Letters to the Editor: April 9, 2012
To the Editor:
As the Artistic Director for the SCT Department of Theater and as the director of our recent production of Charles Smith’s freely adapted stage version of Mark Twain’s 1895 novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson, I am compelled to respond to the article by my esteemed colleague, Dr. Karen Turner, also from SCT, regarding our production, published in the latest edition of the Faculty Herald.
I completely respect Dr. Turner’s personal response to the production, as theater is, after all, an art form and audience members are perfectly entitled to whatever response they genuinely have. Why Dr. Turner (a professor of journalism) felt compelled to air her objections in print rather than engage in a substantive collegial discussion with me personally is, of course her prerogative. Why the Herald chose to publish her remarks nearly two months after the fact without providing me as an artist or my department at large with the opportunity to respond in kind simultaneously is in my view wholly irresponsible from a journalistic perspective.
Playwright Charles Smith is a seasoned, distinguished, nationally celebrated playwright and director, an Associate Artist in residence at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. The play was originally commissioned and produced by the nationally recognized ‘Acting Company’ and toured nationally, playing successfully to general public, college and secondary school audiences across the country.
Dr. Turner’s objections include criticism of the mode of presentation, the portrayal of some of the characters and the use of racially offensive language (taken almost verbatim from the Twain novel), along with objections to some of the story elements which are completely consistent with the novel.
Charles Smith as the playwright/adaptor made creative decisions that were theatrically strategic, intentionally provocative and, in my view, highly effective regarding his insistence on specific racially inverted casting, conflated plot modifications, and the use of character dialects, dialogue and language taken directly from the novel. The directorial theatrical framing device of employing live minstrelsy was not only historically accurate (as was the theatrical conceit of ‘black-face’ in the period setting of the story) but intended to theatrically objectify the transparency of racial identity based not solely on skin color but on maternal blood lines –a concern that led Twain to write the novel, as well as his response to the disturbing institution of post-Reconstruction Separate-but-Equal laws in the early 1890’s. Smith’s stage version fabricates an archetypal cautionary “tall tale” set in a fictional southern Missouri town in the 1850’s told by a narrator/raconteur who is also immersed as a character of consequence in the story. Calculated to be provocative and unsettling at first, the presentational suspense/melodramatic mode of storytelling ironically underscores and comments on the dangerous absurdity of determining racial classification based on blood lines rather than appearances. The play and the novel both wrestle with the burning question of what constitutes legal justice vs. moral rectitude in a racially divided and profit-centered society driven by an engendered economic incentive to somehow maintain an exploitable underclass.
That said, like it or not, the production was the work of our entire department, featuring a faculty- supervised and mentored cast and crew of talented undergraduate students, an MFA student design team, as well as comprehensive team-based production dramaturgy – including an impressive and comprehensive lobby display articulating background research on all of the salient issues surrounding the material – created by our capstone undergraduate World of the Play class). The project provided a terrific comprehensive pedagogical opportunity for our students, and indeed it did encourage a lively and substantive dialogue in the classroom, and among both the production’s participants and many audience members who, by and large, found the experience quite provocative, controversial, and entertaining as well as others, like Dr. Turner, who found it too disturbing or offensive or who just didn’t connect to it and simply found it lacking. To my mind the production succeeded in generating a lively, healthy and open dialogue among those who actually had the chance to see it – as it was largely sold out during its brief 12 performance run in our 85 seat theater.
Regrettably, the production did not work well for Dr. Turner, and, as I stated above, I am certainly sensitive to her concerns and respect and accept her objections, as I am quite sure she is not alone in her negative reaction to the piece. This is, however an institution of higher learning, and our production program is the hub of our pedagogy. Freedom of artistic expression which includes the ability to take creative risks is paramount to the integrity of the academy, as is the need to preserve and promote the opportunity for open, constructive criticism and debate. The Herald, of all institutions, should uphold these values by providing a stable, journalistically balanced platform for ‘meaningful dialogue.’
Douglas C Wager
Artistic Director and Head of Directing
SCT Department of Theater
The delay in publication of Prof. Turner's op-ed derive from the Herald's publication schedule. Our pages are always open to faculty opinion, but we do not contact individuals who might feel criticized by anything in our pages so they can offer a rebuttal. To do so would certainly be an unusual journalistic practice. As we make clear in each issue, we publish letters to the editor between issues, usually within days, as we are doing in this case. -- The Editor
To the Editor:
My name is Alexander Fraser and I was an actor in Temple’s production of “Pudd’nhead Wilson.” I’m very disappointed with the critique of the show in the current volume of the Faculty Herald. Let me first be up front with my assumption that the choice to run this story during a time when race relations in this country are tense seems quite calculated. I think the choice to publicly disown a production that appears on the surface to be racist reeks of an attempt to polish Temple’s image from possible scrutiny during these troubling times. However, I will admit that that is my own presumption and I cannot prove it.
Karen Turner called our production “outrageous, insulting, and embarrassing” which coincidentally are all fine descriptions of the period of American history depicted on stage. How else can one show the egregious events that took place during the Antebellum Era without including the dirty details of blacks being called “niggers” and “black-faced” banjo players being customary entertainment?
As an actor, I would remind Ms. Turner of how disheartening it is to see your work marginalized, in a University wide publication no less, as stereotypical or a “cross between” anything unless those two things were positive. We’re your students and should not feel singled out negatively when working on something that was meant to be collaborative.
My final point is in defense of my director, who as an artist should not be required to explain his work in the event someone may misinterpret it or be offended. Do painters at the Tyler School of Art have to explain themselves if their work is controversial? Do dancers at the Boyer School of Dance have to explain themselves if their productions have moments that are overtly sexual or provocative? Why are actors and directors forced to justify their art when what we wanted was to enliven debate?
I believe Ms. Turner desired to see a version of American History that was either edited or strictly academic depicted on stage. I find it ridiculous that I would even have to mention that neither of those versions constitutes art.
I feel obligated to request that if Doug Wager is asked to explain his work his response should be published with equal editorial value as Ms. Turner’s critique.
Dear David Waldstreicher,
As a student of the School of Communications and Theater and an extremely active member of the Temple University Theater Department, I would like to thank you and Professor Karen Turner for publishing the article: "Pudd’nhead Wilson: a Botched Opportunity to Engage Our Community in a Meaningful Race Dialogue." I, and many members of the theatrical community, embrace her response as a treasured opinion and an inspiring reminder that theater, like any other art, still has the capacity to make audiences question and ponder.
Even if the audience finds themselves incapable of formulating answers and indulges in an emotional outburst; as is said party's right to do. So too, is it the right of artists to produce controversial and thought-provoking work. Perhaps even, one could say, this is the duty of artists, especially in an age where audiences demand entertainment rather than art.
I would like to extend an invitation to Professor Turner to come see our current production of Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill. This all-female show should be of particular interest to her as a woman, in the way that it is to myself as a woman. However, in light of Professor Turner's evident sensitivity to works of the stage, I feel I must kindly forewarn her of the controversial subject matter involved. Top Girls seeks to engage the audience in thought and discussion on the subject of women's lives and issues. The following themes and occurrences will be present in the production:
- Familial responsibilities
- Domestic abuse
- Alcoholic consumption
If any of these subjects conflict with Professor Turner's definition of what is "appropriate" for art, she may want to refrain from seeing the production, as the students of Temple Theaters wouldn't want to cause her any more alarm or upset than we already have inflicted.
If you or Professor Turner have any further questions about the art produced at Temple Theaters, I can speak comfortably for my colleagues in saying that we as a collective invite you to reach out to us for intellectual discussion.
Theater Student, Top Girls ASM