Director Beth Lopes.
With Theatre for Young Audiences and Families directing credits such as The Velveteen Rabbit and Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook, Beth Lopes is no stranger to SCR. But she relishes the fact she is a stranger to her latest directorial project: Our Town by three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Thornton Wilder.
“I’m in a fortunate position because I haven’t been inundated with Our Town in the sense that I had only seen it once and only read it once,” she said. “I read it in high school and I saw it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival a while ago. I have the benefit that I know it’s iconic, but I don’t have a thousand other productions in my head. I felt like I was able to read the script with the eye of someone who has seen what’s there as opposed to what has been done.
“However, with that being said, there is a weight with this play and almost anyone I encounter who asks me what I’m working on, so many of them tell me it’s their favorite play. It means so much to them. That weight is nothing to discount, in addition to the weight of the last several years. It’s incredibly important to me that everyone who chooses to visit Our Town by coming to see this production feels as if they belong in Our Town. When (SCR Artistic Director) David Ivers talked to me about the play, I was so honored that he would trust me with a play of this magnitude, both logistically and emotionally.”
Yes, Lopes understands that with directing an American classic comes great responsibility. After all, Ivers was handing Lopes the keys to one of America’s most beloved and most performed plays. And doing so during the milestone year: the 125th anniversary of Wilder’s birthday.
Lopes quickly grasped the significance of Wilder’s iconic play, it’s emphasis on community, on human connection, on appreciating each moment—significant or otherwise. Wilder’s message resonated particularly strongly.
“When the pandemic hit and the future of this project was uncertain, I didn’t know if and when we’d be able to perform it. I couldn’t stop thinking about this play,” she said. “All of a sudden, the lessons I felt Wilder was trying to teach us became so much more important. I felt like the pandemic was trying to teach us something and as I continue to work on this play, the lesson is ‘connection is essential.’”
That connection took on another dimension. Lopes stressed to her cast that the character you’re portraying is secondary to you—the person portraying that character. She understood this was one of Wilder’s hidden gems in terms of connecting 1901 Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire with—in this instance—2022 Costa Mesa, California.
“Right at the beginning, it occurred to me the community of people producing and watching this play is as important—more important—than the people in Grover’s Corners,” she said. “I’ve told my actors who you are is far more important than who you pretend to be. You don’t have to be George or Emily. I took that responsibility on by casting you. … I work on a lot of Shakespeare and I understand that there’s an enormous amount of pressure to be those iconic parts: Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet. But they’re just words on a page. Our actor who is playing Simon Stimson (Brad Culver), for example, has to bring what he has to offer as a person to Simon to make him into a three-dimensional person. The back-story on that character is quite vague.”
The other mountain Lopes had to conquer came from Wilder himself. He often said Our Town was his favorite play, but it wasn’t produced correctly. By that, he felt too much sentimentality creeped into the productions. He wrote it intending it to be performed in the simplest fashion. That’s why props are minimal. The words and the individuality of his characters need to carry the day.
“I think he makes that very clear in the play. If you lean into sentimentality, you miss the point in certain regards,” she said. “One of our brilliant actors, Michael Manuel (Mr. Webb) asked the other day in rehearsal, ‘Are we having a moment now?’ I said, ‘Great question. NO, you don’t know you’re having a moment now.’ We on the outside can see all these beautiful moments they’re chugging along. That’s the point of the play, that we’re so caught up in our everydayness that we don’t recognize the little beauties around us.
“When do you realize you’re having a moment? Weddings and funerals are such important events, but one of the few times we realize we’re living something very significant is while it’s happening. In the play, we’re trying to use design to emphasize those moments and let them ‘blossom’ in a way that we can feel that something feels very special.”
All this explains why Lopes feels Our Town is the perfect destination for these times.
“Just because Our Town took place a long time ago doesn’t mean that fundamentally, the people are different than us,” she said. “… That’s why I think this play is so popular. Wilder was able to hit at the heart of the core of people. There’s so much in there that was written for us right now.”
See Our Town on the Segerstrom Stage May 7-June 4.
Learn more and buy tickets to Our Town.