure in Everyman,” George Peek divided Everyman into two parts or two medieval sermons. The form of sermons then was divided into five parts: theme, protheme, introduction of theme, divisions, and subdivisions. The themes would contain the message that the orator would build from; the protheme introduced a prayer and led into proof of the theme. The introduction was a narrative which served to bring the listeners into the divisions and subdivisions which expounded on the ideas introduced in the theme (Peek, 159).

With Everyman, the messenger introduced the theme and emphasized the transitory nature of material things. God developed the Protheme: the fall of man and gave reason for the rest of the action of the play. The Introduction was the scene with Death and Everyman. The desertions were divisions. Peek detailed how the second part of the play moved from the dealing with spiritual death (averted now that Everyman is seeking salvation) to physical death (Peek, p 160).

Finally, I read an article comparing adaptations of Everyman produced in the United States which raised the question to me of what is the story of Everyman without the theme of salvation?

How can spiritual values be dramatized for a society which is generally unreligious? How can death be depicted for an audience accustomed to cosmetize death? How can abstractions such as Good Deeds be realized? How can the very familiar fable of Everyman be made fresh for a modern audience? How can the spectacle of theatre be transformed for a visually jaded audience? Earl Schreiber, p 106.

The adaptation that Schreiber commented on was Everyman Today, a 1975 adaptation of Jedermann (a 1911 German adaptation of Everyman). In it there is no redemption, no life after, only death. Most of the mortalities are plot about coming to end of the mortal life and reflecting on how that time was spent. That behavior determines where the life out will be. Jacobs-Jenkins remarked on this and in Everybody but flips it, describing moralities as being stories about the transience of life which means they’re really about death. And perhaps that depends on where people chose to end the story of Everyman. I’m hoping to revisit these ideas through the course of the production of Everybody.


Cunningham, John. “Comedic and Liturgical Restoration in ‘Everyman’.” Comparative Drama. Vol. 22, No. 2 (Summer 1988), pp. 162-173. www.jstor.org/stable/41153346. Dec 2, 2020.

Davidson, Clifford. “Introduction.” Everyman and Its Dutch Original, Elckerlijc. Eds: Davidson, Clifford Davidson; Martin W. Walsh; Ton J. Broos. 2007. d.lib.rochester.edu/ teams/ text/ davidson-everyman-introduction. Last accessed: Jan 9, 2021.

Garner, Jr., Stanton B. “Theatricality in ‘Mankind’ and ‘Everyman’” Studies in Philology, Vol. 84, No. 3 (Summer, 1987), pp. 272-285. University of North Carolina Press. www.jstor.org/stable/ 4174272. Last accessed: Dec 1, 2020.

Kaula, David. “Time and the Timeless in Everyman and Dr. Faustus.” College English. Vol. 22, No. 1 (Oct., 1960), pp. 9-14. National Council of Teachers of English. www.jstor.org/stable/373857. Last Accessed Dec 22, 2020.

Poláčková, Eliška. “Mutato Nomine Dicor Nunc Homulus Latin Translation of The Morality Play of Elckerlijc.” Listy filologické / Folia philologica, 2011, Vol. 134, No. 3/4, pp. 323-339. Centre for Classical Studies at the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences www.jstor.org/ stable/23468757. Dec 2, 2020.

Peek, George S. “Themes and Sermon Structure in Everyman.” The South Central Bulletin. Winter, 1980, Vol. 40, No. 4, Studies by Members of the SCMLA, pp. 159-160. The Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of The South Central Modern Language Association. Last Accessed: Dec 1, 2020.

Schreiber, Earl G. “Everyman in America,” Comparative Drama. Summer 1975, Vol. 9, No. 2. pp. 99-115. www.jstor.org/stable/41152663. Last Accessed: Dec 1, 2020.

Tydemann, W. English Medieval Theatre. 1400-1500. Routledge & Kegan Paul. (London) 1986.

Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet-Morality Plays-Pt 2

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

Limited materials have survived to tell us about morality plays of this period. Here is Dorothy Wertz’s description of the extant materials:

What survives is (1) texts, sometimes in several versions of varying corruption; (2) occasional stage diagrams or instructions for costuming; (3) writings of reformist clergy who disliked theater; (4) account books of the guilds, listing expenditures and properties for performances (p 443).

These materials give a sense of what stage, costumes, and props were used in the sixteenth century for the morality plays as well as performance style. Some of the details were surmised from plays other than Everyman.

The religious plays were staged on holidays as an upbeat part of the festivities (Twycross, “Genres,” p 258). One of the several things that makes Everyman unique is its seriousness (Tydemann, p 18).

When presenting the morality plays, the producers were not concerned with photorealism in their sets. Tydemann wrote that they relied on improvisation and imagination (p 171). He also observed that they created “small-scale illusions of reality.” He noted examples of a realistic staging of Cain murdering Abel or “blood from the side of the stricken Christ appears to spurt out and cure the blind Centurion” or the “torments of the Savior.” He continued that he didn’t believe the elements clashed for the audience to ruin the experience (Tydemann, p 173).

This juxtaposition of the real and the unreal also served the edification goal of the plays. It created a shared lasting and immediate memory of the event:

...though the actor is not Christ and the audience are aware of this, the presence of another human body viscerally enacting the torments of the Saviour, transforms the story and its relevance into a real, felt presence making it even more immediate than imagining the same scene, the impact of which could be felt directly by the audience. Carole Wright, p 32

During the Middle Ages, there were few site-specific performance venues to stage drama. And when it came time to stage the morality plays, the producers had to use what was available (Tydemann, p 163). Plays could have scenes constructed on a series of wagons that moved or the audience walked from one to the other, build at an outdoor location, an inn yard, or be performed indoors (Tydemann, p 33, 78, 104). Any of these locations might be what we think of as multi-use sites:

We have to remember that they did not have distinct buildings called theatres dedicated solely to the performance of drama. The nearest to these were the ‘playing places’ of East Anglia and elsewhere, where the major place-and-scaffold plays were enacted: but even they, once the theatrical game was over, could revert to venues for football or wrestling. Meg Twycross, “Genres,” p 259.

Medieval acting was presentational. The characters they portrayed were not complex and the roles rarely demand nuance (Tydemann, p 181). Twycross noted that the plays employed many non-naturaluralistic techniques in performance: breaking the fourth wall, masks, allegory, and symbolic action (“Masks,” p 233). “All theatre is illusion, but this draws attention to the fact” (“Genres,” p 258).

And finally, moralities were not fully masked presentations. Instead of concealing the wearer, they commented on their moral state. This found its roots in the cultural belief that state of the soul was reflected on the body like corruption or ambivalence (“Masks,” p 234, 277). And while they are not described as wearing a mask, Twycross made a costuming note on Death in Everyman:

The text gives no guidance about Death’s appearance, alluding only to his spear; but the woodcut prefacing the printed editions shows a wholly traditional skeletal Death, suggesting that this was how he was envisaged by readers, and most probably also audiences of the play. “Masks,” p 250.

Twycross, Meg. “Codes and Genres.” Companion to Medieval English Literature and Culture c.1350–c.1500 Edited by Peter Brown. Medieval English Theatre. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2007.

Twycross, Meg, and Sarah Carpenter. Masks and Masking in Medieval and Early Tudor England, Taylor & Francis Group, 2002. ProQuest Ebook Central, ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uidaho/ detail.action ?docID=4817054.

Twycross, Meg. “The Theatre.” The Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture. Edited by Sawyer, John F. A. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006.

Tydemann, W. English Medieval Theatre. 1400-1500. Routledge & Kegan Paul. (London) 1986.

Wertz, Dorothy. “Conflict Resolution in the Medieval Morality Plays” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Dec., 1969), pp.438-453. Sage Publications, Inc. https://www.jstor.org/stable/173563. Last Accessed: Jan 7, 2021.

Wright, Clare. Sound, Body and Space: Audience Experience in Late Medieval English Drama. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham. 2011. Access from the University of Nottingham repository: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/13108/1/555408.pdf. Last accessed: Jan 1, 2021.

Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet-Morality Plays

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

The sixteenth century morality plays were staged at a time when mortality outpaced the birth rate due largely to war, famine, and disease. Clifford Davidson wrote that cities maintained population size with an influx of immigrants (Davidson). A person living during this period was keenly aware that death could come without warning.

Morality plays, which were first presented by the church then the guilds with church oversight, offered meaning in God’s world. By staging them outside of the church and in the vernacular, it reinforced Christ’s presence in the everyday world. That God was not only found in hallowed halls. The writers told stories of Jesus Christ and his time on earth, his care for humankind and the sacrifice to redeem humankind (Tydemann, p 10; Wertz, p 541; Kaula, p 9). Using the morality plays , the church was able to edify and prepare congregations for the day of reckoning. Dorothy Wertz wrote that the presentations could inspire audiences to face their own accounting after seeing a stage character repent and be redeemed:

The audience, facing together the figure that all of them must at some future time meet separately, perhaps gained a measure of assurance in the face of their own deaths, an assurance that vastly increased when they later saw Manssoul saved (Wertz, p 446.)

The Christian lessons in these plays were shown to the audiences allegorically, using simpler ideas to express complex ones. Braswell described allegory as a sort of “continuing metaphor” as a series of related images or acts (p 125-126). This overlay of ideas would at times distance the audience from the action of the play causing them to reflect on what was happening.

Along with impression left on the audience, the allegorical qualities also served to bring the audience out of the story at times. This might be akin to Brecht’s distancing effect. Everyman would describe what had transpired and what it meant for their future. This in turn caused the audience to reflect on their own lives (Garner, p 283).

Morality plays were noted for their transformative power and one of the reasons cited for that by Meg Twycross was their immediacy. It made it a personal memory which stayed with the attendees after the event. This same immediacy was something Garner argued would be lost in the allegorical distancing (Garner, p 283; Twycross, “Theatre,” p 340; Wright, p 257). If the morality plays were moving between immediacy and distancing, it would’ve have created an interesting frisson for the audience.

It was this staying power that Davidson found that would give a morality play its strength as he eloquently described here:

… the power of such a play as Everyman, even if read rather than staged, would presumably have been more deeply felt than today and would have left a more powerful lasting impression. The intended visual effect, whether on stage or in the imaginations of readers, was to create a kind of memory theater to which the mind would return again and again as a way of being reminded in symbolic terms of human mortality and the consequences of one’s actions in this life. Clifford Davidson

Attending morality plays, created memories of sensations experienced witnessing the story which stayed with the audience (Wright, p 242). It made the play and the allegories within present with the audience after the morality play had concluded.


Braswell, Laurel.  “The Visionary Voyage in Science Fiction and Medieval Allegory,” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, Winter 1981, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 125-142. University of Manitoba. Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24780359.  Last Accessed: Jan 9, 2021.

Davidson, Clifford. “Introduction.” Everyman and Its Dutch Original, Elckerlijc. Eds: Davidson, Clifford Davidson; Martin W. Walsh; Ton J. Broos. 2007. d.lib.rochester.edu/ teams/ text/ davidson-everyman-introduction. Last accessed: Jan 9, 2021.

Garner, Jr., Stanton B. “Theatricality in ‘Mankind’ and ‘Everyman’” Studies in Philology, Summer, Vol. 84, No. 3 (Summer, 1987), pp. 272-285 University of North Carolina Press Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4174272. Last accessed: Dec 1, 2020.

Kaula, David. “Time and the Timeless in Everyman and Dr. Faustus” College English, Oct., 1960, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Oct., 1960), pp. 9-14. Published by: National Council of Teachers of English. https://www.jstor.org/stable/373857. Last Accessed Dec 22, 2020.

Twycross, Meg. “The Theatre.” The Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture. Edited by Sawyer, John F. A. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006.

Tydemann, W. English Medieval Theatre. 1400-1500. Routledge & Kegan Paul. (London) 1986.

Wertz, Dorothy. “Conflict Resolution in the Medieval Morality Plays” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Dec., 1969, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Dec., 1969), pp.438-453. Sage Publications, Inc. https://www.jstor.org/stable/173563. Last Accessed: Jan 7, 2021.

Wright, Clare. Sound, Body and Space: Audience Experience in Late Medieval English Drama. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham. 2011. Access from the University of Nottingham repository: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/13108/1/555408.pdf. Last accessed: Jan 1, 2021.

Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet-Audience

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

Clare Wright’s thesis, Sound, Body and Space: Audience Experience in Late Medieval English Drama, got me thinking about the medieval audiences in the High Middle Ages. There isn’t a lot of information on attendees of morality plays but what is available is interesting. The audience is an important participant in theatre. More recently, scholars have been researching play attendees and their role in the process of theatre and sharing stories.

Three things I found noteworthy:

Obligatory caveat: These are not unique to this time period, but I think their presence effected audience interaction with morality plays and are something to have in mind when thinking about Everyman.

During the Middle Ages, people were focused on the soul;
literacy was not the priority it is nowadays;
reading was performed aloud as a communal experience, though it could be a private one.

Wright reflected that in that Middle Ages the soul was more valuable than the body. It would abide with “God, heaven and eternal bliss” but the body would be cast aside at death (p 15). The body was also the entry point for both redemption and temptation.

On this reading, the body is not in opposition to the soul, but is instead the central means of accessing the divine and, despite its weaknesses could be used to achieve knowledge of God and an eternal resting place in heaven. But, given the infectious nature of sensory temptation …it was necessary to be vigilant…. (Carole Wright, p 21).

Towards this increased vigilance, the church wanted to increase religious devotion and spiritual education. Publishing pamphlets wasn’t going to be particularly successful. Literacy was at low levels, but being unable to read Latin or French wasn’t considered a deficiency then (Coleman, thesis, p 90). Tim White, writing for the British Library, explained that information was acquired through painted tapestries, sculptures, reading, and dramatic presentations.

“Individuals that we might now consider to be ‘illiterate’, in the sense that they could not read or write, could still possess sophisticated and detailed knowledge, not only of religious materials, but also of literary texts and traditions” (White).

In her essay about medieval audiences, Joyce Coleman explored how different classes of men and women made use of public reading as an activity. People gathered for the aural experience during meals, study, or entertainment (Coleman, p 161-164). Where we might find it a limiting experience, for them it was a source of variety:

Every medieval person, of every class and gender, would probably have heard many oral texts throughout their lives. Such material could include the lyrics of songs, poetry unaccompanied by music, popular romances, public oratory, and sermons and other forms of religious exhortation (Joyce Coleman, "Audience," p 161). 

Oral texts were an efficient way for the church to communicate and have a transformative effect on their flock. Also, like performance, the act of involvement in an oral text (either by reading or listening) bound them together in a shared event (Coleman, “Interactive,” p75). It was an immersive experience not singularly encountered through one sense organ. They could hear sound and feel it reverberate through their body. They could feel the emotions of the story related (Wright, p 14).

The audience’s experience of the event is not only mental but spiritual, emotional, and physical. It took them on a journey that stayed with them after the performance (Wright, p 237-242) and created both a common and a personal recollection as Cepek explained in her thesis:

In the Middle Ages, then, salvation history as communal memory is the premise on which most drama is based. The goal of most medieval religious drama is therefore to make these narratives as real as possible so that they become memory – the collective memory, of course, but individual memory as well.--Rebecca Cepek, p20

With the church looking to spiritual salvation, readings and dramatic presentations were effective tools to this end (Wright, p 29). The audiences were already familiar with them and they could be used for Biblical stories, education or showing that there was hope of salvation for all (Kalua, p 9).


Cepek, Rebecca. Stages Of Belief: The Nature Of Audience Response In Medieval And Early Modern Drama. Dissertation. Duquesne University. 2014.

Coleman, Joyce. “Audience” A Handbook of Middle English Studies, First Edition. Edited by Marion Turner. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 2013.

Coleman, Joyce. “Interactive Parchment: The Theory and Practice of Medieval English Aurality.” The Yearbook of English Studies, 1995, Vol. 25, Non-Standard Englishes and the New Media. Special Number, pp. 63-79. Modern Humanities Research Association. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3508818. Last Accessed: Jan 7, 2021.

Coleman, Joyce. The World’s Ear: The Aurality Of Late Medieval English Literature. Ph.D. thesis. University of Edinburgh. 1993.

Kaula, David. “Time and the Timeless in Everyman and Dr. Faustus” College English, Oct., 1960, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 9-14. Published by: National Council of Teachers of English. https://www.jstor.org/stable/373857. Last Accessed Dec 22, 2020.

Wertz, Dorothy. “Conflict Resolution in the Medieval Morality Plays,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Dec., 1969, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp.438-453. Sage Publications, Inc. https://www.jstor.org/stable/173563. Last Accessed: Jan 7, 2021.

White, Tom. British Library. www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/experiencing-medieval-literature. 31 Jan 2018.

Wright, Clare. Sound, Body and Space: Audience Experience in Late Medieval English Drama. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham. 2011. Access from the University of Nottingham repository: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/13108 /1/555408.pdf. Last accessed: Jan 1, 2021.

Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

My current dramaturgy project is Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by KT Turner, Everybody is an adaptation of The Summoning of Everyman a late 15th-century morality play.

Everyman is a product of the Middle Ages, the years between the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century and the Renaissance 15th & 16th centuries. It was an age replete with war, famine, and disease. Oscar Brockett wrote that the bulk of western European society then was comprised of peasants ruled over by secular and religious leaders. He painted a grim picture of people simply struggling to survive with the arts having more less fallen by the wayside:

…the arts held a precarious foothold in this insecure world. Building in stone almost ceased, and art objects were intentionally kept small so they might be transported easily in times of upheaval. --Oscar Brockett

The Middle Ages saw the rise of feudalism and during that time the church was presenting liturgical dramas for missionary and educational purposes. These in turn gave rise to morality plays around the 14th century, the High Middle Ages.

Through the years, feudalism began to give way to kings and the power of cities. Guilds began to form. These same guilds took over presenting plays and the church stepped back to overseeing the content of the plays.

Here are a few dates from the 16th century to center Everyman:

  • 1503: Da Vinci begins painting the Mona Lisa.
  • 1509: Henry VIII became King of England.
  • 1517: Martin Luther introduced his 95 Theses in Germany starting the Protestant Reformation.
  • 1519- 21: Hernán Cortés leads the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
  • 1530: The Summoning of Everyman was published.
  • 1531- 32: The Church of England breaks away from the Roman Catholic Church. King Henry VIII becomes the head of the Church.

In about 1530, the earliest extant print of The Summoning of Everyman was published. Everyman has had productions over the centuries as well as adaptations. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Everybody is the latest adaptation. The work is also a 2018 Pulitzer finalist and it will be a Zoom production here at the University of Idaho this spring.

Brockett, Oscar. Franklin J. Hildy. History of the Theatre, Tenth Edition. Pearson Education, Inc.2008.

Happy Mess–Happiness

Happy Mess by Ian Paul Messersmith
directed by Sarah Campbell
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Moscow Idaho’s Rotary Park water tower photo by Elaina Pierson)

Mama: Oh, baby girl. I’m happy enough.
Young Bella: What if that isn’t enough happy for me?
Mama: You’ll find it.
Young Bella: What if I don’t?
Mama: Well, you’ve always loved cats.
Young Bella: Mama!--Happy Mess by Ian Paul Messersmith

Ian Paul Messersmith wrote Happy Mess as an exploration of happiness. So, it will come as no surprise that during the workshop, we talked about happiness.

Coming out of the explorations: some people had a surplus of happiness in their lives and others a dearth of it. Happiness was sometimes described as an object, something physical to be held in your hands. A scarce commodity. You took what happiness you could get. And that idea has stayed with me past the workshop. Prior to this project, I hadn’t thought of happiness as something I took.

I never gave much thought to happiness. I knew I wanted it and was glad when it was there and sad when it left but beyond that I had not reflected on the idea of what happiness was and the role it plays in our lives. (As a writer, I tend to write about different permutations of love- rarely do they guarantee never-ending happiness.)

Assembling the dramaturgy packet for Happy Mess, I’d looked over a few theory articles but ended up not including them. They weren’t the right tenor for where we were headed and wading through them wouldn’t have helped the new script.

The philosophical articles were opaquely worded and deeply nuanced–pretty much what I remembered from college. I’d arrived at university with a lower reading level then the texts I was given. Theory was yet another level of difficulty. To this day, researching theory does not make me happy but getting through it and understanding it, as Carolyn Hitt says, is an opportunity to “Impress Myself.”

And as an aside to my developing dramaturgical process, there are always some items that don’t go into the packet but end up proving useful during rehearsals. Or I might end up ruminating on an item and writing about it later.

Only thoughtful discussions of the true meaning of happiness and prosperity will awaken people to what it is that really fulfills them and will give them the words to describe it. --Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

My ruminations led me to Martin Seligman’s writings on happiness. He broke happiness down into three different types of happy lives: The Pleasant Life, The Good Life, and the Meaningful Life. Combining the three could create a full life (Townsend).

The Pleasant Life were activities that you enjoy doing: going to the movies, eating pizza. Activities that had an emotion you felt at the time and could easily describe, “raw feels.” The happiness they gave only stayed with you for a short time (Seligman).

These Seligman differentiated from activities that you liked doing because they were gratifying: helping at a soup kitchen, rock climbing, playing bridge. “[I]t is the total absorption, the suspension of self-consciousness” that made describing a feeling at the time difficult. He wrote that the presence or absence of a feeling at the time determined if the activity was pleasing or gratifying. The happiness derived from these activities were found to stay much longer and were the Good Life (Seligman).

The Meaningful Life was the

"Good Life, but with one further ingredient: identifying and using your highest strengths in order to belong to and serve something larger than you are (Seligman)." 

Things larger than yourself Seligman called Positive Institutions. And could be communities or civic groups. I imagine a classic example is religion. With Christianity, there is the manifold paradox of God being both internal and external to the believer. There is the promise joy and life beyond death. Christianity also emphasises a focus on the Good Life and doing gratifying activities while here in the world.

The character of Mama, who I would argue underwent the most change in the story, is a devout Christian. A couple of the other characters exhibit spirituality but not to the depth that Mama demonstrates.

There are, without a doubt, other cultural lenses to examine this script through and having recently worked on This Random World, I had a few thoughts about looking at it through Shintoism. But Happy Mess examines happiness through occidental ones and I’ll confine my ruminations to that as well.

The Good Life and the Meaningful Life reminded me of a story I’d heard that to be a good citizen in ancient society you had to contribute to that society. I found this reflected in Townsend’s quote below.

Aristotle thought happiness was the goal of human activity. For him, true happiness was something more than simply "Eat, drink, and be merry," or even the honor of high position. Real satisfaction didn't depend on the pleasures of the senses or what others thought of you. You could find genuine happiness only in a life of virtue and just actions.-- Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Three characters demonstrating Aristotle’s happiness in Happy Mess are Bella’s father, Daddy; her former lover, Ms. Harvey; and the town florist, Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson designed a community park and uses dialogue to reinforce and further interconnections between residents of Bridge Water.

Daddy’s a builder. He “speaks” through making and gifts. He admits that he’s not very good with words. We see his letter to Mama when he couldn’t speak what he wanted to say nor build it.

Daddy constructed the post office and the library and when his own barn burnt, the community helped raise a new one. He also designed a water tower which is no longer in use. His activity and presence was integral to bringing the residents together as a community. He built the family home which still shelters them and a tree house for Bella.

Ms. Harvey saves the community’s history, encouraging her students to discover their own past and their places in their family and their community. Through the course of the play, Bella’s family questions Ms. Harvey’s motivations with her newest project, to save a water tower -Does it have less to do with history and more to do with getting closer to Bella?

Seligman might value the three types of happy life equally but that is not true of the characters in Happy Mess‘ world-nor need it be. It points up the challenges we all face trying to define happiness for ourselves.

Before the play takes place, Mama had a full life with a balance of Seligman’s three lives but her husband’s death threw everything out of true. She has broken with her faith and struggles to find her way. She returns home after several years focused entirely on a Life of Pleasure which she confesses has only brought her misery.

Daddy’s presence is felt throughout the story despite only being seen on stage in few flashbacks. There are three objects connected him that are destroyed through the course of the play: The water tower, a statue, the letter.

The water tower is a relic of the past and waiting to be pulled down when Ms. Harvey mounts her campaign to save it. Daddy gifted Mama religious statues through their relationship and one is broken during an argument. And finally Daddy’s letter.

The letter is one of the few times where Daddy put his feelings into words. Mama decides to destroy the letter at the urging of Bella’s wife to free herself from the past. Bella’s indifference to the shredding of her father’s last words in the face of Mama’s euphoria provides a cacophony of emotions for the audience. It propels the story to the finale in the house that Daddy built.

Townsend’s article focused on the pursuit of happiness in relation the founding of the United States. Her argument was that happiness lay in personal agency.

People were happy when they controlled their destiny, when their voice was heard, when they participated in public events, when the government did not do things to them, or even for them, but with them.--Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Which returns me once more to Seligman and Happy Mess. The interconnected members of Bella’s family (and I’m including Ms. Harvey in this) are brought under Daddy’s roof after the systematic destruction of the past: the discarding of the water tower, the statue, the letter.

The players are the prodigal mother, Bella, her wife, and Bella’s jilted lover; Bella’s daughter and her lovers. The final scene encompasses Seligman’s full life as well as the script’s title Happy Mess. All the players in each one’s Pleasant, Good, and Mindful Life are together and engaged. They have reached a point where they can talk about what happiness means and have agency for themselves. And perhaps find the happiness each wants.

Townsend, Kathleen Kennedy. “The Pursuit of Happiness: What the Founders Meant—And Didn’t” The Atlantic. June 20, 2011. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/06/the-pursuit-of-happiness-what-the-founders-meant-and-didnt/240708/

Seligman, Martin E. P., “Can Happiness Be Taught?” Daedalus, Spring, 2004, Vol. 133, No. 2, On Happiness (Spring, 2004), pp. 80-87. Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20027916.

Happy Mess–Performance Space

Happy Mess by Ian Paul Messersmith
directed by Sarah Campbell
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Moscow Idaho’s Rotary Park water tower photo by Elaina Pierson)

In October, Happy Mess had a staged reading, giving an opportunity to share the company’s work on the script and receive feedback from several audiences before it moves into a next phase: preparation for an anticipated spring production.

Due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the workshop process was moved to a Zoom format. A byproduct of this was that the company was able to include members from outside of Moscow, living in Boise, Virginia, and Tennessee. The playwright, Ian, is a distance learning student residing in Utah.

Each actor had their own performance space and were their own tech support. We helped each other online as best we could but David Harlan, who is adept as a technician and a performer, remarked on the unique stress of having to be both during the Zoom work.

Much of the tech involved troubleshooting wi-fi and network problems. We ultimately relocated three actors to spaces in the theatre department to remedy the problems. We also worked with room acoustics and lighting to get a balanced look and sound between actors. Once a baseline was established, performers would contribute to further the telling of Happy Mess.

Costumes were pulled from actors’ personal wardrobes as well as the few props they would need for the reading.

When I started thinking about how different this was from the performances we were accustomed to at Hartung or Forge, I asked Jeanna for photos of her performance area. Her character, Mama, had the most props in our reading. One thing that was rather startling when I saw her photos was how isolated the actors were. When I see them, they’re always “together.”

During the rehearsals, they talked about the characters and the relationships which is part and partial of working on a show and developing connections with each other as actors. It’s something theatre makers fret about when doing Zoom shows. How to bridge those little boxes. To have character emotionally tethered.

And to see the pictures Jeanna sent me, I suddenly see the actors reaching out through that little dot on the top of their laptops.

It’s all they have connect through. They have all these tools sitting around them to help them with the performance, and its precious few compared to what they had on a physical stage. Only so much will fit in that dot. And the only feedback they get from the others they are working with is through that black square on the screen somewhere in the vicinity of their script.

Storytelling in Liminal Space

A Rumination about the University of Idaho’s upcoming and first virtual production, Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists.

Last week, was the design presentation for The Revolutionists. Since we are living in a pandemic, it was done via Zoom.

Happy Mess, the show I have been dramaturging the last month and a half, was a workshop piece for the First Bite series. It had a staged reading and is expected to have a production in the spring but The Revolutionists is the first production of the fall season AND the first production since the University of Idaho’s Theatre Arts Department was forced to shut down performances two days after The Moors had opened last March.

Before Covid-19, the department was streaming lectures and running a distance learning program. They produced their own spring commencement when the official plenary ceremony was cancel due to the pandemic. Over the summer, two staged readings were performed.

So the department wasn’t new to streaming. And as the fall semester approached, the faculty was already poking at the problem and looking for ways to continue to provide practical experience for its students.

A very long time ago when I was an undergrad, practical experience was one of the program’s major selling points. At the big schools, it was difficult to have your designs realized but at Idaho you graduated with that. You had the chance to perform on stage.

A difficulty with Zoom is well, it’s not a theatre. Nor is it film or TV. And that has been written and talked about at length. But it is there and it’s what many groups have chosen to work with. I’m more appreciative of what’s been done with it and used its strengths than the crying about it. (Yes, I’ve done my share of crying).

The Revolutionists’ design team hit this show hard. Director Carly McMinn mentioned being unsure if the team would go for the idea when she pitched it but they loved it. Part of it involved tracing the different historical waves of U.S. feminism.

But the overarching plan that I really liked was that they designed for the Forge Theater, the university black box space. They did it knowing full well the show would be Zoomed.

I loved this. The first part of the presentation was from concept to idealized production or dream show. They created a brilliant world for that known stage space. There was the set design with central pieces especially the role of the guillotine. The lighting design and moving from candles to a rock n roll feel. Sound had different moods of music to underscore moments of the story and color transitions. Another reason, many of the Zoom productions I’ve watched, the designers are left on the sidelines.

And the best part was how fucking excited they were. And it got me excited. Which I didn’t think was possible as I was already stoked to see the show. They didn’t need to get me amped. Already there.

Top left: Jesse Dreikosen, Head of Design and Technology in Theatre, moderates “The Revolutionists” Design Presentations.

Second part, the reality. The Zoom production. There they discussed how they were going to move from the dream show into a streamed production. Translating the dream show, what were the important elements? How to convey them into the minimalistic environment of Zoom? And so on.

From a design perspective, this approach seemed like a positive way to work. Instead of stopping at actor, laptop, backdrop but to go past that to a full in a theatre production. What would you do? Then return and figure out how to pull those elements into the streaming.

Once again, a program giving its student practical experience in resolving challenges.

Happy Mess–Interview Questions

Happy Mess by Ian Paul Messersmith
directed by Sarah Campbell
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns
packet prepared Summer 2020

(Moscow Idaho’s Rotary Park water tower photo by Elaina Pierson)

We’ve completed our second week of development for Ian’s play, Happy Mess. And PR has begun gently nudging us for material to promote next month’s reading. To that end I’m putting together an interview with Ian; Sarah, our director; and Angel, our stage manager.

I’ve been interviewing peeps for about a decade now, six of those with Palouse Anthropology (PA) so I started dashing off questions I already knew I would ask. I had Ian send me the history of Happy Mess to create questions from it. Then we brainstormed questions which was fun having the narrators pitch in on making questions.

As an aside, I will mention that at PA we don’t call them interviewees. They are narrators. There’s a power dynamic involved in the term for us. When we conduct interviews, the narrator controls where the conversation goes and has the option of final review. “Interviewee” didn’t accurately described their role.

I circled back to the big question: take-aways. What the audience should leave the interview with. They want to see Happy Mess, of course!

Image from Christine Sponchia, Pixabay

So, when I’m working on a successful interview, I want to avoid it being an itemized list of the process because that sounds crazy boring. Interviews can and do touch on process. Often it’s necessary to give a framework and offer the listener something to hang the forthcoming information and stories on.

The interviews we do through PA are about the past and how things have changed overtime but the point is I don’t make the interview a series of lists.

And that’s when it dawned on me.

This was something I hadn’t really paid much attention to. I was already very much aware that you never want to ask yes/no questions because then you had to think of another question. You wanted a question that would lead to a long answer. Certainly something more than a yes/no. And at least long enough to come up with another question if you weren’t prepared and had a couple more queries at the ready.

But the thing I’d never really thought about before was what questions were. They are triggers for tiny stories. And when I thought about that I realized that each tiny story told during a sitting, string together into many and coalesces into the narrative that is the interview. The questions are the path of the narrative.

And I think the tricky bit is that many narrators we don’t meet until we sit down for the interview. They’re not my friends or associates so it’s a gamble whether or not my question will trigger a story. Then I have to use follow up questions to find the right one. But the interviews I think of as successful–and they are all differently successful–always seem to rely on the question.