This week I had a chance to talk to Dr. Kelly Bremner from Emory & Henry College about their involvement in the 2012 Plays for Presidents Festival. I was immediately struck by two things: 1) She is incredibly dedicated to her students and has definitely woven this production of 44 Plays for 44 Presidents into her educational vision; and 2) she’s got a very clear sense of purpose and focus when it comes to art, voting, and college-aged citizens.
GGB: You said that the concept of a Presidential debate had inspired the set design. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
KB: It happened almost out of necessity. We have a charming black box theatre here was is being renovated, so we unexpectedly got the news this summer that our first production of the year would need to be in College’s auditorium. Normally the word “auditorium” evokes images of bad high school assemblies, but we decided to use that vibe to our advantage.
Our designer, Professor Daniel Wheeler, used theatrical flats to build artificial wings onto the performance space, and went with two projection screens one on each side. The back of the theatre is lined with pillars that simultaneously seem to evoke the front of the White House, and the row of podiums that get set up for a presidential debate. The presidential seal is hung up center. We couldn’t put it on the floor because the stage is too high for anyone to see it. This makes for some beautiful moments where the actor playing the president is framed by the seal when they stand in front of it. To fight the aesthetic distance of the proscenium stage, we built a 6 ft. apron off of the stage, which keeps my actors nice and close to the audience. My one regret, I will miss the actual presidential debate because I will be in my final dress rehearsal.
GGB: You decided to go with only 5 student actors for this show. What do you think were the benefits and challenges of that decision?
KB: The benefits are that they are super crazy busy, and the challenges are exactly the same. My favorite part of the show is the breathless pace it sets, and this is all the more exciting when you only have 5 actors to do it all. The challenge, of course, is that this is immensely challenging for the college level actor, and between all the plays and the transitions in and out of them, it is an awesome feat of memory.
GGB: What advice would you offer to other educators (or directors at educational institutions) who are taking this show on for the Festival?
KB: To never lose sight of the playfulness in the script. Right now, the more playful and goofy my actors are, the better it is throughout. I think you also need to keep tabs on when you need to pull out a traditional objectives-based directing style. I found myself surprisingly using it often when I thought I wouldn’t. Fillmore for example doesn’t work when my actors are fuzzy on their objectives…. when in fact the play is essentially about the comedy of talking with your mouth full.
Lastly, brace yourself for tech. We picked this show because in many ways we thought it would be easy from a tech/design perspective. It has been, but we have over 400 cues in the show, and it is running under 2 hours.
GGB: What do you hope your students – and your audience members – leave with?
KB: On the first day of rehearsal we sat in a circle and I asked my students if they voted, and why or why not. I often ask my students this in my classes too. Some of them vote, but many do not. They all have reasons…. They feel like they can’t find reliable information to make up their mind, they are busy, they don’t know how to vote as a student away from home, and one even told me they thought it was best to leave voting to the retired since they have more time to do it (I’ll never tell you who said this). The most shocking thing I hear over and over again, however, is that they don’t think the elections will affect them, or that their one vote could make a difference.
I find this line of thought so depressing. I come from a family of proud voters. My grandparents went through citizenship classes so they could vote for Eisenhower (they moved here from Canada). My parents discussed politics at the table (and often “canceled each other’s votes” as they would call it when they voted for opposing candidates). Now I take my daughters to the polls with me and explain to them what I am doing with tears in my eyes. I listen to candidates debate my student loans, my reproductive rights, my friends’ rights to marry, my children’s education, and the future of the very air I breathe, and I marvel at how somehow my students don’t think this all affects them.
This is all to say: I hope my students have had as much fun working on this show as I have. I hope they have enjoyed feeling connected to the larger community of this play as I have, but in the midst of the laughter, however, I hope I have changed their minds about their place in history and the importance of voting. I want both my audiences and my students to get excited about this moment, this time. I want them to actively engage with the election process. What we decide on Election Day MATTERS. This play is about the choices we have made as a country, and therefore about the choice we will make this fall.
For many in my college-aged audience this will be the first Presidential election they are old enough to vote in. We have talked about issues related to the election on a daily basis… and my cast has promised me they will all vote. I hope my audience will do the same.
Kelly J. G. Bremner is an Assistant Professor at Emory & Henry College where she teaches classes in directing and Theatre History. She has a Ph.D. in Theatre Research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When not teaching, Dr. Bremner has a rich and diverse resume that combines her interest in devised performance, place based theatre and anything involving music. Known for taking theatrical dares, recent performances of hers have involved staging over 300 children in a concert, and most recently a production that combined Deaf performance and the opera. Dr. Bremner has a keen interest in challenging her students and her audiences to engage in the theatrical experience beyond the walls of the theatre building. Dr. Bremner is in the process of developing a new performance with Endstation Theatre Company in Central Virginia titled UNEARTHED which will blend bluegrass, opera and musical theatre with local concerns and content. It will premiere in Amherst, VA the summer of 2013. Dr. Bremner’s most important work however is raising her two daughters, Lotte and Twyla, and thanking her lucky stars that her husband Scott is her favorite collaborator both in art and in life.